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A Lesson in Tranquility ... From a Porcupine

A midnight run-in with a spiny interloper forced me to re-evaluate my priorities.

Porcupine in tree

The first summer we lived here, Bob awoke one night to a chewing sound he heard outside. He went out to investigate. As he shined his light on the door of our shed, a porcupine turned and looked at him before returning to his supper of treated lumber.

Bob yelled at him to make him go away. The porcupine ignored him.

What is the purpose of all the freedom I’ve cultivated, if I'm so obsessed about getting stuff done that I can’t let go for a few hours?

Bob went back to bed. The chewing woke him up each night for weeks afterward. He put hardware cloth on the shed door. The porcupine used it as a helpful ladder to climb higher and gnaw a fresh section.

Bob considered bringing the rifle up from the farm. But since we are living on the edge of a giant state forest, we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Truly, we were encroaching on the porcupine’s turf. What right did we have to shoot him? He didn’t seem to be causing any other troubles.

That same porcupine (or perhaps one of his progeny) has kept coming back for 15 years, slowly eating away the door to our shed. We eventually learned to cover our ears to the noise and turn a blind eye to the damage.

Then, last summer, our new dog Nick came to us. We needed one who would bark at predators, patrol the boundaries of our property, and leave his scent as a deterrent to the local bears—who had recently identified our beehives as their preferred snack bar. Nick’s family was moving to the California suburbs, and he needed a new home where his 70-pound bulk could roam freely, where he would be welcome to mark trees and bushes to his heart’s content, where his persistent bark would be tolerated.

This spring, he has been happily patrolling the property, marking the countryside with his unique brand of No Trespassing signs. He chases rabbits from the garden and keeps the bears at a safe distance from the hives. He has blended in so well, I almost don’t notice him in the frenzy that is spring.

Nick patrols and protects the aura of chaos that surrounds our family; but within it, as the orchestrating mother, I am the nucleus, driven by purpose and direction. I keep the schedules. I know who will eat what on each day. I know at what hour I must rise to do my writing, by what hour I need to have a meal on the table, who needs to be at what appointments. I know what farm products will be produced on any particular afternoon. I know what time supper needs to be cleared from the table, what time teeth need to get brushed and exactly how many minutes of story time may be dispensed before I roll over and switch off the light so that I may obtain adequate slumber before the regimen starts anew at 4 a.m.

And then came the night a few weeks ago, when Nick detected an intruder from his watchtower. Growling and barking furiously, he roused Bob from bed, insisting that he be permitted to confront the insouciant interloper who had crossed his boundaries. Dopey with sleep, Bob obeyed the dog. He promptly regretted it when Nick’s roaring charge abruptly ceased with a high pitched yelp, followed by a fevered bolt back into the house.

At that point, I gave up my slumber to join my husband, knowing exactly what we faced. Nick had finally met our resident porcupine. He whimpered before us in the kitchen, frantically trying to paw the quills from his muzzle, looking at us with pleading eyes to do something. But this case was beyond our medical capacity. He’d require a trip to the vet in the morning.

“Put Nick in the mudroom,” I directed him, already computing in my mind how this impending visit to the vet would affect the morning schedule (and our thin wallets).

Bob rarely employs words when he argues. He works his big brown eyes into myriad expressions, leaving me to soliloquize through most of our conflicts. At my instructions to put the dog in the mudroom, his eyes gaped in horror.

“We all need sleep,” I argued back.

Next, his eyes hardened, this time searing the words “ruthless, heartless bitch into my mind.

“We had dogs who got quills all the time growing up,” I said, trying to reason with that glare. “We’ll get him to the vet in the morning and he’ll be fine.”

Taking Bob’s side in the argument, Nick began pawing at his face and whining. Bob held the dog’s head and stroked his ears, keeping him from driving the quills deeper. He reclined back into the cubby, put his legs under the blanket, then invited Nick to settle down on top of him, where he cradled the dog’s meaty head.

