Between The Warm And The Wild

Willis Eschenbach

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. Simpson, 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. Simpson 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 2

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.

The Skunk

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. Simpson 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 at all.

And that would have been the end of it … except that there was a green grassy hillside across from the ranch house on the far side of the barn, with Latour Butte in the background behind the tall firs growing on the slope of that hill.


And late one afternoon, with the golden sunlight slanting far and low across the fields, we saw The Skunk sitting out on that hillside, just sitting at the top of the field 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. We weren’t to enthusiastic in that regard either. But he didn’t run away. We sat with him a while, and after we left to return to the ranch house he stayed and watched us walk back. We waved goodbye to him.

And that would have been the end of it too, just like with Dr. Simpson the owl, and the flying squirrel … 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 would come in from wherever he was playing and he would eat next to Puppy out of the dog dish.

What did he feel, I wondered, when he saw mom 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 our mother, the only loving mother he’d ever really 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. 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 …



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Great tale


I was driving down Piceance Creek road one afternoon and came upon a mama skunk and her baby meandering down the centerline. The mama ran off when she heard me coming, the baby continued to walk down the centerline of the road. Awkwardly though, due to its young age. I drove up next the young skunk to wonder at its sight. Little b@$tard sprayed the tire on my vehicle. Nuf said.


Ah, skunks. Long ago I lived in a old farm house where skunks could get in under the floor, and now and then a couple would get into a fight, make a racket, and strong odors would waft up through the floor boards. Really strong odors, they would make your throat sore. One morning it was so bad that my girlfriend, brother, and myself all headed off to the university about 4:00 AM. I remember walking around a corner in a hall later that morning, wearing my coat of many smells, and almost at once someone way down at the other end turned around to see where the smell was coming from. I didn’t even realize that it was that strong, my nose had adapted.
Eventually we got a live trap, trapped a whole bunch of skunks, drowned them, and plugged up the holes they used to get under the house. I felt a bit bad about the drowning, but it did solve the problem.


Please write that book. What a treat!

David L. Hagen

Well traveled.
Robert Frost The Road Not Taken

. . .Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Skunks are pretty amazing. I like how you described The Skunk as dignified. Skunks really do have great dignity.

William H

You did it again, Willis. Just great story-telling, with a flair that makes one not want to put it down. I hope I am still in possession of my faculties when you finally publish your book.

spangled drongo

Thanks Willis for that insight into the way wild animals think. Some are a lot like humans. They are naturally gregarious and enjoy the company of other species. I often find myself talking to wild birds and animals with sometimes great results.

Craig Moore

Willis, I envision a collection of stories similar to Under the Chinook Arch. I bring it to your attention because it might help you to remember your cowboy beginnings. I knew Dr. Gustafson. In fact some of his family was featured praying around the dinner table in the Dodge Ram Superbowl commercial.

I love this tale. Beautiful – and your sentiments are true. I have lived “feral” out bush with no house, no running water and no electricity on tap – no sewage system, either – for nearly five years. Coming out of a city and living like that in nature, with all the wilderness and dangers around, taught me confidence and independence on a level I had never experienced before. I wouldn’t swap those years for anything. Funnily enough, I could never go back to city living, I couldn’t stand it. That’s also when I stopped watching television and stopped listening to the radio – I can’t return to those, either. I touched nature and found something within that will remain mine and special forever. And I know you know what I’m talking about. I reckon you’ve been there, too. Thanks, Willis. 🙂


With your permission, I would like to tell that to my 4 year old grandson as a bedtime story. I will shorten the end a little bit, if you don’t mind. I think you have the makings of a childrens book in you Willis, don’t waste your sense of wonder on us fuddy duddy adults!


Enjoyed your sharing that part of your life—————-I have had some experience with skunks
having lived in the “boondocks “of southern York Cty for 44 years (left in 2004).
Sometime in about 1998 we had an experience with skunkmotherhood———-where I become aware (from my dogfriend) that we had a new “squater” on our remote 30 acres. Since I too had
become aware of “skunkmace” in past——— I made an effort to “save our space”.
Tying my dog friend———I bribed my wife to stand in back of pick-up truck with a powerful
spotlight and light up the meadow where our skunk spent early evening hours grazing. She still
refers to that night as “the killing field” There turned out to be 4 young ones ———who went down —–one by one ——to my lethal .22 magum. When finished we both went back to house and repented——but knew it had to be done.
In the early daylight——I went to the meadow to bury the remains———–Surprise—-
Mother skunk had returned and carried off all evidence of the massacre!

Willis Eschenbach

S.Meyer says:
February 9, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Please write that book. What a treat!

That’s what I’m doing … just piecemeal.


Bits and pieces is fine. I’m sure someone will eventually gather them all together for “The best of Willis Eschenbach”.


I wish to add to that. This IS a childrens book. An illustrator can add the animals, and the especially funny skunk scene applying the skunky ‘perfume’. Kids in baths, friends at school going P U.. Skunk on hill looking down on the house with lights, maybe with its own little ones, explainiing how that place was a very amazing ‘home’.. with dog, cat, owl, and tall things with two legs.
I would buy it in an instant!
ps: copyright it.

This is a lovely lovely account of life and living. You writing always has a warmth, but this one especially so. I especially liked the way you rounded your narrative back to what it is to be human
I am especially interested in this thing between what it is to be human, and how it relates to how it is to be an animal. This difference is at the centre of the mystery of Art, and why we make art. One of the few lines between humans and animals is that humans make figurative art, but no animals try to make images of themselves, but chimps do abstract art. Then we humans do science and religion.
Please write your book. Make it an e-book, or put a collection of your writing on a special website blog.

Oh wow. That was a beautiful story.

Craig Moore

Just thinking about your skunk gives me the Will E’s.
When I was a teenager, my brother and a couple of friends of ours and me went duck hunting. We came upon a pond loaded with Mallards. I was dropped at one end and they went to the opposite side. I crawled through the weeds and reeds to get as close as possible before they flushed. At one point I parted the greenery to be confronted by the business end of a skunk about 3 feet away. His tail was up. I rolled to my right just as he/she released a juicy kiss. It missed but the commotion scared the ducks. I didn’t care in the slightest as I was thankful that I didn’t take the perfume in my eyes.


More to the above: A childrens book that will enthrall children of ages 4 to 8 as bedtiime stories. Volume 1 above. Volume 2 is Willis on an ocean voyage, in a small boat,(illustration) and he sees what appears to be a dragon on the horizon.. (illustrations.. then as per your previous tale, with illustrrations of the baby porpoise peeking out from under its mom as it swam under the bow, looking up at Willis(illustration).. wondering what that trange creature is, etc
I would buy it in an instant!


Wow, what a nice wonderful story. I believe that animals and people have to coexist. We went initially into their world and now we all have to live together. I do have to say that I think that Chris and Ron are absolute jerks and one of the worst offerings of people.


Piecemeal is good. I’ll treasure every chapter!


Willis, you can email me via AW. If needed, I will invest $$$ into a “Willis Adventures” childrens book(s) It would be an adventure!

Jeff Alberts

I think The Skunk found a girl who didn’t care for the in-laws.

bruce ryan

so what you’re saying is you are a skunk? never no mind, will keep an eye out for more cause its good stuff.

I remember the story of my dad who while cutting hay came across a brood of skunks he had apparently killed the mother with the tractor he came up to the house and got a box brought them into the garage and then had to find someone to take em cause mom wouldn’t let him keep any of them. luckily he knew a man not to far away that descented skunks and gave the babies to him. thank you Willis for bringing back another memory of my father 🙂

Gary Murphy

When I have a house… as I sometime may…
I’ll suit my fancy in every way.
I’ll fill it with things that have caught my eye
In drifting from Iceland to Molokai…….
‘Vagabond’s House’ Don Blanding 1928


I like the photos as well as the story. Isn’t it amazing how they always look like they came straight from the groomers with their fur all fluffed up?

Luther Wu

Willis Eschenbach says:
February 9, 2013 at 4:36 pm
S.Meyer says:
February 9, 2013 at 3:55 pm
Please write that book. What a treat!
That’s what I’m doing … just piecemeal.
S.Meyer and Dr. Roy Spencer and others are right.
We are having a lot of fun with the serial episodes, though.
Many thanks!

Briana says:
February 9, 2013 at 5:02 pm
would you call me a jerk for killing the skunks that are preying on my chickens that I use to feed my family? I note Ron did not mention why he killed the skunks just that it needed done, and Chris did what had to be done too, could he have done it differently? yes and he noted that he regretted how it was done but the facts are once a skunk gets in under a house they will not leave unless the die or are transported a very large distance away and most people can’t transport them so most people are left with one option it doesn’t make them jerks any more than your rush to judgment makes you a jerk.

