Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
People have been encouraging me to write a book of my experiences, and so I’ve chosen to do so in bits and pieces. We’ve been discussing the vagaries of those astonishing emergent phenomena known as wild animals, so let me continue the theme.
When I was a kid on the cattle ranch my stepdaddy worked in the surrounding forest as what’s called a “timber feller”. The fellers actually fell the trees, they are the aristocracy of the logging crew, and by all accounts he was a good one. One of the things he was best at was finding baby animals whose parents had been killed and bringing them home for us kids to raise. At various times we had a baby horned owl named Dr. Seuss, a baby flying squirrel that could really fly, and of all things, a tiny baby skunk. Named The Skunk. We also had a dog named Puppy until it died of old age, and a cat named Kitty. The Skunk was always and ever just called “The Skunk”, in capital letters like that.
Dr. Seuss was the most amazing baby bird. She used to ride around on my mom’s shoulder. Her head could do that crazy owl trick of going almost all of the way around and then snapping back to the other side so fast it looked like her head was going in circles. Us kids loved to walk around her. She liked to take showers in the sink. We’d turn on the faucet, and she’d hop in under it, and preen her feathers, and make her funny owl sound.
We never kept them in pens or cages or anything, they just lived in the house. The squirrel liked to glide from the upper bunk bed to the floor, with us kids cheering her on.
We never mistook the owl and the squirrel for domestic animals, though. And when they got older, they seemed to recognize that. We made no attempt to send them back to the wild, but at some point when they got old enough they started spending more and more time outside, and then taking forays away from the house, and longer forays, but always returning at nightfall and sleeping in their old beds. Then first one and then the other were just gone, and we never saw either of them again.
The Skunk was different from the start. There’s no mistaking a skunk for a domestic animal. When they are tiny babies like The Skunk was, they hardly have any skunk smell at all. Their squirt guns don’t even develop until they are a few months old. But even then it’s clear that they are wild.
Now you can get skunks de-scented, but when we first asked about it The Skunk was too young … and then the days ran on, and ran on some more, The Skunk was still around, ranch life went on, dog, cat, kids, horses, chickens, pigs, a whole raft of cattle, and the odd skunk … and one evening we were all getting dressed up to go to town. Going into town from the ranch was a big deal, seven miles of bad dirt road, it was always a notable occasion. And this time it was the school fair, involving bobbing for apples and the like, a night for kids instead of grownups. There were about twenty kids in our grade school, and seven of them were me and my brothers and cousins. My oldest cousin, she would have been maybe eleven, I was about seven. We were all excited to go. And that night, my cousin walked out on the porch, where she managed to startle The Skunk. He turned, and did that funny dang half-handstand thing that they do, lifted his hind end in the air, and gave my cousin the full head-to-toe treatment.
I’d never realized until that day that smells could be contagious, but that skunk smell was more catching than Ebola, and at least forty percent as lethal. My cousin came running back in the house, she was a very unhappy young lady … and when we laughed at her and said “P.U.”, that strange acronym from my childhood that meant she smelled really really bad, she understandably lost the plot entirely and tackled us and punched us around … by the time mom and my aunt came in from the back, every one of us had caught the smell. We didn’t just smell of skunk, however. We reeked of skunk, we radiated skunk, we were the source and very fount of skunk. It was one of those smells that seem to make the air around you shimmer like a heat mirage. The Skunk was still on the porch, no telling what he thought of the result of his first foray into the perfume business. All seven of us were unceremoniously dumped into the bathtub, the shower was turned on, and we were instructed to start scrubbing. Nowadays people talk about using tomato juice to get rid of the smell, but where the heck were we going to get ten gallons of tomato juice? Fels Naptha soap was what we used, and it does a dang poor job with skunk, too.
We finally got scrubbed up, and we got in the car, and we went to the school fair. We were not exactly pariahs, but people did tend to maintain a respectful distance from the entire tribe of us … and for weeks afterwards I’d turn a corner in the house and there that smell would be again …
The Skunk lived with us for some months after that. We didn’t hold that evening against him, we just kept more distance and moved kinda slow around him. And as he came of age he too started to travel further and further from home.
But curiously, he didn’t disappear entirely one day the way that Dr. Seuss and the squirrel did. Instead, he came home less and less often. He started by staying out overnight. He’d come back to eat the dog food out of the bowl with Puppy, they were great friends, they’d chow down together, and then he’d disappear for another couple days. Then his absences grew longer and longer, and one day he stopped coming back to eat.
And that would have been the end of it … except that there was a green grassy hillside across from the ranch house. And late one afternoon, with the golden sunlight slanting far and low across the fields, we saw him sitting out on that hillside, just sitting and looking at the ranch house. We all went out to see if it really was him, and it was. He was dignified in his greeting, skunks are great on their dignity, but he kept a bit of distance, he didn’t want us to get close to him. But he didn’t run away, and after we left to return to the ranch house he sat and watched us walk back.
And that would have been the end of it too … but for the next couple years, a few times every year, always in the early evening, I would see The Skunk come to that favorite spot of his on the hillside, where he would sit, and look just across the little valley to the where the ranch house lights shone out through the windows. From there he could hear the shouts of us kids, and see the people come and go in the evening. He’d just sit there and watch us for a while, and then the next time I looked up, he’d be gone. I don’t recall ever seeing him arriving at that spot or leaving that spot, I’d just look up one evening and he’d be there, and I’d watch him sit there, I always loved to see him, and then after a while I’d look up and he’d be gone.
Even as a kid I always wondered what it was that brought The Skunk back to revisit the scenes of his childhood, and more than that, what he was feeling when he watched the evening lights come on, what he thought when mom would call us kids in from outside for dinner, a dinner that he used to share with us. I wondered, why didn’t he come and have dinner with us like he used to? He knew my mom’s dinner call of old, he used to show up just like the rest of us kids at mealtimes. He used to come and eat next to Puppy out of the dog dish.
What did he feel, I wondered, when he saw her once again framed in the front door with the light behind her, hearing the siren song of food and friendship from that warm ranch house in the gloaming, with the call of the only mother he’d ever known ringing out across the hillside … and ringing back from behind him the pulsing dance of the wilderness, the rise and dark loom of the forest, and the songs all of his ancestors echoing from the hills? What does a halfling skunk feel then, a child of two worlds, pulled from both sides by the endless and intricate bonds of blood and adventure and wilderness and kinship?
As a man who loves to solve puzzles, I rejoice in the fact that this astounding planet provides a cornucopia of mysteries that I will never solve, questions that I will never answer … and as a stranger from my birth, I can only have compassion for The Skunk, for I too have spent a lifetime pulled between the warm and the wild.
And I have no option, I have to have compassion for The Skunk and his choice, because over the years I’ve basically blown all of my opportunities to live a proper domesticated existence, and at this late date about all that’s left for me is to keep on making the choice The Skunk made … don’t forget the warm, but keep living the wild adventure, because when the bell tolls and the ride is over, you don’t want to be sitting around recounting how many warm dinners you had …
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …