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My Funky Valentine

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I heard a little voice this morning. It said, "Get out and hike before it rains." 
I listened. Good things happen when I listen to the little voice.
Sure enough, when I looked at the radar, there was a sludge of green coming up out of the southwest that was going to make things, already saturated, even wetter. Hurry.

I threw on a raincoat, bitchin' waxed cowboy hat, ear warmers, and I grabbed my camera raincoat, too. No question I was going to take the big rig. There was something out there waiting for me. The little voice nudged and nudged. Get out there! It's waiting!

I didn't know where I was going. I had about four destinations in mind. I cleared my mind, let it go blank. I took a left at the county road and had driven only a half-mile when I saw this in the neighbor's cow pasture.  YAAASSSSS

The First Daylight Skunk of 2018!!

Exxxx-cellent. I drove another 1/4 mile to safely stash my car, and trotted back. She was still there, nosing for grubs.

I know skunks well enough to keep in mind the wind direction before I approached. Dang it! Wind out of the west. It was going to blow my scent right to the skunk. But there was only one place I could get a shot at her and that was the bar gate, which was directly west of the skunk. Oh well. Here goes. I crouched down to shoot, knowing it would be a limited-time offer.

Sure enough, her head snapped up. She'd caught my scent--the only thing that means much to a skunk. Sound and sight mean not much at all. But the whiff of face cream and soap...

Through the corral boards, I got a shot of her as she trundled away. Darn it!

But I didn't give up. I climbed the bar gate and followed her. And was humbled to find she had vanished utterly from sight. I couldn't even hear her footsteps. In that short time, she'd plunged down a steep hill and into the woods. Well, OK. It was still nice to see the First Daylight Skunk of 2018.

I decided to explore this gorgeous steep pasture, which had been woods not so long ago. Around here, anything is fair game for grazing. What choice do people have? So they fell the forest, seed grass in and put cows on the flanks of the steep hills. It doesn't work very well; they wind up feeding a lot of hay.

I was loping along the slope when I saw that little skunk making her way through a strip of woodland, headed for me. Hooray!! She popped out into the open and I quickly circled until I was downwind of her.  I was sashaying left as she came on.

I knew when I could smell her that she couldn't smell me. Using the wind would be my Cloak of Invisibility. Because skunks don't use their eyes much at all. 

I had decided this was a female skunk because it wasn't very big, and was rather fine-boned. I got a female vibe off her. Man, she kept coming at me. I was chuckling and crab-walking as fast as I could to stay downwind and just off her projected path. It was a little like quartering a very small tornado on the prairie. 

It was a thrill to be so close to her, and for her to be unafraid. She didn't know I was there. It was all about whether or not she could smell me. I got long, leisurely looks at her. She was a pretty fancy little animal. I liked her wide stripes, and big white tailtip. Her tail is a bit unusual, being grizzled white and black, so that it has a grayish appearance. I'll know her if I encounter her again.

She looked directly at me, and decided she didn't like the looks of me. 

And she hurried away.

I followed at a respectful distance, happy to wait for the innate forgetfulness of skunks to take over and help her relax. I could see she wasn't scared, just a bit suspicious. I smiled as I framed this shot, thinking about the little inkblot I'd framed so many thousands of times in the last 12 years. I miss him dearly. But a wary skunk will do. Even if I can't run up behind it and throw my arms around it and give it a kiss.

 If I'm learning anything, I'm learning to go with what I have. I try not to spend a whole lot of time yearning for what I don't. Sure, there are days when it's all I can do. We all have those.

And as if she got my thought, that skunk turned exactly as Chet Baker used to, to check behind to see if I was coming along. I was floored by the perfection of the scene, and framed it quickly, just as I would have had that inkblot been my sweet friend.

Zooming in quickly, I caught her paw lifted--Chet used to do that, too. 
Was this skunk a messenger? If the thought comes to me that a creature might be acting as a messenger, she likely was.
That's how it works, at least in my world. Thought becomes truth. Who can say Chet didn't send this animal to me, didn't nudge me out the door this morning? Or maybe the little voice was Ida, or DOD. There was a conjunction of little voice, irrepressible urge to hike and a beautiful encounter. Thank you, whoever kicked me out the door.

After nabbing this shot of my funky Valentine, I had plenty of time to catch up with her. She began digging, in the sweet forgetfulness of a busy little animal. 

There's no question she was onto me. But she was also absorbed in digging pits and finding food. 

She was thin from the long winter's sleep, and she had work to do.

She stopped to scratch an itch, doglike, with her hind leg.

The camera caught the moment those long hind claws raked through her fetid ivory locks. 

I imagine when you've been in a den asleep for weeks, the fleas have a field day with you.

She was so doglike and so catlike as she luxuriated in a good scratch. Little CatDog. 

She dug again, and this time she dug deep.

This wasn't just turning over old cowpies...

This was excavation! Skunks dig neat funnel-shaped pits as they go along. Some are small and some are big, but they tend to be conical.  And there's often a round nose impression or two at the bottom.

She unearthed a sizeable object and quickly backed up. She rolled it along with her front paws several feet backward, as if to get all the dirt off it before eating it.  See how her tail is bent under from the motion?

Got me sumpin'.

This is the best I could do for detail. You can see her pink jaw and white teeth, and back of that,  a sort of greenish-gray grub with clear segmentation. Not sure, but I'd guess it might be a longhorn beetle larva. It was big and very chewy, that much I could tell. I did not hear cracking as you would had it been a pupa in a shell.

Whatever it was, it was goood!!

I enjoy watching animals work, unbothered. I'm not sure there's much I would have enjoyed more than following this skunk for forty minutes on a rainy day in mid-February. 

Oddly, I just recorded the audio version of my True Nature column, "Crepuscular," for the March/April issue of Bird Watcher's Digest.  
The column, written a year ago, is all about night stalking of skunks. 
It's a little primer for anyone who wants a richer life. All you have to do is get outside. Promise.

BWD is having a Valentine's Day special--
One year for only $14! Why not subscribe? But come back here for mo skunk.

She raised her head again, sniffing for me. But I was still downwind. I assure you, I could smell her!

Hmm. Something is amiss here, but I can't smell it. What that big gray lump that clicks is, I do not know. But it hasn't hurt me yet, and the grubbing is good here.

In case you're wondering, it never occurred to her to raise her tail and threaten me, just as it never occurred to me that I might get sprayed. That wasn't going to happen. I go into skunk following with a positive attitude. I take care to stay downwind; I scramble quietly to get out of their way when they walk up to me, and everything takes care of itself. Perhaps the key is ascribing no malintent to the skunk.  I don't think of them as evil or out to get me. I am not afraid of them.  Quite the opposite. I know they are very afraid of me. 

As I followed her, I wrote an extended haiku, a sort of tribute to her innocence.

My scent makes skunks run.
I'm the scariest beast here.
Carrier of death

I hold the power
Archetype of ancestors
I know it's not true

I am no better 
No more ruler of these woods
Than squirrel or skunk.

Humans live to prove
Our superiority
Over beast, fish, fowl

I am outnumbered
By mindless majority
Who fear this sweet skunk

Who wishes only
to be left alone to dig
Crunch down her larvae;

Live her good skunk life.
No wonder she fears people.
She is without sin.

I had put this little animal on alert for long enough. I didn't want to pester her any more. 

So when she moved on, I hung back.

She stopped one more time to scratch herself.

Farewell, sweet skunk. Perhaps we'll meet again someday. 

She's the little inkblot in the left lower center below. I started following her up by the farmhouse you can see on the ridge. Several hills and valleys traversed. Skunks travel. They may look low-slung and not good for the distance, but they move it on out. 

I climbed the east bargate, big rig draped in plastic, for it had started to rain again. 
Climbing fences with a big camera, like skunk stalking, is a bit of an art in itself.

I headed out over the hill, even though the rain was picking up. I had the right gear, and I liked the way the rain made the muddy road shine. It drew me onward.

This is the brim of my waxed cowboy hat, which was streaming with rain. I kept dipping my head to let it run off. 

I found a fox squirrel's stash of hickory nut shells. A midden, more than a stash. All the goodie is gone.  This seems to be the time of year when hickory nuts are center stage. More on that in my next posts.

Caught this image of the Toothless Lady in the rain. I hadn't noticed the beauty of her shingles until they were wet. Like seashells with the rain's luster.

In a shed, I found a skunk turd. Not terribly old. How do I know it's a skunk turd? 

It has a green stinkbug carapace in it. There are not many people who will eat a stinkbug. 
Skunks are one of them. 

I identify skunk droppings by all the shiny beetle parts in them. Skunks are hell on beetles and their larvae. Go skunks!  
Beetles are among the most abundant animals on earth. When asked what the study of natural history had taught him about the Creator, evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane is supposed to have said, "God has an inordinate fondness for beetles." 

I walked on until I got to the farmstead. I wanted to see the couch in the rain. The last time I shot it, it was covered with snow. Either one works for me. I didn't expect to get fond of this couch when I first beheld it, but I love shooting it. I also love how the poison ivy vines make the chimney look like it's moving, like a person's head in an old daguerrotype.

 Chet Baker was always climbing up into its lap, sniffing around. He found a little toy in it once, and some kind of crumbs, which he ate. God knows how long they'd been in there. Sixty years?

I went around to the side of the house to see if I could find the daffodils coming up.
And just like magic, there they were. By gum.

And in my mind's eye, the sun was out and warm and the jonquils were wafting sweet, and suddenly into the frame came the best little photobomber anyone ever had, headed over to give me a kiss.

I have sweet memories. I'm going with what I have. Grief into gratitude.

 I made it back to the car, only about a mile beyond the Toothless Lady, as the rain picked up. 

When I got home, I went straight to the greenhouse, which has, mysteriously, been a source mostly of drear lately. Not sure what's wrong, but all the plants are languishing. Maybe the fact that it never gets any sun at all? Think that could have something to do with it?

 And I found that my Christmas cactus, which famously thrive on neglect, had pushed forth a single, utterly spectacular Valentine. BOOM. Well, thank you! Your timing: Fabulous. As is your form.

And Goliath the geranium, more than 5' across now, and getting its leaves scorched by the heater, was full of red-hot cheer.

 This extended skunk, grub, turd, flower and rain reverie has been brought to you by my inexplicable need to share what I have.

Especially for Erin and Kate, who love skunks and might just need these photos and words today.

                                                           Happy Valentine's Day!


Hey Julie! Read your lies about skunks sleeping in the winter and had to Google it as I was sure I had seen/smelled skunks in the winter. Google is saying they don't truly hibernate, but may stay den-close, only venturing out when the weather warms. Something new for me. I tend to think of mustelids as always active.

I used to collect June beetles in season from the grape vines that grew on the fence around my rental house. They went back into the house to feed my blue tongued skink. I did this at night in season and used a flashlight to make the beetles' eyes light up to help me find them.

So there I was flashing the light around looking for tiny red eyes when I heard something drumming in the dead leaves I hadn't cleaned up along the fence. Flashed the light and caught a flash of black and white. What the-? Turned the light back and there was a skunk about twenty feet away, drumming its front feet in the leaves. I'd heard about this behavior and had no intention of hanging around for what came next!

So I turned and ran for the front of the house. And guess who I met there? We went back and forth several times before the skunk finally decided it was best to turn south and let the clodhopper go north. It went through the gap between the fences and I got safely back into the house. Never been closer to a skunk than that. Sam has, but the skunk realized she was harmless and gave her a pass. Sam, when she saw the skunk, figured it was a cat, which she is terrified of and hightailed it for home.



Beautiful. I burst into tears when Chet rounded the daffodils. Three weeks yesterday since my own black and white boy left. I haven’t taken myself out to the river since. See how you move us? Love you, your world, your words, your captures.

Thank you, Julie, for this master class on dealing with losses and on working with what we've got left afterward. I'm using some of this already and am filing the rest away for when I'll need it later.