McComber Boy

Another great story Willis.
Oh, the call of dinner ringing through the woods and Mom, silhouetted by the light of the kerosene lamp, standing in the doorway to welcome us in from a hundred adventures on the ranch. Our skunk, though, didn’t fare as well as yours. Tubby was a wise old spaniel and king was a young, upstart, german shepherd. I still remember the night of the grand skunk fight. The commotions was so great that dad rushed out into the night with the shotgun, imagining worse than what he found. The flashlight showed that the dogs had caught a skunk and with great fanfare were each pulling on the end of the skunk closest to them. You guessed it. Wise old Tubby had the head, and young energetic King had ahold of the business end. He wasn’t fit to be around for a couple of weeks and still smelled like skunk for months when he got wet. P.U. Thanks for your memory and the memory it stirred for me.

Mike Hebb

I’ve disposed of a lot of mice in my time but last winter I set a box trap because some noises had been coming from the ceiling for some time. In the morning I had a flying squirrel and took the trouble to drive it a couple miles away to release it. Then I reset the trap.
In the morning there was another one which I drove off with too and reset the trap. Well after 25 flying squirrels the noises stopped. Several friends were picking them up to populate their properties and some nights I caught 2 at once in the trap.


That’s a nice story. Anyone wno lives in the country pretty quickly becomes familiar with their three most numerous neighbors – opossums, raccoons and skunks. My grandmother had a colony of barn cats that picked up a skunk for about three years. She called it Petunia because it always came out to eat when she would take the scraps out to feed the barn cats, broad daylight or no. However, she always kept a wary eye on it because skunks are the critter most prone to carrying rabies in the American wild.

McComber Boy

Briana said, “absolute jerks”.
You tell ’em, city girl, but your asphalt and air conditioning are showing to an extreme. Sometimes you can live with a skunk. Sometimes skunks are pests. We trap rats. We trap mice. We put out poison for cockroaches. Or maybe we can just go back to the dark ages and live with the rats and the fleas and the bubonic plague.
When I was in high school we had two skunks move in under our house because it was warmer and nicer than their own place in the woods. Now I suppose we could have moved out. Pitched a tent in the woods and let them have our house. But that’s not how it works. And the weeks of wearing clothes to school that reeked of skunk was plenty of incentive to end things when they wouldn’t take the hint and stay away the first chance that they got. There was no second chance.
Jerks? No. Just surviving in the best way we could under the circumstances. Maybe you need to cut Chris and Ron a break. I’ve eaten food that tasted like skunk because the very air we were breathing tasted like skunk. In the end, sometimes, it comes down to you or the skunk.


A few years ago my wife and I discovered we had a family of skunks under our garden shed. Well, Mom and either 13 or 14 kits – we could never get a good count. May have been 15. They were very busy and never stopped moving, so counting them was tricky.
Mama would lead them out in the early morning and again in the early evening to the nearby creek to drink, then they’d disappear for a while. Went on for weeks. We got a few fuzzy pics because we didn’t have a good camera then. The wife went out to take a picture and 3-4 of them did that little stamping dance and lifted their tails at her, but the had no scent at the time.
Then one day the they all just disappeared. The kits were about half-grown the last time we saw them. Two of them were spotted rather than striped, a few were more white than black, and no two were very much alike in looks.
We thought maybe Mama would return to breed again, but she never did. Rabbits live in the burrow now. Ah, well. They sure were interesting when they were here.


Thanks Willis. Repaired the finish on a Steinway model B in SF today and the young fourth grader was fascinated at the process and asked me for details all the way. Thought to myself he’ll never be bored with that inquisitive, full of wonder mind of his. Hopefully, a little Willis in the making. Thank you for the stories. Today’s reminded me how immortal our childhoods are.

Melody Harpole

Today, the story would have ended with the state sending armed men out to shoot the skunk and squirrel. Then your parents would be sent off to jail and you to foster care for interfering with the kings wild animals. I like your ending better.

Dennis Nikols

Thanks Willis. These are the kind of experiences more if not all urban kids will simply never had. I fortunately when my children were young we lived in northern Ontario communities. The have a few memories not unlike your story. I think experiences like this give us humans a measure of humanity we can not acquire in any other way.


I’m reminded of Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy” which was a compendium of stories about his childhood he had written in a column for Field and Stream. One of my favorite books, though I’m neither a hunter or fisherman. I hope to see yours published someday.

Theo Goodwin

Excellent story, Willis. It has a powerful puzzle at its center.
My favorites of your stories are the boat stories. I especially like the one that you posted here some years ago about retrieving a boat from Alaska and the troubles you had negotiating the waves as you neared port. Totally memorable. The best sign of a good story and good writing.
All your boat stories are heroic. Sometimes you are a very young man sailing down the coast. Sometimes you are off to another island to repair a boat. Those stories inspired me to call your life heroic. Your work in climate science is no less heroic. Taking first hand experience and building testable hypotheses about such things as global temperature, and doing it in the face of mainstream climate science, is downright heroic.

