Unexpected visitors are the price one pays for living near woodlands and streams, so it should not have surprised me to see what I saw in the beech tree beside our driveway one spring morning.
When I moved to Maine 20 years ago, I was told that warmer weather brings wonders out of the woods, and I'll never forget my astonishment a few years later.
The air was as fresh and crisp as laundry on a clothesline. The seedlings on my windowsill were sprouting upward and outward, banging their heads against the windows. Our green world was waking up.
And so was our animal world.
"Mom, come quickly! There's a monkey in the tree!" cried my daughter, Heidi. She pointed to the top of a leafless beech that led to a forested area behind our house.
There wasn't a zoo within 150 miles. It couldn't possibly be a monkey, I thought. Our neighbors did not keep animals any more exotic than a tropical fish. Maybe a snake.
I dropped what I was doing in the kitchen and looked out the window. There in a beech tree, 20 feet from our driveway, was a black ball clinging
to a top branch. No face was visible. This was a creature I had never seen before and for which I had no name.
"Wow!" I murmured. I opened the screen door and poked my head out. It felt good to hold a light wooden door ajar after a winter of thick portals and heavy snowfall. This shy visitor drew me outdoors to investigate.
'It really does look like a monkey," I agreed, peering up. But the needles protruding from this creature's back could not be mistaken. On our lawn beneath the tree lurked other clues: holes in the ground common to a good-sized rodent; limbs without buds; quills nearby.
There was no dispute. It was a porcupine.
Years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver got all excited, knowing a porcupine was in her neighborhood.
"For years I had wanted to see that slow-rambler, that thornbush," she wrote. "So dazzling she must be - a plump, dark lady wearing a gown of nails ... white teeth tearing skin from the thick tree...."
But how did this one get in my beech tree? Maybe a dog had chased it during the night. There it hung, curled up tight, like a black ball with white knitting needles poking out. News like this would travel fast, I thought.
And it did.
Before long, the neighborhood kids came over to check out our discovery. They dropped their bicycles on the lawn and in the driveway, and then cautiously approached the tree.
"Awesome!" they said, rolling their heads back, straining and staring up at this dark ball against a just-out-of-the-wash blue sky.
There was the porcupine, all right, gripping the top limb as though it were a mast. Our cat stood sentry directly beneath the tree, stunned and staring up at the porcupine. I had never seen Puff so watchful and still.
In the years since, we've learned that porcupines are rarely in a hurry, even when they should be. We saw one crossing a busy highway ever so slowly on our way to the lake one summer day. We slowed down, too, as she ambled carelessly along, carrying her strong, stiff quills.
Unfortunately, there's no good way to rescue a porcupine. So you wait. But my daughter had other ideas.
"Momma, you gotta get her down!" she pleaded.
"Some things must come down on their own ... gently ... when they are ready to," I explained wisely (while feeling cowardly at the same time).
After four hours, our monkey climbed down the tree and, I suspect, made its way back into the adjoining woods. I never saw it descend, although from my screen door I frequently checked to see if it was scooting across the lawn. It was our watch cat that gave me the signal. Puff had abandoned her post on the windowsill at the same time I noticed the tree's visitor had left.
OUR family learned more about porcupines later that summer. In August, my daughter spotted one a mile away near a hemlock hedge heading (slowly) toward an open field. We learned that these creatures like spruce forests and northern hardwoods, often returning to the same tree. They've been known to eat bark and pine needles, tree buds in the spring (we already knew that), nuts, fruits, and salt.
In winter, hemlock branches on the snow are a dead giveaway that a porcupine is high above, nibbling the tips and discarding the rest.
Although this porcupine made only a brief visit, it had a lasting impact. Now when we cross-country ski through the pine forests beside our house, we look for nibbled boughs along the trails and then gaze upward.
Ten years later, my daughter and her neighborhood friends still call the beech tree "the monkey tree," in honor of our visitor. Of course, you'd think they'd call the sharp bristling rodent by its proper name. But no. They still remember her as the monkey in our front yard.