Scents & Sensibility
by Walker Thomas
Originally ran in NATURAL HISTORY June 2008
I lived in southern Arizona wilderness twenty years ago. You might find me under a Mexican blue oak where I’d follow the progress of a herd of javelinas by the waving tips of shin dagger agave stalks. One would pause to bend down the limber, seven-foot stalk that had shot up from the leg-stabbing clusters. The stalk would spring back, denuded of its yellow flame of flowers. They’d also gnaw away spines to eat the hearts of the agave.
I'd read that Napoleon used pigs to test his food for poison. If a pig could eat it, the meal was deemed safe for Bonaparte. I already supplemented my diet with cactus fruit, acorns, manzanita berries and other forage of local critters. I could add shin dagger.
I ventured in. The spines stabbed above my ankles, leaving spots of blood at puncture sites that later festered to eject pencil-point splinters. The sweet-smelling flowers had an unpleasant, bitter taste with an alkaline bite. I bloodied my hands working to the heart of a plant, cut out the juicy, white pulp, chewed, and gasped. The fluid released was so caustic it burned mouth and throat. It did clear my sinuses, and left a cooling sense of menthol.
Javelinas, also known as collared peccaries, are not pigs. Native to the Americas, they belong to another family of cloven-hoofed ungulates between the pigs and the hippos. True pigs came from Asia, Europe, and Africa. If I had known the difference at the time, and that javelinas have more complex stomachs than true pigs, I wouldn't have been so eager to try the javelinas' fare.
With vision in the range of the legally impaired, javelinas depend on their exceptional sense of smell. When downwind of them in nighttime dark I'd blunder into their midst. When they picked up my scent, their sharp, muffled grunts popped and crackled like distant cannon fire. In the gray light, I’d see their coarse fur bristle and feel my own hackles rise. They’d break, wheezing, hooves clattering, in all directions. One might bump against my legs in its blind rush to escape.
At first, javelinas all smelled vaguely like skunk to me. Herd members rub their throats against glands on one another's rumps so each member of a given herd wears a community scent.
I smelled coffee one morning near the pool where I bathed.
I looked for a shrub called Wright's silk tassel or bearberry, which emits a coffeelike scent when brushed against, but I found none. I looked for a campfire. None in sight.
I smelled coffee several more times in that area. The smell marked the boundary of a coffee-scented herd. Their familiar, coffee scent made me more aware of nuances in the scents of other herds. I was soon able to distinguish the next herd up by their skunk-like scent, while the next-higher herd’s was sweeter.
One evening I came across a dead javelina on the road from town. I stopped my bike and grabbed a fistful of coarse gray hair to pull the still-warm body aside. It was heavier than I expected. I lifted it by its hindquarters, the head dragging behind. Long, tusk-like canine teeth overlapped outside jaws too big for a head that was too big for a body that was too big for its legs. Facing one, I’d swear it was one-third head. Its short legs were tipped with chisel-points of hoof. I imagined being bowled over by that bulk and trampled under its sharp hooves. My shirt was pressed against its rump gland as I dragged it to the side.
Ninety minutes later, in a flat stretch of prickly pear above the pool, I found myself surrounded by the coffee herd. As my miner's light moved from one pair of red-glowing eyes to the next, they stood their ground, snouts raised, nostrils flared and twitching, the fur on their backs rippling. They'd caught the scent of the foreign javelina. They rushed at me —hot flanks against my bare legs— making me sway as they came from all sides, veered past, and turned to charge again. I expected to be knocked down, trampled and ripped to pieces.
No deathblow came. They jostled me until I’d retreated to the ridge that marked the edge of their territory. I stood on shaky legs as their hoofbeats faded into the lower distance. But I became more at ease among javelinas, knowing the quality of their attack.