Out of Eden
by MARGIE PATLAK
IT WOULD STRIKE around dusk.
Intent on munching the flowers, no amount of chastising would prompt it to leave the garden. After I threw rocks at it, the porcupine would amble away with a swaggering gait, spines menacingly erect. But at night it would return. Unseen but heard—the scritch-scratching of its claws on the tree bark, the rustling in the garden.
After turning the outdoor lights on, I would run out to chase it away, but five minutes later it would return to resume eating my flowers. It was futile—like chasing back a relentless incoming tide. Because of the garden layout, fencing it to keep out porcupines from the nearby coniferous forest and rocky shore wasn’t feasible. Spraying the plants with animal repellent didn’t work either. And because the porcupine is so omnivorous, narrowing the selection of flowers in the beds was not an option for keeping its damage under control.
I began to regret ever having planted a garden in Maine.
When my husband, Frank, and I first moved to Maine, I never intended to toil in the soil when I could instead kayak through the marshes where yellowlegs and other shorebirds peck at the mud, or hike up a forest-clad mountain where bears and bobcats reside. Why make an orderly human imprint on nature, when it could be enjoyed in its uncultivated and uncivilized state? Better to experience the pure joy, astonishment, and mystery of a wild environment—a chorus of coyotes singing at sunset, fox kits tumbling their way out of the forest, or a line of fog lumbering down the bay at dawn, erasing all boundaries and imparting a sense of the unknown in its wake. A garden wasn’t necessary in Maine, even though gardening had been a favorite pastime of mine during the decades I lived in Philadelphia.
After we moved north, I kept my hands clean of garden dirt for a few summers. But I missed my Philadelphia flowerbeds and their colorful parade of blooms that started in May and continued through October. I also yearned to grow species that couldn’t survive the relentless heat of Philly summers, but that thrived in neighbors’ gardens in Maine: flowering spires of lupines, fluorescent-blue delphiniums, and gloriosa daisies, whose burnt sienna centers bleed into a swirl of surrounding golden petals. Perhaps most importantly, I missed the creativity of gardening, the opportunity to paint the landscape with flowers, while also satisfying maternal instincts—the need to nurture living beings and watch them grow to their full potential.
Our third summer in Maine, I could no longer suppress the urge to garden. A friend who’s a professional gardener helped put in three-foot-wide beds on either side of the pink granite pathway that leads from the back of our house to the bay. While swatting mosquitoes, we spent days rototilling heavy clumps of clay, tilling in mounds of compost, and planting close to a hundred small plugs of perennials.
I nursed those plants as if they were my newborns, watering the flowerbed regularly throughout the summer so the tender plugs wouldn’t wither in the hot sun. But it was not unconditional love—I was looking forward to the fruits of my labor. While hosing each plant, I envisioned gathering armfuls of indigo delphiniums and golden black-eyed Susans, arranging them in vases with Mexican hat coneflowers, sea thistles, and strap asters. I was like a young mother, imagining myself surrounded by exceptionally handsome and talented grown children, while still cleaning the bottoms of squealing red-faced babies. I weeded and waited for two summers as the three-inch plugs grew into tall, full plants laden with blossoms.
And then a porcupine ate nearly all of them.
I BECAME ATTACHED to my garden like my neighbor Larry was attached to his apple trees. A mild-mannered retired linguistics professor, Larry has been waging war against porcupines since he planted a half dozen apple saplings in the small cleared patch of forest that comprises his yard.
Porcupines love to nibble on tender new shoots. When his saplings fell victim to these animals, who ravaged the trees with their chomping, Larry was outraged. He’d imagined biting into a crisp, honeyed apple grown on his own soil, but each invasion of porcupines made that vision a bitter unmet dream.
Larry encircled each of his trees with chicken wire. The spiny pests climbed over the metal mesh. Then he built a fence around his entire orchard, but that didn’t work either. Even when he electrified the fence, the animals still managed to do damage.
Eventually, Larry took to shooting any of the slow-footed porcupines he saw on his property. “I figure God gave Adam dominion over the animals, so I’m doing the right thing in shooting the porcupines,” he told me, shortly after Frank and I had moved to Maine. I was shocked, unable to imagine this retired professor killing such an innocent animal. I had seen him swerving his car to avoid hitting squirrels, and his wife told me he’d once quietly followed the path of a young moose just to get a better glimpse of it. I was also horrified because one of the first thrills of moving to Maine was seeing a wild porcupine amble into our yard. Having only seen them in zoos before, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of this forest denizen, though of course I kept a respectful distance from its cloak of quills.
But porcupines have overpopulated our Schoodic peninsula. Due to a lack of their natural predator, a weasel-like animal called a fisher, porcupines feel free to roam wherever they choose. Not fearful of their human neighbors, they eat whatever people provide in gardens that border the pine, spruce, and fir forests where the animals live.
They were here first, after all.
Because of their destructive tendencies, Larry offered to shoot any porcupines that came onto our property. “Just call me,” he said, “and I’ll come over with my gun.” Indignantly ignoring his offer, I continued to be charmed by the porcupine climbing my maple tree at sunset. Having been raised on Bambi, I viewed shooting animals with abhorrence, and certainly didn’t feel we had the moral right to kill wild animals unless we needed them for food.
Until I planted a garden.
