Fern: A Story on an Attempt to Go Country
If you drive east on Route 2, somewhere between Plainfield and Marshfield, you’ll start to notice a change. The Bernie bumper stickers become fewer, the tie-dye gives way to camouflage, and most of the farms don’t have Instagram accounts. You’re hours from Middlebury and Waitsfield, nowhere near Burlington or Woodstock. You’re not far from Canada. The forest is thick, and everywhere. Your eyes adjust to the sun on the green hills first thing in the morning, then remember pristine glacial lakes lie between almost each of them, before you realize the White Mountains are rising just further along the horizon. Most houses have a barn attached. Trucks outnumber cars at the gas station, and snowmobile trails are groomed with better care than many roads. You’re in the Northeast Kingdom.
Jamie and I moved here in the summer of 2014, me from New York City, him from the Hudson River Valley. He jumped the city ship years ago, but still suffered a grueling commute every day. I had spent eleven years working in the South Bronx. We were both ready for a change, and I knew I’d never leave New York without a blind leap.
“We’re too old for Burlington,” Jamie said. “Southern Vermont is too Boston, too many ski bums in Stowe.” He showed me an old Facebook post from a trip to the White Mountains of a worn out recliner nestled in a glade of evergreen forest. “We should move here.”
I bought a Subaru, spent a fortune on legitimate winter clothing, found a job, and sobbed on moving day through almost all of Connecticut. At work, I pissed off a some people right away by simply being a flatlander, and a few more by utilizing a level of assertiveness apparently only normal in the Bronx. I also learned how to sit, unmoving, in an adirondack chair for an hour. I tried cross country skiing. An employee asked to leave early to “help out in the sugaring woods” and I had no idea what he meant. I had a lot to learn, including assuming that anyone I was talking about could be related to the person I was talking to.
The first person to visit us in Vermont, and the one that visits most often, is my sister, Emily. I abandoned her to our shared Harlem apartment, and took the cat and the best plates with me, so the least I can do is provide a country getaway as often as possible. Like me, she loves the city, but also takes great joy in rolling up her jeans wandering barefoot through a muddy stream, gathering rocks and other treasures.
This spring, I bought her a bus ticket after a few rough work weeks, and we went for our usual Sunday walk. Our dog, Bandit, a frenetic border collie, sniffed out the body of a dead porcupine in the woods, its eye socket broken by whatever had felled it. We pulled out a few quills, tried not to think about the animal who had been no match for those hundreds of small daggers, and went on our way.
Halfway home, Emily announced, “I think I’d like to go back and get that skull.”
Three hours later, she was still thinking about it, so we assembled some implements. I found an old pair of dull pruning shears, a pocket knife and some pliers, some rubber gloves, we re-suited up in winter coats and hats (in late April) and off we went, dog in tow.
We quickly found the porcupine, and quickly regretted bringing Bandit, whose interest was peaked by ours. Emily considered a plan while I distracted him from the razor sharp quills pointed right at his nose.
“So why don’t you put your foot on its body while I use the shears to get its head off?”
I wondered aloud if we were in over our heads. It was still cold out, and newly dead, no visible bugs or smell, but decapitation?
“I think we should name her before we open her up. Fern,” I said.
“Okay, Fern, we love and appreciate you and will appreciate you even more when your skull is on my bookshelf in New York.”
Our first roadblock was that those shears were too dull to cut through Fern’s quills and skin. As Emily tried a few gross methods I moved away to check on Bandit, who was foraging in holes and up trees for chipmunks and squirrels, when a loud crack came from behind.
“Aaauuuhhhgggg, augh,” my sister wailed as she stood with her hands frozen on the shears, her boot on Fern’s neck, and Fern’s head dangling, skin still connected but spine clearly not, from the end of the blade.
“I can’t believe you just did that!”
“Me neither. Can’t stop now. Help me hold the skin taut so I can slice through it with the knife.”
I felt a little woozy, and Bandit had run into the woods and was barking mercilessly at some poor cornered animal, but Emily was a woman on a mission. I held the skin while she finished the job, held the plastic bag open while she put Fern’s head inside. “That would have been easier with some kitchen scissors,” she muttered.
Bandit reappeared, with no obvious signs of prey, and we covered up the rest of the carcass with branches, leaves and pine needles. We walked back up the hill and dropped ourselves, and the head, on the porch, exhausted.
Emily sent me inside to get a knife. I asked Jamie if he wanted to come see, though the look on his face was a resolute “absolutely not.” We put on some rubber gloves, and took turns holding the skin while the other peeled and sliced it away from the skull.
“I don’t think I can get the knife in far enough to pull the brain out,” Emily said, ignoring my whining, as focused as a professional taxidermist. I left her to keep trying and moved a few feet away, taking in deep breaths of air, and googled “how to clean an animal skull.” Soon I was the house expert on boiling versus bleaching, buried versus plein air.
We decided to boil. Jamie pretended to be engrossed in a magazine as we paraded into the kitchen with a skinless, slimy Fern head. I kept Emily company while the pot boiled and we cleaned and bleached all of the tools. When a grey, bubbly scum started to drift to the top of the pot, I bowed out. After the boiling, my sister continued to scrape and scrub for another half hour, until announcing the rest would have to be left to the elements in the backyard for a few weeks. Jamie whimpered.
The next morning at work the office staff were excited to hear about our weekend.
“My sister and I cut the head off a porcupine and scalped it, then cleaned it so she could take it back to New York.”
Jaws dropped. My confidence faltered.
"It was already dead. It hadn’t been dead too long. It didn’t smell. It was pretty small. She did most of the work. It was cool. I mean, gross but interesting. There were so many quills! We named it Fern. When in Vermont, right?
A very pregnant pause.
“Here I thought your sister was this cosmopolitan city girl. I guess not!”
“Should I make sure my cat’s ok?”
“I didn’t know you had it in you!”
“You named it?! That’s even worse!”
“I can’t get that picture out of my head now. Who are you?”
Another co-worker, an avid hunter, walked in. “Elizabeth and her sister cut the head off a porcupine this weekend!”
An amused smile. But I knew my audience. “We had a really hard time getting the brain out.”
“That’s the easy part. I could have shown you how to do it right. My granddaughter knows how to do that.”
I thanked him for saving me. Isn’t this what Vermonters did? Didn’t they all have mounted heads in their living rooms? Shouldn’t I be congratulated as having taken a valuable step in the shedding of my city girl ways?
No, Vermonters hunt the animal themselves, mostly during the assigned season, with the right tools and training. We were classic overeager amateurs, and they were entertained for at least the rest of the week.
My sister came back a month later and took home her cleaner Fern. I proudly showed everyone pictures. If I become a real hunter (I won’t), they might accept my trophies without awe and laughter. Until then, they will pretend to be impressed when I remember to put my snow tires on in time, or harvest a few stalks of swiss chard from my tiny garden, or make it to work on time on a -20 degree snowy day, appropriately dressed.