Chapter 27: Sparring Skunks

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–I heard the sun and waked up!–
(Caleb-3)

The Stansbury mountain range is a succession of high peaks, some above 10,000 feet, each a lighter hue of gray proportionate to its distance.  In the moments before sunrise, the clouds and sky form a sea of swirling scarlet, orange, red, and pink.  The western face of the Oquirrh range once boasted thick pine forests.  But over-harvesting, together with decades of settling particulate pollution from the now-defunct Anaconda smelter, denuded the mountain slopes of their forests.  They now show mostly fault-fractured bedrock.  With the smelter gone, the trees are slowly returning, starting from deep within the canyons and creeping back onto the slopes.

A mat of thick clouds hangs low and gray, with soft, curving undulations, resembling piles of crumpled flannel sheets on an endless up-side-down bed.  I imagined myself lying upon it comfortably, floating, swaying in the pre-dawn breeze.

Near midnight the night before, munching on cold cereal, I heard a strange sound from the living room: a spooky, vocalized hissing.  My heart pounding with sudden adrenaline, I poked my head around a corner wall.  The porch light dimly illuminated the room.  Through a living room window, I detected movement on the porch, in the vicinity of the cat food bowl.  Tip-toeing closer, I saw a furry black tail raised stiffly in the air, with white stripes.  A skunk, raiding the cat food.  The tail twitched, and the whining intensified as another bushy tail appeared.  Since the window was closed, I felt safe to step closer.  One skunk munched eagerly at the cat food, monopolizing the bowl.  Another hungry skunk tried to push its nose into the bowl.  The first skunk hissed and whined, and the second skunk hissed and whined and nipped, but backed down for a moment before trying again.  Their bushy black tails, pointing straight up, were as large as their bodies.  The second skunk made another attempt at the bowl, and the hissing and nipping began again.  The sparring never became violent or vicious, but did serve to establish dominance over the bowl.  Having apparently eaten its fill, the dominant skunk waddled off, tail erect, allowing the second skunk to move in.

I occasionally catch the whiff of skunk on Rabbit Lane.  The smell is sickeningly pungent no matter how old or faded.  The slightest whiff fills me with instant tension, and I am on my guard for any movement of black-and-white fur.  Close to the site of a recent spray, the smell is more than an unpleasant aroma, but a tangible breathing in of revolting vapors.

Several weeks after finding the dead Red-tailed Hawk on Rabbit Lane, I observed a dead skunk lying on the dirt in the middle of the road.  Sure this time that it was a skunk, I stopped and watched for signs of movement.  Seeing none, I threw a rock at the carcass just to be sure.  I crept closer, holding my nose against the unique and awful stench.  Despite the stomach-turning smell, I noticed the animal’s beautiful fur: jet black with shapely white stripes joining at the head.

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For a moment I wondered if Rabbit Lane was a road of death, but quickly pushed that thought out of my brain.  Though the occasional death crossed the lane, even those creatures were regal in their own way.  Rabbit Lane was a road full of life.  I had heard and seen its abundance: owls, snipes, muskrats, hawks, ducks, geese, herons, sparrows, foxes, raccoons, insects, and even the domesticated cows, horses, sheep, llamas, and chickens of adjacent farms.  Add to this the purple and yellow blossoms of the Bitter Nightshade, the pink crystalline flowers of the Milkweed, the dripping sweet aroma of the Russian Olive, the Evening Primrose’s yellow four-petaled blooms, and the Virginia Creeper vine, scarlet in Fall.

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Barbed-wire fences line the pastures and fields bordering Rabbit Lane.  Four or five strands of often loose, rusting barbed wire span from post to post.  The posts are the trunks of Juniper trees, often referred to as cedars.  Orange spray paint on the post tops warns: no hunting. Juniper is the preferred wood because it is resistant to rot.  The old-timers must have cut whole forests of Junipers to use for fence posts.  My father-in-law, Darwin, tells of the days in the 1950s when his father would drive him in the old pickup truck out to the western Utah deserts to cut Junipers.  It was sweaty, scratchy work to fell the trees and cut off their evergreen limbs.  He earned a dime for each juniper post: in his words, “good American money (when it had value).”