Mike Jowsey

You, Willis, have a prosaic gift. It does one’s heart good to read such stirring tales.

…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

Big D in TX

I like the smell of skunk juice. From a distance. It’s kind of homey.
Fun fact: skunks are one of the few creatures out there that can manipulate a tent zipper. And they like a warm place to cuddle up and sleep as much as the next… backpacker.
I believe that story writes itself, I won’t bother elaborating 🙂

I find it interesting that commenters say this is children’s book; to me it is about age. When I read Willis’ prose I am constantly aware that there is nothing rushed in his writing, and every sentence is weighed for its meaning and context. to my way of reading these are memories that have lived inside somebody, and created a personality that knows the world and loves humanity (however ugly people appears to be on the surface).
Yes, for children too. I sent a copy of his piece about the Solomon Islands to a father who has a precocious nine year old daughter, because I I imagined he would want to read it to her. But that is not because this is writing for children, it is because their is real wisdom behind the stories, and all children should be exposed to wisdom and all children will soak it up. Aesop’s fables are enjoyed by children, but I believe it is the adults who see the meaning strongest.
After reading the piece about the Solomon Islands, and the girl who entertained men in the bar during the day and lived in a slum with her picture of Jesus, I had this powerful memory myself. It rolled in my head for days after and is still there. I think the image of the skunk that watches from the hill is also lodging itself in my memory bank.
I wonder Willis. I wonder if these memories have molded you after the events, how much stronger the feelings are now than when you experienced them in real life. This is my experience, we can go through our lives not noticing, not remembering, not learning and not soaking up each other’s wisdom. It is the disease of our age, and why I, an artist visit this blog everyday. I do not come for the science, I come because when I read the pieces I am always aware that on this forum their is a sense of anger at the hurt global alarmism is causing. It is not fake, people here are sticking their necks out, breaking with the consensus which they see is wrong and hurting the most deserving (back to the Solomon Islands).
When I read this writing I imagine the writer knows that these memories taught him precious lessons that changed his personality into something that makes him feel good about himself. One thing that it teaches is that none of us can live as an island, we are actually all part of one continent. I find this writing very relevant to this blog, and the spirit behind the quest not to stay quiet when things are wrong around us. Well done Anthony, your blog attracts millions of readers because your blog is about so much more than just climate science.

Cool story. And you know that they are WILD animals, although that part of the story is easy to overlook. I am afraid that there are too many people who have watched too many Disney movies.
Like this woman:
FWIW, I believe that interfering with a raptor is now a federal crime. $10,000 fine for just having an eagle feather??
Steamboat Jack
(Jon Jewett’s evil twin)


Willis, in case the need again rises for de-skunkifying:.
Tea Tree oil diluted in soapy water takes it out pronto, gone.

Pamela Gray

We just shot em. They ate chickens and made the dogs stink.

Pamela Gray

Steamboat! How the hell are ya?


Growing up on a ranch myself, I was and still am a feeder of birds. One of the fun things was to get the wild bids used to you so they would eat from your hand. Had a Female Oriole trained that way- then she taught her little ones the same… But they would only eat out my hand..
Great story Willis…


Nice story, Willis, and thanks for pointing out what a lot of city people who think that Disney cartoons are documentaries do not understand – that some animals are always wild, even if they live in our homes.
In Australia, brush-tail possums love moving into the roof space of people’s houses, and will happily eat any food that we provide. But, they never, ever become domesticated. What’s more, while they are nothing like as whiffy as skunks, their urine is eye-wateringly smelly, consisting apparently of pure ammonia with a touch of ripe roadkill. Your house can end up smelling like you are a hoarder with 87 indoor cats.
There are millions of them, and they thrive in all sorts of places, but thanks to inner-city greenies and sentimental animal-lovers, we are banned by law from killing them, or even relocating them. It is, like many stupid laws, more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Theo Goodwin

Julian in Wales says:
February 9, 2013 at 7:19 pm
Very well said. Yes, a huge part of reading this blog is taking in the humanity of Willis, Anthony, and others. A rich personality is something one does not find often these days.


My parents in law had a white female German Sheperd that had a thing about skunks. During certain seasons the she would be pink from the tomato juice treatments. Sometimes people would comment that it was cruel to dye a dog. It was suggested to them that they go up close and smell the perfume on her. They would always walk away looking foolish.