Sleep is finished with me before I am finished with sleep. Isn’t that just typical? I pick up the book I was looking at last night before my eyelids grew heavy, and notice that the words have burned little bare marks in the page’s snow. The sun that shines on the other side of the earth must’ve shone here, too, breaking through leaden clouds. And me lying unconscious all the while, my mind diverting itself with silent movies, with lantern slides. I woke at 1:00 and shuffled into the bathroom, trying to hold on to whatever I had just been dreaming about, so that I might remember it in the morning, but I ended up focusing instead on my effort to focus. Can the motion of the will ever take the place of genuine knowledge? I don’t mean that irritable reaching after fact and reason that Keats maligned, but the shoeless standing-in-the-presence-of, the empty-handed having-without-holding.
Before returning to my book this morning, though, I have to indulge my habit of sitting outside in the dark, where everything happens in the usual minor key: the water gurgling in the ditch, the wind blowing, the faint noise of the highway from over the ridge. A dusting of new snow makes the darkness visible. Usually around this time I get to hear and faintly see the porcupine making his way home to his burrow, but this morning he surprises me, emerging from under the porch and shuffling across the yard toward his favorite elm.
I had just been thinking about the silliness of so many contemporary writers, their sleight-of-hand substitution of pretend epiphanies for a postmodernist relativism. But we live in a culture of the climax, don’t we? The writers are no different from the sex addicts or the ravers, who are simply the most open about what almost everyone has been conditioned to desire: an endless and irreversible peak experience that we can suckle on like a child’s pacifier. What good is God or enlightenment if it can’t be known the way Adam knew Eve, if you can’t see it, touch it, dwell in it until ecstasy becomes your second nature and that prickly neurotic fellow who had usurped your good name is banished to the outer darkness? Until one day when a true ex-stasis occurs – and it is simply jarring or disorienting, not at all euphorogenic. Maybe you are beside yourself with grief, to the point where you treasure every dull glimmer of ordinary life the way someone shipwrecked on a desert island might make a collection of what, under other circumstances, he would regard as so much trash.
A porcupine leaves little pieces of itself here and there throughout the woods; if the quills didn’t come out easily, what good would they be? One afternoon last October, I was walking along one of our old woods roads with my head down, woolgathering as usual, when a small clump of porcupine needles caught my eye. I knelt down to examine them, as if I were a tracker or something. I heard a slight rustle behind me and turned. There right on the other side of the trail was the porcupine himself, or herself. S/he then turned her back to me and raised her quills, in the process showing me her pale butt. Then chattering her teeth she moved slowly off through the woods.
This obviously wasn’t an epiphany in any normal sense of the world. I didn’t come away with any profound new understanding of anything, though I was grateful for such a direct, even rude challenge to my normal self-centeredness. Like many wildlife encounters, it was humbling and a little unsettling – not exactly what most people mean by a peak experience.
So this morning the porcupine comes out right when I am expecting him to go in. On his way to the elm, he blunders into the little circle of fencing I put up last spring to protect a volunteer apple seedling. He circles the fence, then pauses over a shallow hole in the middle of the lawn where one can hear the stream flowing under four feet of rocky fill. What’s he doing, I wonder? It’s too dark to tell. He stays motionless there for more than a minute as if listening, as if trying to recall.
Just as I finish writing the above paragraphs, my mom walks in the door. “Hey, you want a good picture? There’s a young porcupine down in the hollow, in the big hemlock tree right before you get to the Waterthrush Bench.”
Half an hour later, it’s still there, chewing away. It doesn’t seem to be in any hurry.