The argument thus concluded, my husband finally spoke to me: “Go back to bed.”

I did. But I can rarely fall back to sleep once I’ve been disturbed. My mind flies to my mental check-off list: What writing do I have to do in the morning? Have I done the research? Do I have any unanswered emails? Exactly how many hours of sleep have I had? Since I can’t sleep, what could I be getting done right now?

It was two thirty in the morning. I padded back down to the office. Bob had turned the lights down and was holding Nick in the cubby. I switched on the light and turned on the computer. “I’ll stay up with him,” I sighed. “I can at least get some work done in the meantime.”

Victorious, Bob went back to bed. I began sorting through my files. Nick started pawing at his face.

“No!” I commanded. He didn’t heed.

I held his paw. He looked at me pleadingly. I put his paw down and returned to my desk. He began rubbing his face into the floor.

“No!” I commanded again. He looked at me, then began digging at himself with his paws once more, driving the quills further into his nose. I left the computer a third time and took his head in my hands. He wriggled up against my chest, a puppy once more, pleading for the comfort of an embrace.

Sitting alone in the dark with my dog, I was forced to examine my own behavior: I worry incessantly about productivity.

I sighed, stood up, and moved to the cubby, where I climbed under the covers. Tapping the blanket, I gave him permission to join me. He leapt up, knocking the wind from my chest before settling his black and white mass over my body. I stroked his head, then ran my hands down the length of his back. He rested his quill-infested face along my upper arm. I went back to calculating the number of hours of sleep I might be able to obtain, then decided to close my eyes and try for rest—the one thing I might be able to get done in this situation.

My hand went still. And Nick began to paw at himself again.

Finally, I understood. I had to sit with the dog and just pet him. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get another damn thing done. All I could do was stay awake in the dark and try to comfort this creature.

We spent three hours lying together in that cubby, waiting for morning. Nick drifted in and out of sleep while I kept vigil. And as we nestled there together, I panicked about all that I was not getting done, about all the time I was wasting. It wasn’t just the three hours of productivity lost to nursing a dog. It was the ripple effect of the lost productivity to come, that would ensue from lost sleep.

I fretted like this for nearly an hour before I realized that I was holding medicine in my hands. Sitting alone in the dark with Nick, I was forced to examine my own behavior: I worry incessantly about productivity. But in a life by my own design, what exactly are the repercussions if I fail at completing my to-do list?

None, really. Maybe I lose a few dollars here or there from missed sales. That’s about it. My business partners are all family. They will step in and help wherever needed. We cover for each other. My customers are like family. If I don’t have what they want one day, they’ll usually come back later. Nobody is going to fire me. Nobody minds a mess. Nobody is holding me to a deadline.

Except me.

My high expectations and fierce drive cleaved a path for my family to thrive in an alternative lifestyle. But what is the purpose of all the freedom and self-reliance I’ve cultivated, if I am so obsessed about getting stuff done that I can’t let go and comfort a dog for a few hours? The point of my life is to be free to give myself over to the things I care about the most. And, in that moment, that meant the 70-pound baby who’d just met his first porcupine.

I felt the knot that seems perpetually balled in my stomach begin to unravel. My heart rate slowed. I held that dog and stroked his fur, and together we drifted through a series of muzzy hours until the sun came up. It was a night I will hold in my memory for years to come.

The quills are all gone now. Nick is back to patrolling our borders. The porcupine is back to gnawing on our shed door, which will have to be replaced one of these days. Nick seems to have chosen to ignore his presence.

I am back to directing and coordinating and producing our family life. I love doing it. I always will. But inside me, there’s a little more peace, and a little more understanding that things fall apart, no matter how much force and calculation go into holding them together. And those experiences are just as rich as the daily tasks I’ve chosen through intentional living. I’m thankful to that big black and white dog, and that ornery porcupine, who helped me to remember that.


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York.

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