The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII, Number 1, Pages 2-5
Patrick Karle, who grew up in the Northwest, is in the creative writing MFA program
and teaches at the University of Arizona. (1982)
When civilization and nature clash, nature gets the axe. But nature springs back, retaliates, overwhelms, and outlasts civilization. Weeds win the final battle. Grass does its work, a lovely, but frightening prospect.
In Last-ditch Neighborhood, where I grew up, civilization and nature were always at war. Tree roots drilled into the sewer mains seeking nitrogen, and we roto-rooted periodically. Crabgrass and dandelions invaded the lawns, and we attacked with defoliants three times a year. Morning Glory, a lush, beautiful vine that produced heart-shaped leaves and pink, trumpet shaped flowers, sent its sticky tendrils creeping into gardens, strangling tomato plants, swallowing fence posts, old cars, and children. We hacked those vines to bits with hoes and axes, then burned the bits with flamethrowers because the hacked fragments took root and sprouted quickly into new vines. My summers as a boy were vicious as Vietnam: an orgy of hacking and burning and defoliating set to The Anvil Chorus. We called that carnage "yard work."
Now, the neighbors, who revelled in yard work, were as vile and ignorant, and their children as numerous, as their mongrel dogs. They held nothing sacred except scorched earth and crew-cut squares of Kentucky bluegrass, and nothing in Last-ditch was safe-not even birds. When a family of wrens nested in the muffler of Walt Kozeck's junk Chevy, some bohunk, probably Walt himself, shoved a large potato up the exhaust pipe. I heard the baby wrens chirping weaker and weaker, all one afternoon.
As a boy pushing the lawnmower that decapitated everything in its path to a height of approximately one inch, I wondered what good our labor accomplished. Our seedy lawns bore no grain. Our gardens, though coddled and manured, produced nothing but wormy rutabagas, tomatoes that never ripened, pea-sized cabbages, and small, green pumpkins. We could hack, chop, and burn until we dropped in our tracks. We'd have starved to death, waiting for our labor to bear fruit.
The longer I was forced to fight, the more I admired the enemy. Crabgrass and dandelions flourished while the bluegrass turned brown. Morning Glory, that fragrant weed, had a fiercer lust for life than anything else in Last-Ditch. No human being I knew had the strength to push a finger through steel or concrete, yet fragile taproots penetrated sewer mains and the crabgrass drove its sprouts through the sidewalk.
"So what the hell?" I asked my oId man in my twelfth summer. 'The weeds are gonna win anyway."
"Listen boy," he said, poking my chest with a Sears guaranteed crabgrass puller, "When you get your own house, you can let the yard go to hell and the weeds take over. But right now, we're after uniformity." Uniformity was the word he used, too, "So pull them weeds, boy, mow that lawn, chop that Morning Glory. I don't want the neighbors thinking us Smiths are a buncha Goddamned aborigines."
And that's how he felt, my old man, until the incident of the porcupine cured him.
One afternoon in late-July, while the cicadas and the chainsaws set up a sonorous drone, I hacked Morning Glory with an axe under the blazing sun. When I stopped to wipe my face with a red bandana, I noticed what looked like a large bundle of straw in the uppermost branches of the poplar tree that shaded our backyard. I couldn't tell what it was, so I pointed it out to my old man, who was burning up the vines I had chopped. He turned off the flamethrower and said: "Aw fer Chrissake."
We walked to the tree. Looking up about twenty feet, we saw a porcupine peering down through a filigree of leaves. He was about four feet long and two feet wide, hanging in the branches like a crow's nest, and violating all principles of uniformity.
"So what you gonna do?" I asked, and my old man said: "Nothing. I suppose the varmit crawled up there during the night, and I suppose tonight he'll crawl away. Long as he don't try to crawl away in the meantime, I don't give a damn what he does."
Now, I thought my old man's decision was fair and humane, considering that porcupines, who often made the mistake of blundering into Last-ditch, were summarily clubbed to death so they wouldn't quill the neighbors' worthless mutts. The old porcupine might have escaped that night, too, if my old lady hadn't at that moment come barreling around the corner of the house, squirting a canister of DDT furiously. She saw us looking up into the tree, and when she saw that little round face grinning down at her, she emitted a high-power scream that alerted every ambulatory citizen in Last-ditch Neighborhood. They dropped their axes and flamethrowers and galloped toward our place from every quarter.
They poured up the driveway, and leaped over the hedges. They broke down the fences and trampled the garden. They popped out of the Morning Glory, and climbed onto the roof, and my old man just stood there, and watched them come.