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Severe winter winds from the south roust up the tumbleweeds and send them rolling and bouncing northward.  Tumbleweed, that nostalgic icon of the romantic western film (“rollin’ rollin’ rollin’”), is what we call the skeleton of a short bush whose stiff branches grow in a spherical shape.  Strong winds snap the dead bushes off at the stem and send them rolling as far as the open land will allow.  Arrested by miles of east-west fences, the tumbleweeds stack deep and high against strands of barbed wire strung between old cedar posts that long ago shed their scraggly bark.  Occasionally, a particularly spirited tumbleweed will bounce against the pile and vault itself over the tumbleweed wall to continue its journey.  In Spring, Cloyd squirts the tumbleweeds against his Church Road fence with lighter fluid and burns them away with a hot, quick flame that blackens but does not burn the cedar.

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Cattle often stare at me over or through the barbed wire fences with huge glossy black eyes and twitching ears, some stopped in mid-chew with grass protruding from between their thick lips, some looking at me over their backs, some boring into me head on.  I take one step toward them and the calves trundle away in the distress of uncertainty.  A cow turns to face me squarely, and I am glad for the wire.

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Every afternoon, Ron’s slow approach on his grumbling tractor sets the cows to singing.  With the bucket raised high, holding bails of hay, the cows, usually quiet, become a cacophonic chorus, trotting and mooing in harmony toward the tractor.  A few cows sing above the rest in a descant that blends surprisingly well for a chorus of cows with only a tractor for a director.

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Outbuildings and sheds dot the homesteads and farms.  The older ones are made of railroad ties set between upright posts.  Some are sided with rough wood planking.  Wood shakes cover the roofs.  Newer sheds are clad and topped with corrugated aluminum or steel.

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 27: Sparring Skunks

  1. Paul

    Skunks. My mind immediately went back to your earlier story of the neighbor who raised skunks, and of his sharing them with your children. Anyone who loves land and open space most likely will have stories of skunks. I have several. Each unique. Each full of fascination. Each hoping that they do not become startled and spray. Each with a tinge of humor in watching the reactions of others. My favorite however was when I was very young. We lived in Logan, Utah. One night an older brother rushed home to tell mom and dad he had found a family of skunks, and he wanted one as a pet. The mother had been hit by a car and killed. The babies scattered into the adjacent field. In fact, he believed it was his duty to try and save the newly orphaned. Heck, I wantd one as well. Off we went in the family car out west of the airport. Mom went along, but insisted that I stay in the car with her. It was dark, and you could see the flashlights dancing in the fields as my dad and older brothers sought the young skunks. Headlights appeared on the road behind us. I recall the county sheriff pulling up along side the car and asking my mom if all was alright. She replied “yes” and that her husband and children were trying to catch a skunk, and she pointed to the lights now deep in the field. I recall the officer slowly shaking his head, and without a word pulling away.

    Skunks have always fascinated and amazed me. Surely they can smell the pungent aroma themselves. Do they ever say “sorry”? Just wondering.

    Thanks again for stirring memories and painting so well with your words the images in my mind.

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    1. Roger Baker-Utah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your equally wonderful (if not more so) stories from time to time. Harvey gave us two pet skunks once, one called Petunia. I’m sure the irony in the name was intentional!

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  2. Melissa Shaw-Smith

    Pungent though it may be, that first whiff of skunk when snow still beds all but the south-facing slopes, is a reason to celebrate here in the Northeast. A lovely piece of writing, by the way.

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  3. Harv Russell

    I was just scanning thru your stories and poems when I ran onto this one dated on the 19th of march about skunks that your friend Paul had written . He was kind of wondering if they ever said “sorry” for their blasting off. All the years that I kept skunks (of many colors) I learned quite a bit about them. Not only can they have the personality of a sweet cat and love to be loved but it became quite evident that they don’t like that worse than pungent aroma any better than anything else that gets on the receiving end. They will go to great lengths to hold off as long as possible. First they usually go into that dance you were talking about in your experience with them, just before they come stomping with their back feet and pawing dirt with their front feet . And if that doesn’t run you off then they turn around and get you in their sights and you had better think real serious about sticking around much longer…..or else !!!

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