I have been blessed — some would say cursed — with a pretty active imagination. It has come in handy for writing fiction, including two published novels. But it can be a real disadvantage on those stormy nights when I finish the latest Stephen King book and still have to go out in the dark for evening chores.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve forced myself to venture out, all the while repeating out loud, “There is no such thing as zombies/werewolves/vampires/satanic cars.”
But most of the time I have fun creating my own little stories, especially the ones that involve appearances from the real-life critters here on Rusty Metal Farm.
A few years back my friend Julie and I spotted a small mouse swimming for all he was worth across the Rusty Metal Farm pond to the island in its center. What on earth compelled such a tiny land creature to undertake a swim the distance in human terms of swimming across Moosehead Lake? Was he looking for new property? Was he commuting home from a day of work? Training for a critter triathlon?
We, of course, had no idea, but for reasons unknown dubbed him “Mr. Raggles” and ever since the island has been called “Raggle Island.” On Raggle Island Mr. Raggles, Mrs. Raggles, all the little Raggles and their friends live, work and go about their daily Raggle Lives.
Most recently, my imagination was stoked by a visiting porcupine who apparently decided to take a stroll during a recent stretch of warmer than average February days. It also gave me the opportunity to learn a bit more about these prickly fellows.
Porcupines do not hibernate. Rather, in the winter they sleep for long periods of time, and when they do come out, they do not venture far from their dens. This particular one had moved into one of the unoccupied dog houses left from my mushing days. Seems to me the least he could have done was introduce himself when he did.
The day I spotted him he was halfway down my driveway, staring directly at the large snowbank, which was inches from his nose. Now, my research revealed that porcupines are quite nearsighted. But still, what on earth was he trying to see in the snow?
I went out to get a closer look and noticed the claw marks he made in the snow. Apparently he was trying to climb up and over that snowbank to get to wherever he was going, rather than walk 50 feet or so farther down the driveway where the snowbanks are much lower.
Perhaps porcupines are not only nearsighted but also stubborn?
At this point, my friend Pete, who is currently living in the apartment over my shop and had been watching me watch the porcupine, stuck his head out of his window and asked what was going on. When I explained Mr. Porkie’s apparent dilemma vis-a-vis the too-tall snowbank, Pete — who has undertaken most of the snow-clearing chores here on Rusty Metal Farm — informed me there is no way he is going to start snow blowing paths through the woods for critters.
I know — right?
At this point, I have to admit, I have never seen such an odd-looking beast. It’s not that I’d never seen a porcupine — I’ve seen dozens over the years. Just not one that looked like this. From his mid-back area to the tip of his tail, it looked like he’d been hewed out of wood into two lines of a right angle.
More research showed that’s what it looks like after porcupines have lost their quills. Porcupines have soft hair on their back, sides and tail and it’s normally mixed with the sharp quills — up to 30,000 of them. These quills lie flat until needed for defense when they literally leap straight up as a warning to an attacker. Porcupines don’t actually shoot their quills. Rather, those sharp, barbed, hollow modified hairs detach easily when touched.
Because they are barbed, once a quill is stuck in an animal, it will continue to move into the creature’s body due to the muscular contractions and movements of the victim.
Anyone who’s had a dog come running home with a snout full of quills knows this all too well. In fact, my veterinarian once told me — as she was pulling quills from my own hapless dog — that these winter thaws are common times for porcupine-pet encounters.
As I write this, I can only imagine that somewhere on Rusty Metal Farm there is some creature sporting its own snout full of quills. This can obviously be deadly serious for wildlife. Some predators including bobcat, fishers, wolverines, coyotes and great horned owls do prey on porcupines, employing a strategy of first flipping the critter onto its back so they can attack its vulnerable underbelly.
Turns out, even then there is a risk. In 2013 Canadian biologists found the body of a bobcat and the cause of death was determined to be internal bleeding associated with two quills that had managed to penetrate a major artery.
For now, the porcupine is a daily visitor plodding along the driveway or napping on top of the snow in the woods near the house and more often than not with me not far behind snapping photos like a tabloid photographer. But as the temperatures start to drop, I suspect he’ll move back into the dog house for another extended nap.
Be nice if he dropped by for a cup of coffee first.
Bangor Daily News Homestead features writer Julia Bayly can be reached at email@example.com.