Porcupine tale is homeage to mountain life

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By Dan R. Barber
The Dallas Morning News
Porcupines aren't the only creatures that populate Michael J. Tougias' homage to the outdoor life and the lessons-to-be-learned that a cabin in the mountains can provide.
"There's a Porcupine in My Outhouse: Misadventures of a Mountain Man Wannabe," is Tougias' woodsy, charming tale of how he grew older and wiser in an A-frame in the Vermont woods, with the prickly assistance of two denning porcupines and wandering black bears.
"Porcupine" begins in 1978, when the adventure-story-loving Tougias was 22 and decided to spend $8,500 on his cabin and six acres.
"I would be Jim Bridger, Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark all rolled into one," he writes in the little book's preface. "I fancied myself as lord and master of my six acres." He would chop down a tree as his first conquering act.
In hindsight, Tougias, a syndicated outdoor columnist and nature writer in New England, says he had it backward: Nature was the master, he the student.
For that eye-opener, thanks go to the pair of porcupines that dug a home beneath the anxious-in-the-woods-at-night Tougias' outhouse, rustling and thumping in the darkness beneath his bare bottom when nature called. Tougias isn't the only weekend occupant of his mountain cabin. Boyhood friends Cogs and Boomer -- Dale, another friend, visited one weekend and that was that -- join him. Together, they make peace with the barbed rodents and the wilderness. The bears, too. "I was to learn a lot about porcupines -- and life -- over the next few years," he writes.
What would a story about acquiring wisdom in the woods be without references to Henry David Thoreau and his outdoor paradigm, "On Walden Pond"? Tougias leans on Thoreau often, a bit too obviously.
Still, "Porcupines" is a pleasant and entertaining, though unremarkable, account, even with the too-easy metaphors of Mother Nature as teacher.
The tale ends in the summer of 2001, when Tougias notes that he still has his cabin, where he enjoys sitting on the deck and watching the sun set. With two new guests, his children Kristin and Brian, he can recognize a barred owl's call, a wood thrush's "melancholy song" and a bullfrog's lament. He knows bear scat when he sees it, without becoming anxious at the thought, and also doesn't seem to mind porcupines squatting in his outhouse.
"I'm comfortable in the woods now, those early fears having long since melted away," he writes. "I often feel like the luckiest man alive."
(c) 2003, The Dallas Morning News.
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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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