EACH NIGHT while I lay in bed, I heard the porcupine: tromp, tromp, chomp, chomp. There is nothing quiet or stealthy about its dining. Its distinctive sound signature is wrought from the animal tromping down the plants and then tearing them apart with its teeth. Tromp, tromp, chomp, chomp: the sound grated on my nerves and made it hard to fall asleep. “Dammit! The porcupine is back!” I would yell to Frank, still awake in the adjacent living room. He would then traipse outside and try to shoo the porcupine away with a few well-aimed rocks. But the next morning, there would be a mess of broken or missing flower stems scattered throughout the garden.
I let this floral tragedy continue for several days, mourning each felled blossom, then remembered Larry’s offer. I was outraged at the destruction, ready to get rid of the spiny pest that was eating my flowers. But what about my ideal of living a wilder life on the coast, enjoying all encounters with the surrounding animals? Maine was supposed to be my Eden, an escape from the monotonous confines of the Philadelphia suburbs, where square lawns and sidewalks suggest order and predictability, and no awe-inspiring wild surprises. The porcupines were here before us, I chided myself. It is only natural they would be tempted by the buffet of garden treats.
Night after night, I heard the porcupine chewing away at my flowers, and each morning saw new patches destroyed by its voracious appetite. Eventually it gnawed down my naturalist reserve and left a ragged stub of raw blinding anger directed at the animal that was destroying the garden I had worked so hard to build. One morning, after seeing what had been four-feet-tall purple coneflower stems lying prone and wilted on the ground, and finding all the flowers missing on my sea thistle plants, I spied the porcupine lounging on a branch of my maple tree, looking quite satisfied with its full belly, its two front paws dangling as it dozed.
Something inside me snapped.
I called Larry. Frank greeted him while I retreated like a guilty puppy to the basement. I had neither the skills nor the stomach to shoot the animal myself.
The conflict was agonizing. I was still enamored with the porcupine and all the wildness it symbolizes—but I wanted it destroyed. Torn between wanting to protect the garden, and wanting to protect the porcupine, I didn’t emerge from the basement until after the sound of a gunshot. Frank tossed the body far into the woods where I wouldn’t stumble across it, but I felt stained by its killing.
RELIEVED THAT THE BATTLE on my lawn was over, I was amazed at how little remorse I felt. Later I even began to justify my killing by rationalizing that because we humans have reduced the number of fishers—one of the few animals known to hunt porcupines—with our relentless hunting and habitat destruction, we now have a responsibility to keep the porcupine population under control.
Fishers dwell in the northern forests of the US and Canada. These brown furry animals are the size of a cat, but with triangular-shaped, teddy-bear-eared faces. To kill its prey, a fisher will repeatedly bite a porcupine’s spine-free face until it falls over on its back, and then will it eat the more vulnerable belly. This clever predation strategy used to keep porcupine populations in check, locked in the classic predator-prey ballet in which the porcupine population leaps to higher levels whenever the fisher population plummets. But the mad grab for fisher pelts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, combined with logging of the large undisturbed northern forests where they lived, almost drove fishers into extinction in the upper reaches of the United States. With fishers nearly gone, porcupine populations exploded. In turn, the porcupines caused extensive damage to timber stands. Seeking to restore ecological balance, in the later half of the twentieth century, wildlife and forest management officials in the United States reintroduced fishers to many of its northern forests, including those in New England. Everywhere fisher populations rebounded, porcupine numbers fell. Although I’ve heard fishers screaming in my woods at night—terrifying cries that sound like they could come from someone being murdered—these animals are still not abundant enough on the Schoodic peninsula to keep porcupine numbers down.
Because we’ve deformed so many predator-prey dances, some ecologists argue, we must rectify overpopulation when it ensues. We not only should protect animals in danger of extinction, but also ensure other animal populations (such as white-tailed deer, rabbits, and, of course, porcupines) don’t expand exponentially. In fact, some wildlife biologists say the only moral alternative is to restore and protect the natural balance. To do nothing, to let nature take its own course, is irresponsible. Larry’s notion of man’s dominion over animals may be right—but for reasons other than Biblical determinism. “We are gardening the wilderness,” as Jon Mooalem puts it in his book Wild Ones. Perhaps we now must be nature’s choreographers, acting not just like Adam, but like God.
THE DAY AFTER the shooting, I removed the broken flower stems. Over a few weeks’ time, I was encouraged to see new ones taking their place. Other plants the porcupine chewed down to the ground began sending up fresh green shoots. I finally got to see my Mexican hat coneflowers in bloom, their tight swirls of rust-colored petals surrounding elongated thimble-shaped centers, like little sombreros.
But then one night, while I was trying to fall asleep, I heard it: tromp tromp, chomp chomp. The unmistakable sounds of a porcupine munching nearby. The next day, more broken flower stems were in the garden.
I was clearing out these felled blossoms when I spotted them.
Not one, but two porcupines were lying on separate branches in the maple tree. They were smaller than the obese one Larry killed for me—porcupine Bambis—but would probably grow by dining every night at the garden café I provided.
So much for the battle being over.
I STILL HAVEN’T decided whether I’ll continue to toil away in my garden, repairing the damage done, or whether I’ll ask Larry to kill the new porcupines that have laid claim to my yard. But one thing I know for certain: I’m no longer in Eden.
Margie Patlak is an award-winning science writer whose articles and essays have appeared in Discover, The Washington Post, Proximity, Persimmon Tree, Hippocampus, Cold Mountain Review, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. “Out of Eden” is from her yet-to-be published nature memoir, More Than Meets the Eye: Exploring Nature and Loss on the Rocky Maine Shore. Patlak divides her time between Philadelphia and the Schoodic Peninsula of Maine. To explore more of her writing, go to www.margiepatlak.com.