Happy 2021 from Porkymon!
At the beginning of last year, I headed to California to visit and help family. Derrick stayed in Wisconsin and sent me updates on the weather, the woods, and our porcupine friend we had been watching since October 2019.
One day in Jan 2020, Derrick and I had the following text exchange:
Derrick – “Snowing again. Porkymon is apparently living in a pail under the living room.”
Me – “OMG! LOL. Well, that will be interesting.”
Derrick – “A good reason to construct some brush piles closer to the house for habitat development.”
Me – “Yes! Good thinking.”
Derrick – “It’s been fun to be able to watch him from the living room.”
Me – “I bet! I can’t wait to watch him with you when I get home!
If you have not figured it out, yes, we are both huge nature nerds.
My favorite update from Derrick was the day he saw Porky on our deck. Somehow, our resident porcupine had managed to make his way onto the deck off the front of our house. Derrick was returning to the house from his shop when he saw Porky waddling back and forth on the deck, seemingly seeking and not finding a convenient exit. Porky approached the three stairs that he had presumably climbed to get up the deck and stretched one paw out to attempt a descent. Feeling nothing beneath it, he switched paws and tried again. Derrick watched as Porky made repeated failed attempts to find somewhere to place his clawed paws.
Leaving Porky on the deck, Derrick went to his shop and got a sheet of 1/2 inch OSB plywood that could serve as a ramp over our treacherous deck stairs. He placed it on the makeshift ramp over the stairs and continued on with his day. Later, he checked the deck. Porky was gone. Whether Porky used the ramp or not, we’ll never know for sure, but I like to imagine that he did.
Despite his deck experience, the bucket under our living room remained Porky’s preferred domicile. I was thrilled to see that Porky was still living there when I returned from California later in January.
When we first met Porky back in October, I had wanted to learn more about his feeding habits, denning practices, instincts, and territory. Fortuitously, the previous summer I had purchased The North American Porcupine by Uldis Roze for 50 cents at the book sale trolley in the lobby of the Portage Lake District Library in Houghton, Michigan. With a vague desire to learn more about porcupines, I added the book to the reference library Derrick and I keep in our living room.
The research narrative of the book focuses largely on porcupine in the Catskill Mountains, but much of the information concerning the species itself was enlightening. From this book, and our other reference materials, we learned:
- Porcupine typically make their winter dens in rock outcroppings, hollow trees, between logs, or, on occasion, in human outbuildings.
- Porcupine do not dig or excavate their own dens, but instead prefer “ready-made shelters” and sometimes, they will reuse a previous den.
(Hence, why the woodpile and then the bucket under the living room was so appealing.)
- Porcupine typically feed at night.
- Feeding trees are often within 300 feet of a winter den
(No wonder we had been seeing him so often!)
- Home range may be 50 acres or more in summer, but only 5 acres or less in winter
- Feeding trees vary and can often change
- Food includes buds and inner bark of a diverse variety of trees (sugar maples, basswood, aspen, apple, willow, poplar, hemlock…) as well as fruit, nuts, and other vegetation
- Porcupines seek salt and are known to chew on the handles of tools soaked with human sweat as well as treated lumber
- Fishers are the only animal that specializes in preying on porcupines. Other predators include bobcat, coyote, and mountain lion
According to uselessetymology.com, “Porcupine,” formerly “porke despyne,” comes from the Old French porc-espin, literally “spiny pig” or “thorny pig,” from Latin porcus “hog” (from PIE root porko- “young pig”) + spina, “thorn, spine.”
As a writer I am, not surprisingly, often focused on words. Their sound, meaning, origin, history, and usage. As a poet, I am willing to “break the rules” (rules of…English I guess?) by making up words, redefining them, or exploring alternate usage in the name if creativity.
Conversely, there are times when I get frustrated when, in my opinion, a term or phrase does not explicitly represent what it states. This is very apparent when Derrick attempts to explain various sports-related terminology.
For example, when Derrick defined the term “play action pass,” I responded with
Me : “Sooo, the term is based in the physical “action” that Aaron Rodgers is making, which is meant to represent a play-“
Derrick – “A hand off, yes.”
Me: “A hand off play. When in actuality, he will probably pass the ball?”
Derrick: “Yes. Right.”
