Eaten by wolves, found dead on a trail, run over by a truck: these are the ways porcupines gift me their quills.
Traditional harvesting of quills entails tossing a blanket onto the back of the porcupine, and when the porcupine crawls out from under the blanket, the quills are stuck to the fabric.
I explain these harvesting details to my grandsons, Timothy and Jackson. They’ve come over to the fishcamp to help me harvest porcupine quills.
North American porcupines, Erethizon dorsatum are plentiful on Wrangell island. I’ve never hunted or eaten a porcupine but people tell me they’re delicious. I use quills in my art and my great-niece Maleah makes jewelry to pay for any extra expenses at Dartmouth college.
Porcupines are found throughout most of the forested areas of Alaska, although they’re not found on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska and neighboring islands to the west.
I hand Timothy and Jackson safety glasses and gloves for the process. I spread the dead porcupine out on a table topped with paper bags.
“Oh, I forgot, we have to thank the porcupine,” I say. “Gunalchéesh, porcupine.” They repeat after me. I did thank the porcupine when I’d first discovered it in the forest. I recall kneeling in the wet soil near the roots of a tree and thanking the beautiful creature before I put its carcass in a bag.
Porcupines can live up to 30 years old, unless …
“How did it die?” Jackson asks.
“Grandpa Mickey says probably a wolf,” I say. I turn the porcupine over. The underbelly is nearly gone as if a wolf or other carnivore had turned it over to eat it. “These underside hairs aren’t prickly but they help the porcupine climb trees too.” We examine the porcupine’s big long hairs and thick muscular tail. Porcupines use their tails for climbing and for defense.
“Speaking of trees, have you heard the story about porcupine and beaver?” I tell them the story from their Tlingit culture about the origins of the striations on the bark of the hemlock tree, which has everything to do with a porcupine and a beaver, a story filled with traditional ecological knowledge.
As I’m telling the story, I show my grandsons how to pull off the quills. Timothy pulls gently with the pliers and the quills come off. Jackson tries it and does the same. We pile them on a paper plate.
“Xalak’ách’ is the Tlingit word for porcupine,” I say. Sounds like (but not quite) xuth-uck-uch. Jackson tries the word. Timothy doesn’t say anything. I encourage him again and he tries it. It sounds pretty good.
We continue pulling quills with our gloved hands, using small pliers or patting with a small towel. There are several tried and true quill harvesting methods. Some people use pool noodles or towels, to gently press against the quills. On harvesting quills, Dr. Dolly Garza said, “My sister and I would drive around the back loop in Juneau with and old foamy pillow and whack dead porcupines to get the quills from them.” Others tack up the hide and use a knife pressed to the skin, while pulling gently.
Porcupine breeding occurs in November or December. To attract a female porcupine a male porcupine splashes the female with urine. If she’s not ready to mate, she’ll shake off the urine and leave.
Artists categorize the quills into four categories: large/thick, long/thin, fine, and extra thin. The large, thick tail quills are for covering large areas in quill embroidery, on pipes and handle work, and for fringes. For loomed quillwork, artists use the long, thin quills found on the porcupine’s back. Fine neck quills are ideal for embroidery, and the really thin quills near the belly are ideal for line quilling. In Tlingit traditional knowledge, specific quills are perfect for earrings. A k’ishataaganí means quills located on the rear end of the porcupine. And a xaawú is the word for porcupine’s hair or quills.
We don’t save the long hairs because this porcupine has been dead for a while and is rather stinky. But people do harvest the long porcupine hairs for making headdresses, masks and jewelry, plus other artful things. I use porcupine quills for my mixed media sculptures. Quills have adorned seapottery flowers, a giant moon’s eye, and a porcupine woman. Porcupine Woman is a mixed media sculpture made from floral seapottery found on our old garbage dump beach. The model for Porcupine Woman is Maleah, and the sculpture is covered in about 100 quills and includes an earring made by Maleah.
Porcupines only have one baby called a porcupette. Gestation period is around 210 days or seven months.
Quills are usually cleaned but not always. I rinse mine off and I don’t dye them. Quill artists use hot soapy water to soak and clean them until they are bright white. Removing the oils makes them easier to dye and bleaching can damage the quills, making them brittle.
“Guess how many quills are on an average porcupine?” I ask. “This is a small porcupine, but guess?”
Timothy guesses 50,000 and Jackson guesses 5,000.
“Thirty thousand!” I say. “That’s a lot.”
To protect the mother porcupine, a porcupette is born in a thin placental sac, which is torn as soon as it’s born.
Timothy looks a bit worried. “Don’t worry, we won’t be harvesting all of them,” I say, “just as much as we can.”
We pat and pull the quills. I take off my gloves and pull a large fat quill with my bare fingers. I hold it up. “Tap it gently,” I say as they each pull off a glove. I hold the barb up and they each touch it with their fingertips.
“Each quill has about 800 barbs near the tip.”
We talk story and pull quills for another hour, until their attention spans wane. We fill several containers with quills and we sort through the quills picking out the hairs.
“Well,” I finally say, “I think we got most of the quills.”
Baby porcupines are born with their eyes open, covered with long hair and soft quills. About an hour after birth, the soft quills dry and harden, which the baby can use for protection.
I lean over the porcupine. “Someday your quills are going to be dangling on someone’s ears or decorating art on a wall.” I fling my hair to the side to show my grandsons the porcupine earrings of Maleah’s that I’m wearing.
My finger flicks the quills, and my gift of porcupine earrings dances above my shoulders in the afternoon light.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes the column “Planet Alaska” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.