In the spring of 2006, I was living in Madison, WI and going through a painful divorce. I decided the best remedy was for me to spend large stretches of time alone communing with nature. My work schedule at the time allowed me four days off after working three overnight shifts. So after work, I would drive five hours North to the Nicolet National Forest. The forest is a marvel of modern conservation. Reduced to clear cut stump fields by the turn of the century, it was restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. Today it is a lush, healthy second growth forest teeming with wildlife – even wolves and black bears.
After one of my many long drives to Nicolet, I parked my car in the gravel Parking lot of my favorite lakeside campground and backpacked down a cross country ski trail which at this time of year was completely deserted by humans. At the bottom of a hill I came to a “warming cabin” that I knew of that was designed for Cross Country skiers. It was April, at the time. The days were beginning to be warm but the nights were cold and patches of old winter snow still hung on in the shadows of the trees. Nobody used the cabin at this time of year, and it had a fireplace and a big wooden bench inside and was still well-stocked with firewood. It was by this time late afternoon, moving into early evening. The cabin looked so inviting after my rather muddy hike, so I decided to make a fire and spend the night.
As I approached the cabin, I noticed that there was a large hole chewed into the front door, which was latched shut. The hole looked like a cartoon mouse hole, only much bigger, about eight or ten inches high. When I opened the door and walked inside, I was surprised to see two large porcupines walking around inside. They had littered the floor with droppings. I speculated that it was a male and a female and that it must porcupine mating season. I later learned that this speculation was incorrect and that porcupines mate in the fall.
I picked up a broom and gently shooed them out of the cabin, then I swept out all the porcupine droppings. They looked like big oblong rabbit pellets. Then I gathered some wood and began to build a fire. As I got the fire going, one of the porcupines poked his head in through the hole again and began to come inside. I said “Hey!” and stamped my foot. The porcupine ducked back out. After I got the fire going, I put a large rock in the hole in the door, sealing it.
I began to hear scratching on the door. When I opened it, I saw the two porcupines still right outside and anxious to come in. When I opened the door, they walked off a little ways and stopped to stare back at me. I heard a chewing sound and looked over and saw that there was a third large porcupine, eating the tar paper on the underside of the little wooden shelter where the fire wood was stacked. The warming cabin was set in a low area at the convergence of three Cross Country Ski Trails. So from my Vantage point in the yard of the cabin I had a view up three different trails. I noticed that each trail had a porcupine, making its way down a hill toward the cabin. That’s six porcupines!
“What is going on here?” I thought to myself. I started to feel a bit bad, having the distinct impression that I was an intruder here, interrupting something solemn and important, despite the comical roly-poly appearance of the porcupines. I went back inside the cabin and sealed the rock over the hole again and set my sleeping bag up on the long bench in front of the fireplace. The fire was roaring from the big birch logs I had put on.
As I lay on the bench wrapped in my sleeping bag I stared, mesmerized, into the fire, I began to detect an imposing presence in the corner of the cabin. In the firelight the dancing shadows on the wall seemed to materialize into a large, not-quite humanoid shape. A silhouette of an enormous porcupine the size of a Sasquatch appeared on the wall.
Awestruck, I stared at the figure. I heard a voice inside my head. It spoke with sternness and authority:
“I am the Great Porcupine. You have you disturbed our gathering.”
I answered in my mind and said “I am sorry. I just needed a place to stay for the night.”
The Great Porcupine continued, “You neither know us nor understand us. We live a very elevated existence high in the trees, above all the other creatures of the forest, and breathe pure, rarefied air. We eat the bark of the trees, occasionally killing them at their crowns and, in this way, we allow light into the forest floor. Many living things depend on this service we provide. Without gaps in the forest, there would be far fewer living things here. It would be like a wasteland of pine trees.”
He spoke to me primarily with images that appeared in my minds eye, with a grave delivery that left me with the impression of being scolded by a stern grandfather. I asked him about fishers (a large, aboreal member of the weasel family) that eat porcupines, and he communicated to me that there were treaties worked out between the porcupines and the fishers and the trees; that the martins ate only what they needed, and kept the numbers of the porcupines down to ensure the health of the trees.
I became very emotional. I felt like a door was being opened up to me to a world I didn’t know. I thought I knew all there was to know about porcupines and other animals from reading field guides, but there seemed to be mysterious qualities to these animals that could not be summed up in the pages of a book. There seemed to be dimensions of them that extended beyond what I experienced with my five senses.
I felt very humbled. I apologized again to the Great Porcupine and asked if there was anything I could do to make amends for interrupting their gathering. Should I pack up and leave? He said that I was free to stay the night, but that in the morning when I leave, I should remove the stone from the door and leave an offering on the floor of salty food. (I learned later that porcupines love salt.)
After a while, I no longer sensed the presence of the Great Porcupine; the shadows on the wall once again seemed to match the objects in the cabin. I drifted off to a peaceful sleep. I arose early in the morning, poured my canteen on the fire to ensure it was out and quickly packed up my things. I arranged a small pile of potato chips and mixed nuts on the floor of the cabin. Afterwards, I briskly and quietly walked up the trail back to my car and drove home.
I felt a little shaken up by the experience; not terrified, just more or less in awe. I tried to do some research on the internet about porcupines and shamanism. Most of the links that came up on Google searches were pretty campy and seemed superficial. I didn’t feel that any of the descriptions really captured my experience. I put the experience aside until a few years later, when I was struck my a passage in a book I read about a Biologist who worked with some Mayan people in Belize to set up the world’s first jaguar preserve.
In the book, a Mayan man told the author that in order to work with Jaguar, he needed to find “the Great Jaguar” who was pure white and much larger than all the other jaguars of the forest, whom he protected.
The biologist never encountered the Great Jaguar, but this seemed to be a similar principle – a shamanistic way of looking at things that paralleled my encounter with the Great Porcupine. Perhaps each species of animal has a great representative superintending over the species as a whole.
Since this experience, I have been struck by the fact that when I get just a little ways out in the woods I am actually entering a different world where anything is possible.