Me: “But that term is only used for this specific situation, right? I mean, wouldn’t all the “actions” that Aaron makes be “play actions?”
Literary nerd seeks a literal explanation.
There are phrases and words that hold a particular affection for. Some for no reason other than I love for the way the mouth and tongue need to move to speak them. For example, “intrusion.” I like the way my mouth has to move from a smile-like shape from “in” to a U-shaped cradle for “trusion.”
I like the way Derrick’s mouth shapes the word “blizzard.” How his mustached upper lip meets his lower lip to begin the “b” sound. How his tongue pushes against his teeth for the “li”. How the “a” and “r” makes an “er” sound, then concludes neatly with a hard “d” and a clenched-teeth-like smile.
All my life I have been surrounded by heavy, obstinate midwestern vowels. What is “bag” elsewhere is “bay-guh” in Wisconsin. Some Wisconsinites say “melk” instead of “milk”. Don’t even get me started on bubbler vs drinking fountain. (IT’S A BUBBLER.)
Why have I brought you down this seemingly errant path? Because in researching porcupines, I have been introduced to a new word that I love:
Niptwig. Niptwigs are branches porcupines have clipped off during foraging. Or, according to Roze: “A niptwig is a terminal twig, stripped of its leaf blades but with petioles still attached, which the porcupine nips off and discards by the end of its meal.” (Petioles is also a pretty great word. Petiole is the stalk that joins leaf to stem.)
Niptwig. Nip twig. Nip. Twig.
The repetition of the nasally, vowel “ip” and “ig” gives me great pleasure.
The celebration of the sound of “niptwig” in conjunction with a fondness for the British term “nip” as in “I’ll just nip off the to store and get some more pickles,” had me visualizing conversations between anthropomorphized porcupines who are nipping off to the nearest hemlock to nip off some niptwigs.
Oh, the simple joys of the pun-loving mind.
( If you are a Monty Python fan, niptwig would certainly be considered a “tinny” word.)
A hemlock tree is actually a good example of a tree that porcupines would be likely to niptwig. (Oh yes, niptwig as a noun AND a verb. Yeah, baby!)
According to Roze, “hemlock bark is not used because of its high tannin content. Instead, animals nip off terminal branches and consume needles and small twigs.”
One day I watched the a few local whitetail deer discover an array of niptwigs beneath a hemlock on the ridge below our house. Porky was busy niptwigging (*grin*) about halfway up the tree, his carefully chosen morsels dropping to the snow beneath him. The deer eyed Porky cautiously, taking measured steps toward the hemlock tree, their eyes trained up to keep the mystery animal in their view at all times.
What was this dark ball above these tasty treats? Is it dangerous? Will it mind if we take a nibble? The deer moved slowly toward the tree, turning their heads from Porky to tip their noses down to the scatter of niptwigs before them. The deer didn’t stay long, but enjoyed some tasty niptwigs before moving on.
Aside from the glorious addition of “niptwig” to my vocabulary, best part of Porky’s proximity was being able to observe Porky almost daily right out our living room window. We would often watch him climb up and down tree trunks, out onto branches, and carve trails through the deep snow from his bucket under the living room, to a feeding tree, to another feeding tree, and back to his bucket.
According to Roze, “A porcupine carries conspicuous markings of black and white visible from the back, the aspect that it tries to present to its molesters. A black line runs up the middle of the tail and expands along the lower back.” Also, “…the longest quills on a mature porcupine may measure almost 4 inches long…the short black quills on the upper surface of the tail can be far more dangerous…”
I had never really thought of porcupines as being black and white. But the more I watched and photographed him, the more I noticed the coloration of each individual quill, the vast difference in length, and the chevron shapes created by groupings of quills on the tail.
Since Porkymon’s bucket was below our living room, which is where I was typically working, if I saw Porky approaching the house, I could attempt to slowly open the window and take a photo from above, looking right down onto of Porky.
(The debris beneath him are sunflower seed shells. Our bird feeders hang outside the living room window and when you feed the birds like we do, it creates some organic waste.)
“There are four digits on a porcupine front paw. The naked foot pad provides good traction on trucks and branches; the curved claws sink into crevices in tree bark.”
“When trunks of branches are too thick to climb with claws, the porcupine uses its palms and soles alone. Its powerful clenching thigh muscles allow it to clasp a small tree trunk by sole-friction, leaving the front limb free for food-handling or exploration.”
