Monday, February 19, 2024

Prickly issues

The poet Donald Hall was born and raised in suburban Connecticut, but he spent many of his summers at his maternal grandparents' farm in New Hampshire in the 1930s and '40s, an experience he recollected in a memoir entitled String Too Short to Be Saved. Though he was capturing a disappearing way of life, and remembering it fondly, he largely avoided the lure of nostalgia. There are golden afternoons spent haying and tending chickens in the book, but there is also alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide among the neighbors. He would later own up to embellishing a bit; in a reprint he confessed that the abandoned railroad on Ragged Mountain that he described didn't actually exist. It was another passage in the book, though, that initially perplexed me. Hall describes a day on the farm in the company of his grandfather:
We walked slowly uphill to the barn, which looked like a rocky ledge of Ragged in the gray light. When we were nearly to the milk shed, he suddenly pointed upward at the branches of the great maple next to the old outhouse. "Look!" he said. "There's a hedgehog!" I followed the angle of his finger and saw what resembled a bird's nest at a fork in the branches, indistinct in the late light. "Let's see how you are with a shotgun these days," he said.
The animal is dispatched, not by Hall, who misses four times, but by his grandfather. In a later chapter, when the grandfather is dead, Hall returns to the farm, spots three more "hedgehogs" in the trees, and brings them down.

As any naturalist can tell you, there are no wild hedgehogs in New England or anywhere in the Americas, nor do they readily climb trees (pace Maurice Sendak), nor are they considered agricultural pests (though they were once popularly thought to suckle milk from cows). There are, of course, porcupines, but no one who had grown up in New England (and was later educated in part in the UK, where there are hedgehogs), would be likely to confuse the two. So what gives?

As it turns out, Hall was simply following vernacular tradition. Although "porcupine" (unlike "opossum" and "skunk") is a European word dating to the Middle Ages, few English colonists to New England would have ever seen an Old World porcupine, as the closest ones live in Italy, and faced with a spiny creature they simply borrowed the familiar name "hedgehog." The usage was common enough to have been written into law; as late as the early twentieth century the state of New Hampshire was paying bounties for killing "hedgehogs." The bounty was repealed in 1979, by which time the word had been corrected to "porcupines."

Another word for hedgehog is "urchin," from Latin ericius (see Spanish erizo, French hérisson). Today that word refers to a street waif, but its original meaning is preserved in the name for the spiny echinoderms known as "sea urchins."

Image: "Hans My Hedgehog," from The Juniper Tree.

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