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Nibbling with a porcupine

With the wind tugging insistently at the paper like a bored two-year old, I try to make a pencil drawing of the plant in front of me.

With the wind tugging insistently at the paper like a bored two-year old, I try to make a pencil drawing of the plant in front of me.

Not because I harbour any lofty artistic notions or even pursue drawing as a hobby, it’s just that I find it a great way of learning to identify plants, plus it makes a pleasant occupation while out camping.

Half-guiltily, I had left Sam to look after the dogs, chickens and garden (and the poor man was already planning on spending time going fishing as well) while I indulged myself in a few days of paddling on my own.

Early summer, when just a few bugs are out, is a favourite time of mine for camping. It seems like such a strange place we live in where for half of the year, most life is either absent or leading a completely sequestered existence.

I wonder what that’s like, to be a plant, insect, fish or bear and after long months of being only tenuously connected with the world to suddenly leap into a frantic pace of active life.

Do they even notice winter at all?

At my grassy campsite by the water, there is already a riot of wildflowers. The lemony scent of crushed arnica leaves drifts up as I walk about looking for a wind sheltered spot to sit.

Tired of long weeks of canned veggies, I browse my way through the fresh vegetation and am pleasantly surprised at the distinct almond flavour of Saskatoon leaf buds.

Eventually, I settle down with my pencil and paper by what I think is a columbine.

Unencumbered by such things as watercolours or pastels, I write down the textures, colours and smells of the plant next to my sketch.

Somehow, the slow meditative process of trying to capture all details of a plant on paper, letting a pencil guide my eyes around the intricacies of every leaf, is an excellent teacher in the art of seeing. The shapes and colours stay in the mind in greater detail and are remembered more easily.

With plants I already know, I always discover minute hairs or subtle colour changes in the petals that I was unaware of before. If it is an unfamiliar plant and there is a whole patch of them, I usually pick one to identify at home as my drawings are too unskilled to let me recognize a plant in a guide based on my sketch.

A porcupine apparently finds this spot appealing too and comes waddling towards the water at snail’s pace. It snuffles at pieces of wood, slowly turning them over with its paws, and taking its time to investigate every square inch of ground.

I carefully walk over to where it is engrossed in sniffing underneath a rotten log and squat down next to it.

The beady myopic eyes don’t seem to focus on me. It has the most amazing huge and curlicued nostrils.

Having never had the opportunity to spend an evening with a porcupine before, I find it a most relaxing experience (thanks to the absence of our dogs).

The porky spends hours moving about in slow motion along shore, nibbling on things, much like I did earlier in the day.

Plants can give a lot of information about a place. What the soil and microclimate are like, which animals and insects might be expected close by because they utilize a particular plant as a food source, and what other plants can likely be found in its neighbourhood.

Then there is the question of potential uses for people: which are edible and even tasty plants, which ones have medicinal uses.

By delving into this web of connectedness, the landscape ceases to be merely a pretty green and colour-flecked background and it becomes apparent how everything is tied together by interdependence.

The porcupine is inching closer to my paddle though, which I don’t really want to integrate into the circle of life by letting it become part of my prickly companion’s diet.

Moving it out of reach, I also pack up my sketches and do a bit more browsing and sniffing among the vegetation myself. A child’s way of learning the world (and that of a porcupine) turns out to be highly recommendable to the wilderness enthusiast as well.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.