Gateway to the Classics: School of the Woods by William J. Long
School of the Woods by  William J. Long

A Lazy Fellow's Fun

A NEW sound, a purring rustle of leaves, stopped me instantly as I climbed the beech ridge, one late afternoon, to see what wood folk I might surprise feeding on the rich mast. Pr-r-r-r-ush, pr-r-r-r-ush!  a curious combination of the rustling of squirrels' feet and the soft, crackling purr of an eagle's wings, growing nearer, clearer every instant. I slipped quietly behind the nearest tree to watch and listen.

Something was coming down the hill; but what? It was not an animal running. No animal that I knew, unless he had gone suddenly crazy, would ever make such a racket to tell everybody where he was. It was not squirrels playing, nor grouse scratching among the new-fallen leaves. Their alternate rustlings and silences are unmistakable. It was not a bear shaking down the ripe beechnuts—not heavy enough for that, yet too heavy for the feet of any prowler of the woods to make on his stealthy hunting. Pr-r-r-r-ush, swish! thump!  Something struck the stem of a bush heavily and brought down a rustling shower of leaves; then out from under the low branches rolled something that I had never seen before,—a heavy grayish ball, as big as a half-bushel basket, so covered over with leaves that one could not tell what was inside. It was as if some one had covered a big kettle with glue and sent it rolling down the hill, picking up dead leaves as it went. So the queer thing tumbled past my feet, purring, crackling, growing bigger and more ragged every moment as it gathered up more leaves, till it reached the bottom of a sharp pitch and lay still.

I stole after it cautiously. Suddenly it moved, unrolled itself. Then out of the ragged mass came a big porcupine. He shook himself, stretched, wobbled around a moment, as if his long roll had made him dizzy; then he meandered aimlessly along the foot of the ridge, his quills stuck full of dead leaves, looking big and strange enough to frighten anything that might meet him in the woods.

Here was a new trick, a new problem concerning one of the stupidest of all the wood folk. When you meet a porcupine and bother him, he usually rolls himself into a huge pincushion with all its points outward, covers his face with his thorny tail, and lies still, knowing well that you cannot touch him anywhere without getting the worst of it. Now had he been bothered by some animal and rolled himself up where it was so steep that he lost his balance, and so tumbled unwillingly down the long hill; or, with his stomach full of sweet beechnuts, had he rolled down lazily to avoid the trouble of walking; or is Unk Wunk brighter than he looks to discover the joy of roller coasting and the fun of feeling dizzy afterwards?

There was nothing on the hill above, no rustle or suggestion of any hunting animal to answer the question; so I followed Unk Wunk on his aimless wanderings along the foot of the ridge.

A slight movement far ahead caught my eye, and I saw a hare gliding and dodging among the brown ferns. He came slowly in our direction, hopping and halting and wiggling his nose at every bush, till he heard our approach and rose on his hind legs to listen. He gave a great jump as Unk Wunk hove into sight, covered all over with the dead leaves that his barbed quills had picked up on his way downhill, and lay quiet where he thought the ferns would hide him.

The procession drew nearer. Moktaques, full of curiosity, lifted his head cautiously out of the ferns and sat up straight on his haunches again, his paws crossed, his eyes shining in fear and curiosity at the strange animal rustling along and taking the leaves with him. For a moment wonder held him as still as the stump beside him; then he bolted into the bush in a series of high, scared jumps, and I heard him scurrying crazily in a half circle around us.

Unk Wunk gave no heed to the interruption, but yew-yawed hither and yon after his stupid nose. Like every other porcupine that I have followed, he seemed to have nothing whatever to do, and nowhere in the wide world to go. He loafed along lazily, too full to eat any of the beechnuts that he nosed daintily out of the leaves. He tried a bit of bark here and there, only to spit it out again. Once he started up the hill; but it was too steep for a lazy fellow with a full stomach. Again he tried it; but it was not steep enough to roll down afterwards. Suddenly he turned and came back to see who it was that followed him about.

I kept very quiet, and he brushed two or three times past my legs, eyeing me sleepily. Then he took to nosing a beechnut from under my foot, as if I were no more interesting than Alexander was to Diogenes.

I had never made friends with a porcupine,—he is too briery a fellow for intimacies,—but now with a small stick I began to search him gently, wondering if, under all that armor of spears and brambles, I might not find a place where it would please him to be scratched. At the first touch he rolled himself together, all his spears sticking straight out on every side, like a huge chestnut bur. One could not touch him anywhere without being pierced by a dozen barbs. Gradually, however, as the stick touched him gently and searched out the itching spots under his armor, he unrolled himself and put his nose under my foot again. He did not want the beechnut; but he did want to nose it out. Unk Wunk is like a pig. He has very few things to do besides eating; but when he does start to go anywhere or do anything he always does it. Then I bent down to touch him with my hand.