“When climbing up a tree trunk, porcupines press tails up against the trunk to prevent sliding.”
I was so excited to share with you what it was like to frequently observe a porcupine at such close range, I complied a few clips to make a short video featuring Porkymon.
Thank you to my kind and talented friend Kelly Hepper who composed the music for the video! Enjoy!
Fast forward to today.
It’s been over a year since we first met Porkymon, and we still watch for him when we are outside. When summer came, he moved out of the bucket and relocated elsewhere for a summer den. Though porcupines have been known to resume use of previous dens, the space beneath our living room is no longer an option this winter. In fact, I am sitting in that space right now, writing this blog.
Like many, since the pandemic began, we have spent more time at home than ever before. As such, we were able to focus on some projects that we had hoped to start in 2020. As Derrick and I both were both working from home, we were able to make some serious headway transforming the space beneath our living room into a small addition to our little house in the woods. As our project progressed, friends and family asked what the new space would be. Guest room? Rec room? Workout space? Library? Den? Meditation lounge? (Ok, nobody asked if it would be a mediation lounge.)
We weren’t exactly certain what it was going to be either, other than more space. More space that could allow us to both be in the house at the same time, but with a bit more separation than before. (Something many people desperately desired as they spent/are spending more time doing pretty much everything from home.) We agreed that the room would be whatever we wanted/needed it to be.
Then I found a desk. An antique desk. A beautiful leather-topped antique desk. And, much like when I first saw Porky, I fell in love. White Arrows Home had labeled it a “gentleman’s desk” on the tag.
After minimal hemming and hawing about the sense of buying a large piece of furniture with nowhere to put it, I decided I deserved it because I had earned it. In 2020, I had achieved something I had wanted my whole life: my first book was accepted for publication. So I bought the this beautiful desk, along with a wooden antique filing cabinet.
I talked to my musician friend Kelly the day I found the desk. Always good for a fresh perspective and reflection, she assured me that, yes, I deserved the desk and that there was a place somewhere already that was meant especially for this desk, I just wasn’t aware of it yet.
I’m sure you, dear reader, already know where this desk is going to end up. But I have to be honest with you. Even when I bought it, I had not truly considered the idea of our new room being the space for my new desk.
Maybe it was because when I bought the desk weeks ago, our new room was unfinished. It still needed flooring, trim, and siding. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to feel like I was “taking over” this new room in our home for myself. Maybe I was still feeling little guilty for buying myself the desk when I was supposed to be Christmas shopping. Maybe it’s me making myself feel somehow unworthy of seeking something I want instead of something I need.
But I do need it. And I also want it. It is important to have a space for me, for writing and creating and creating and musing. And it’s ok to want that space to be in this new room, that only a year ago was occupied by a porcupine in a bucket. When we first met Porky, I believed his presence was encouraging me to reflect on boundaries and to protect the time and space I needed to write. “I had to bring my armor, my quills, with me every day.”
Now, we have made an unexpected full circle and Porky’s former space has become my writing space. This week, Derrick finished installing the flooring and we picked up my desk. Since then, most of my time has been spent situating our new space:
Despite the challenges 2021 has already brought to the table, I still have hope for the positive possibility of the coming year. You can probably guess where I will be for most of it.
I am also pleased to report that it seems that Porkymon made it through 2020 as well. This is where he was today: up a tree, covered in frost, about 200 yards from our house.
Before I go back to slowly grazing my fingers over my beautiful leather desktop and giddily filing my antique filing cabinet, I have a few items to share:
- Thank you to for reading and sticking with my blog. Regular posting is on the horizon!
- I will be launching my newsletter next week. If you are interested in keeping up to date with upcoming events, news on my book, or just want some photos of wildlife in your inbox, click here to sign up.
- My friend Kelly Hepper is an amazing musician with an incredible voice and beautiful, loving soul. You can check out her band here: The Soul Doctors
- Thank you to those of you who have already preordered my book! I appreciated your support!
- All book orders placed by Jan 29 will receive a special thank you gift from me in the mail in February. For every book purchased, you will get a one-of-a-kind bookmark with a line of poetry from To the 4 a.m. Light handwritten by me. (Yes, this includes all orders the have already been placed.) Book orders can be placed here.
Now, back to my filing cabinet…