In about two seconds, our yard looked like the carnival in the shopping center parking lot on opening night. Women joined my old lady who was still belting out a Code Six: three long and three short. Dogs, wild-eyed and yowling, ran halfway up the tree trunk before they flipped off in somersaults. Snot-nosed kids started pegging rocks that fell short of the porcupine, but arced neatly through the branches to smash out the kitchen window. The men stood around thumbing their suspenders, assessing the situation. Finally Harvey Cutter, who was tall and lean and had black eyebrows that curved like schimitars, walked up to my old man, who was short, paunchy, and had a face purple as an angry plum. The crowd's roar dropped to a dull murmur.
"Well by God," said Harvey. "Looks like you got a porcupine roosting in that there tree."
"So what?" asked my old man, straightening up to Harvey.
"So? What you waiting for? Shoot the sombitch."
"Yeah! Yeah!" agreed the crowd, among which a number of devilish kids nodded, juggling rocks.
My old man, wearing a dirty bowling shirt that said "Bill," considered a moment, then addressed the mass.
"Now, now," he said. "The varmint ainít hurting nobody. If we leave him alone, he'll probably scoot off after dark ... "
"And he'll get my dogs," blubbered Walt Kozek, who was so fat, he measured five-foot-six whether standing up or laying down.
"Hell with your dogs," wailed Emma Harp. "What if he gets my babies?" which caused the women to wail again, with old Granny Packert shrieking loudest of all, "Somebody call the sheriff'" But Harvey Cutter raised his hand for silence and said:
"Come on, Bill. If you ain't man enough to shoot the bastard, there's plenty of us who are."
Quicker than you could say "gunpowder," a dozen men drew their weapons. Sunlight gleamed from a dozen barrels of various makes and calibers. My old man shook his head, scowling.
"Now, now," he told the boys, "It's my yard, my tree, my porcupine. I'll do the shooting."
"That's the spirit, Bill," said Harvey.
When my old man appeared from the house packing a bolt-action, twenty-two caliber rifle with a scope sight, the crowd cheered and formed a circle with him, the tree, and the porcupine in the center. With an expression of mild curiosity, the porcupine munched some poplar leaves between his long, orange incisors, as he watched my old man taking aim.
A drop of sweat rolled down his cheek and off the gunstock. I then realized that I had never ever seen my old man fire a gun or kill anything that bled blood instead of sap. He had, back in his younger days, enjoyed hunting as much as any other man, but he hung up his guns after he helped pack out his best friend, Peter Hoffman, killed in a hunting accident the year I was born. My knees began trembling, waiting for him to squeeze off that first shot. The crowd's natter filled my head like a drumroll.
Pop! The report impressed the crowd, which began counting the successive shots in unison. He fired six in all, working the bolt conscientiously between shots. The porcupine flinched each time my old man hit him, and he hit him every time. Though the blood trickled from his stomach, the animal hung fast for a moment, then he began backing along a limb, like a polite old gentleman backing out of the ladies' room-sorry, ladies, my mistake. But the limb got skinnier and skinnier, and when my old man's last shot punched him, the porcupine was hanging by one hand from a branch bowed like a whippet. He must have weighed forty pounds.
I heard the twigs tear, and in a shower of leaves and quills, the porcupine dropped into the screaming herd. He hit the ground as big as a haystack with his hackles up and his quills shining. Walt Kozeck's dogs leaped into the space made when the neighbors leaped clear of the falling animal. The porcupine hissed and bristled and slashed the dogs with his tail and the crowd was howling and my old man was yelling and reloading and everyone was cussing a blue streak. About then, the county sheriff beat his way through the crowd, kicked back the mongrels, and emptied his service revolver into the rampaging beast. The shots were so loud they hurt my ears.
The neighbors watched the sheriff write my old man a ticket for discharging a firearm within the municipality. Afterwards, convinced that justice had been done to all concerned, they returned to their own homes to resume chopping. The sheriff drove off in his green and white car. My old lady sighed and shook her head. She went into the house to sweep up the broken glass, leaving me and my old man and the porcupine alone in the shade of the tree. We confronted each other over the furry bulk, and for a moment, it was so quiet you could hear a neighbor's machete slice the air.
"So what the hell?" I asked, and my old man advised me to shut up. Very carefully, we loaded the prickly corpse into a wheelbarrow and, marking our trail with a trickle of black and white quills, trucked him to the end of our half-acre lot. There we buried him beneath a crooked apple tree, which was losing a long battle against coddling moths, despite repeated applications of DDT. Taking turns on the picks and shovels, we buried him about six feet deep so Kozeck's hounds wouldn't dig him up. Just as the evening sky turned deep blue, my old man heaped on the last spadeful of earth, tramped the grave, and said "shit,"
That was the last yard work my old man ever did. He hung up his pruning shears beside his guns, and let the lawnmower die in its sleep. The dandelions grew waist-high, and the Morning Glory buried the house. He never again worried about uniformity or that the neighbors called us aborigines. He started raising pigeons, and joined the Audubon Society. He became a devoted fan of Roger Tory Peterson, who he grew to resemble in his later years.