Skunk Love

One of the things about traveling or being in a city is that human-centered thoughts and interactions tend to dominate. At home, one of my greatest joys is to think about the animals and insects I’ve seen that day, and revisit the sense of connection I feel with the natural world because of their presence. Even skunks are loveable. (Black widows, not so much. There was a biggie behind the couch, with lots of sow bug and earwig carcasses. Another one in the garage, with a shriveled potato bug feast.) No matter. I’ve been away for a week, in a large city, so it is extra-sweet to be home.

There’s the lovely Ms. Phoebe the Fox, of course. (No sign of Fantastic Mr. Fox.) A couple of geese flying north, then south again, honking loudly. A hummingbird pulling strands of spider web for her nest from the back of an outdoor chair. A whale, close, then far. A small kind of beetle I had never seen before in the driveway. One yellow jacket. One bee. One butterfly.

When it comes to the pollinators, I wonder, Where is everybody? It seems odd for them to be so scant, and I have been worried, especially about the bees, especially since their faves are in full bloom - borage, clover, and thyme. The bumbles are usually plentiful most of the time, and last year the honey bees came, too, though late in the summer. I had hoped that word would have spread, and they’d be here by now this year. I’ve planted additional wildflowers in my inner meadow, and it’s buzzing (the one inside the fence, not the one in my head, though sometimes that one buzzes, too.)

As I think about the bees, I remember that honey bees were among the many hitch-hikers that came with the Europeans at first contact. Before that, there were no honey bees in the Americas. Bees were native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East but were not yet found elsewhere. Thomas Jefferson wrote that Native Americans considered bees “English flies” and considered them "an omen of the white man's approach: thus, as they discover the bees, the news of the event, passing from mouth to mouth, spreads sadness and consternation on all sides." (Germs, Seeds and Animals: Studies in Ecological History, Alfred W. Crosby, M. E. Sharpe, 1994 and Routledge, 2015)

This morning, as I was standing with a friend discussing a project, something unexpected happened: As we watched, a skunk lumbered in, looking decidedly unwell. It came quite close to us, unperturbed by our proximity and just lay down flat against the ground about ten feet away. After a few minutes, s/he got up, walked through the open gate and nestled into the weeds by the rock rose, covering its face with its tail. It seemed to be barely breathing. We were worried. What to do, if anything - leave it be? They are nocturnal, after all (well, technically, crepuscular, ie active primarily at twilight). Maybe s/he was just ready for a snooze. I’ve seen a skunk, perhaps this one, many times in the field along the driveway, and s/he has always seemed rather calm, but then, with skunks you never know they’re upset until it’s too late. Turns out they prefer to spray sparingly: they have only enough for five or six uses, and then it takes ten vulnerable days to replenish. (The word, skunk, comes from a Native American word, squunk, which is derived from seganku, an Algonquian word meaning ‘to urinate’.) And though they are carnivores (insects, rodents, birds) they are also scavengers, thanks to human garbage habits. They also like to eat bees. When they find a hive, they scratch at it and when the guard bees come out to investigate, crunch!

Anyway, we were worried about the skunk today because s/he really looked awful. Was it injured, poisoned or ill, and should we call animal rescue? Was it dying, in which case should we leave it in peace? Then came the anthropomorphic questions: Had it come to the garden by the house because it felt safe? Because it had found fox food remnants? Because it sensed it could trust us… to do what? To help it? To leave it alone? Or was it here because this is where it hangs out, and I had just never seen it so near? In the end, we decided that if it was ill or dying, then calling animal rescue would just be a torment, for both the skunk and the humans. We put out a bowl of water and some apple slices. Slowly. Quietly. It didn’t budge. We were pretty sure it was a goner, and felt sad. But a few hours later, it got up, ate the apple slices, and retreated deeper into the thicket. As I write this, it is twilight. The crepuscular skunk is doing her crepuscular thing.