And a neighbor who's usually out walking her dog before I get out in the mornings reported the first sighting of our neighborhood skunk today (big, fat, and almost pure white with only a few black markings). Funny how they seem to get on the move just about Feb. 14. Our funky Valentines, indeed.

This post makes me even sadder that my son dispatched the big, fine specimen my husband uncovered when ripping out the rotten side of the henhouse floor. I had no say; the men did what men do. Your funky valentine is so beautiful and sweet!

My sweetest skunk encounter was when I was out walking my daughter's lab, JD. He was off lead and walking in the field while I stayed on the road about 20 feet away. Suddenly we saw a skunk. Before I could react, JD walked up to the skunk and sniffed noses with it. Then both animals continued on in the same direction they had been going.

When I lived in San Diego I remember walking out the back door around midnight with my 75 lb. dog. The fig tree was shaking a bit so we crept forward to figure out what was in there (big mistake since I didn't have my glasses on). Suddenly a few tiny skunks rushed at us and we both flew back into the house. Thanks for Mr. Chet's addition - made me sad and happy at the same time.

I care for an 89 yo woman with dementia, on hospice who was a gardener and lover of plants. Just the other day I noticed a big beautiful bloom on her ancient Christmas cactus after having bloomed at Christmas. A straggler. It gave her a reason to smile. Put a clear, small, plastic like, suction cup attached to the window bird feeder for her to watch. For 5 days, nothing, and today Carolina chickadees, back and forth back and forth, calling loudly. She was delighted as was her husband. First thing when I walk in is a report of feeder activity. Also hung suet getting downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, nuthatches, cardinals and of course the dreaded starlings. It all brings a smile to both of them. I digress. Love the skunk story and the solitary Christmas cactus.

This was simply beautiful, my friend. As are you. I love going on these treks with you and feeling everything you so eloquently describe in the wonder of discovery. xo

I lived with a barn skunk for several years. We crossed paths nearly every evening as he/she headed down to the creek to get busy. Last summer I had a family of skunks living back at the ponds. Those babies tootling around with their momma were adorable to watch :-).

I think CB was following along on your Valentines Day hike. He probably never leaves you. Thanks for taking us along as well. I had to enlarge every photo to pore over them. Just breathtaking.

Julie, thank you for everything you share with us. The wonders of your world, the smiles, laughter, tears. Everything. My Curly occasionally sends me Crows. Smiling even now thru the tears.

By the way I loved Vulture. I have requested Cerulean Blues from the library too.

You reminded of me when I worked out in the country NE of Columbus. Every year at least once while out in the fields I would encounter a mama skunk and her babies trekking along behind her. Not much cuter. Spring has sprung here in Florida, no skunks where I live but the woodpeckers are back! I love their company along with the bluejays as I walk my dogs each morning. It seems they take turns following me along my route. Thanks to you and learning from your blog entries, I now pay attention to the birds around me. And there are certainly a bunch where I am! From parrots to screech owls, I appreciate and am excited to discover each one!

You reminded me of when I worked out in the country NE of Columbus many years ago. While out in the fields at least once a year I would encounter a mama skunk with her babies trekking along behind her. Not much is cuter. No skunks where I live in FL, but I know spring has sprung because the woodpeckers are back! I love seeing them each morning when I walk my dogs. It seems that they and the bluejays follow me along my route, keeping me entertained the whole way. Thanks to you and what I have learned from your blog entries, I now pay attention to the birds around me. There are tons where I live! From parrots to screech owls, I enjoy discovering each one.

Such a sweet post. Perfect for Valentine's Day. I like skunks too. Many thanks.

Thanks for climbing those fences and going up and down the Ohio hills. And that face. I'm in love. Kim in PA

Welp, I busted out crying too. Thank you, dear Julie. Hugs from SoCal —

I wasn't ready for that.

You and I are Kindred spirits, I think. Wish I could have heard you at Wild Birds Unlimited! Nothing is better than observing and caring for birds. You have a beautiful heart and your work is beautiful as well.

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