That was a mistake. He felt the difference in the touch instantly. Also he smelled the salt in my hand, for a taste of which Unk Wunk will put aside all his laziness and walk a mile, if need be. He tried to grasp the hand, first with his paws, then with his mouth; but I had too much fear of his great cutting teeth to let him succeed. Instead I touched him behind the ears, feeling my way gingerly through the thick tangle of spines, testing them cautiously to see how easily they would pull out.

The quills were very loosely set in, and every arrow-headed barb was as sharp as a needle. Anything that pressed against them roughly would surely be pierced; the spines would pull out of the skin, and work their way rapidly into the unfortunate hand or paw or nose that touched them. Each spine was like a South Sea Islander's sword, set for half its length with shark's teeth. Once in the flesh it would work its own way, unless pulled out with a firm hand spite of pain and terrible laceration. No wonder Unk Wunk has no fear or anxiety when he rolls himself into a ball, protected at every point by such terrible weapons.

The hand moved very cautiously as it went down his side, within reach of Unk Wunk's one swift weapon. There were thousands of the spines, rough as a saw's edge, crossing each other in every direction, yet with every point outward. Unk Wunk was irritated, probably, because he could not have the salt he wanted. As the hand came within range, his tail snapped back like lightning. I was watching for the blow, but was not half quick enough. At the rustling snap, like the voice of a steel trap, I jerked my hand away. Two of his tail spines came with it; and a dozen more were in my coat sleeve. I jumped away as he turned, and so escaped the quick double swing of his tail at my legs. Then he rolled into a chestnut bur again, and proclaimed mockingly at every point: "Touch me if you dare!"

I pulled the two quills with sharp jerks out of my hand, pushed all the others through my coat sleeve, and turned to Unk Wunk again, sucking my wounded hand, which pained me intensely. "All your own fault," I kept telling myself, to keep from whacking him across the nose, his one vulnerable point, with my stick.

Unk Wunk, on his part, seemed to have forgotten the incident. He unrolled himself slowly, and loafed along the foot of the ridge, his quills spreading and rustling as he went, as if there were not such a thing as an enemy or an inquisitive man in all the woods.

He had an idea in his head by this time, and was looking for something. As I followed close behind him, he would raise himself against a small tree, survey it solemnly for a moment or two, and go on unsatisfied. A breeze had come down from the mountain and was swaying all the tree-tops above him. He would look up steadily at the tossing branches, and then hurry on to survey the next little tree he met, with paws raised against the trunk and dull eyes following the motion overhead.

At last he found what he wanted, two tall saplings growing close together and rubbing each other as the wind swayed them. He climbed one of these clumsily, higher and higher, till the slender top bent with his weight towards the other. Then he reached out to grasp the second top with his fore paws, hooked his hind claws firmly into the first, and lay there binding the tree-tops together, while the wind rose and began to rock him in his strange cradle.

Wider and wilder he swung, now stretched out thin, like a rubber string, his quills lying hard and flat against his sides as the tree-tops separated in the wind; now jammed up against himself as they came together again, pressing him into a flat ring with spines sticking straight out, like a chestnut bur that has been stepped upon. And there he swayed for a full hour, till it grew too dark to see him, stretching, contracting, stretching, contracting, as if he were an accordion and the wind were playing him. His only note, meanwhile, was an occasional squealing grunt of satisfaction after some particularly good stretch, or when the motion changed and both trees rocked together in a wide, wild, exhilarating swing. Now and then the note was answered, farther down the ridge, by another porcupine going to sleep in his lofty cradle. A storm was coming; and Unk Wunk, who is one of the wood's best barometers, was crying it aloud where all might hear.

So my question was answered unexpectedly. Unk Wunk was out for fun that afternoon, and had rolled down the hill for the joy of the swift motion and the dizzy feeling afterwards, as other wood folk do. I have watched young foxes, whose den was on a steep hillside, rolling down one after the other, and sometimes varying the programme by having one cub roll as fast as he could, while another capered alongside, snapping and worrying him in his brain-muddling tumble.

That is all very well for foxes. One expects to find such an idea in wise little heads. But who taught Unk Wunk to roll downhill and stick his spines full of dry leaves to scare the wood folk? And when did he learn to use the tree-tops for his swing and the wind for his motive power?

Perhaps—since most of what the wood folk know is a matter of learning, not of instinct—his mother teaches him some things that we have never yet seen. If so, Unk Wunk has more in his sleepy, stupid head than we have given him credit for, and there is a very interesting lesson awaiting him who shall first find and enter the porcupine school.

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