Skunks and the Women Who Trap Them

My neighborhood – the large area between the Adirondack mountains and the St. Lawrence River – was wilderness until shortly after the Revolutionary War. People migrated through here, heading west; loggers came and some settled; small farms were carved out of the woods; trappers set their lines and sold their pelts; and all of these activities continue today.

The migration now is mostly our children seeking excitement or jobs in distant cities; machinery and fewer mills have reduced the number of jobs “in the woods;” small farms have become hobby or part-time operations or have been consumed by large free-stall milking parlor dairies; the trappers – at least the ones I’ve met lately – now wear bras (probably at least some of the time). Oh, sure, there are still the guys out there with their steel-jawed traps and their clubs, inflicting pain and death on the local wildlife population and presumably finding a market for the bloodied skins, but there are also quite a few women who have taken up the trade.

As you might expect, these women see trapping as part of their household responsibilities rather than some perverse or violent form of recreation or income generation: it’s a tough job and somebody has to do it. They usually start small, say with a mouse-size Havahart trap, but eventually they all move up to something that will catch a squirrel (the one who’s eating the birdseed in the feeders) or a raccoon who has become too fond of sweet corn. Of course, if you set a trap big enough to capture a raccoon, there’s a good likelihood that sooner or later you’re going to catch a skunk, and that’s why the conversation at an average cocktail party around here might run to discussion of what to do once that skunk is in your trap. So it was at the opening of the Frederic Remington Art Museum’s recent show: the curator (Laura), a past-president of a local theatre organization (Ellen) and I were discussing Laura’s post-opening chore of relocating the skunk that sat at home in the trap under her porch. We all know something about this.

It’s really quite simple. A skunk is a bit like a little boy with a squirt-gun: he’s loaded, and the first human being he runs into will be a target. With that clearly in mind, the skunk trapper holds up a good-sized blanket, being very careful to conceal hands, feet, and every other body part behind it as she SLOWLY approaches the trapped skunk. She gently drapes the blanket completely over the trap. Once under wraps, skunk, trap and blanket can be gently lifted onto the back of a pickup truck. In theory, you can now drive your skunk to it’s new home without incident, but good sense suggests that you probably don’t want to do this if your vehicle is the family sedan…

After driving to a suitable location (the yard of a good friend, the site of the church ice cream social, the wedding reception of your ex – there are lots of possibilities here…), it’s time to release the skunk. This will be made much easier if you had previously tied a long rope or rope/stick combination to the trap latch or door and practiced opening it from a distance… (I’ve found that rolling the trap onto its top allows the door to flop open, but I haven’t yet tried this with a skunk in it). Again, remember the little boy/squirt-gun analogy… Let no part of you be visible to the skunk!

And so Laura’s black and white friend has a happy home in a distant wood (twenty miles distant, that is), the porch smells like a rose, and all’s right with the world. Let’s sing a chorus of “I’m a WO-MAN, W-O-M-A-N! Say it again!”

I hear that Havahart has just come out with a husband/boyfriend size trap, and compared to the four-legged skunks, relocating those critters should be a piece of cake. The family sedan caveat won’t even apply.

Attack

At the beginning, they came slowly. I noticed the first one near the front steps, slow-moving yet deliberate, it’s eyes still adjusting to the relative brightness. A life spent in groundwater hadn’t prepared it for even the overcast grayness of the day. I ran for the bug jar.

Captured and under the intense scrutiny of a kitchen halogen spotlight, it froze, squinting at the kaleidoscopic view afforded by the curved glass of its Ball mason jar prison. It seemed harmless enough, although a thorough search of Field Guide to Insects and Spiders failed to yield any clues to its identity. Curiously, it appeared to have grown slightly larger during the time I was scanning my bookcase for a copy of Pond Life. I released it near the back door, snapped a couple of photos, and went in to start cooking dinner.

It was fairly late and I was a bit groggy when I headed out to do the barn chores. The day’s drizzle was continuing and the night was black when I returned, and then suddenly I saw them: five or six of the same strange creatures, grouped together and moving slowly in the direction of the house. Stifling a scream, I raced past them and through the door to safety.

Sleep came with difficulty. Visions of pincers, round staring eyes, backs that resembled decorated armor, wings – all these haunted me and filled my heart with fear. There was also a strange new rustling sound cutting the night air, soft but audible, emanating from someplace near the well.

In the morning, all of my fears were realized. Just as Hamlin was overrun by rats, so was my front yard inundated with lobster-like bugs. They clambered from the well, scuttled across the flower beds, mounted the house walls and beat their pincers upon the window panes. I Googled for help but none came. I emailed the local public radio station’s host of “Natural Selections” and she in turn emailed her biology professor co-host, and finally came the answer: “Oooh, neat-o! It’s a Giant Water Bug; they can fly and they do travel between lakes sometimes. Don’t pick it up, though; they stab you with their piercing-sucking mouthparts = mega-OUCH.”

And then around 10 o’clock, more quickly than they had arrived, they all took wing and vanished, leaving me to ponder whether the professor is right. Yes, I suppose they could have been Giant Water Bugs, but my suspicion is that they were giardia lambia. They came from my well, they attacked me… Surely if a beautiful monarch butterfly can emerge from a chrysalis, then these strange creatures could be the incarnation of microscopic giardia beasties. Life is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Featured

Outhouse Lady

Photograph courtesy of D. W. Andrus

Just when you think something is over and done with, just when you’re beginning to relax in the belief that you have fixed the problem, stemmed the tide, mended the fence, changed the subject, finalized the divorce, ended the occupation, switched the gears or slain the dragon… your cousin Don surprises you. Well, what ever did I expect, anyway? Don is a wizard too, and – as you must know – wizards never tire of having fun, so why was I surprised to receive a book of poetry entitled, “Muddled Meanderings in an Outhouse?”

You see, my mother was known by many as “The Outhouse Lady.” She was an artist, and her gimmick (the thing that caught the eye of potential buyers of her more serious work) was her display of small outhouse paintings accompanied by a sign which read: Hang an outhouse in your bathroom and count your blessings! $5 She would paint the stand of hollyhocks next to each privy to match the colors of the buyer’s powder room. People loved them, and my mother’s newfound notoriety solved the birthday and Christmas gift-giving problem for all the relatives: They gave my mother’s outhouses to their friends; they gave my mother everything ever produced that immortalized the outhouse.

I thought that part of my life was behind me…

Outhouse Lady (for Don)

She went out back in younger days
The Sears and Roebuck book to read,
Passed some time (if nothing else)
Seated by hollyhocks grown up from seed.

In later years she’d paint that place,
(Not the interior walls as you might assume),
But tiny pictures for five bucks apiece
To hang in modern indoor rooms.

She was dubbed “The Outhouse Lady”
And was known both far and wide;
Her children suffered embarrassment,
As from her fame they tried to hide.

Gifts would come at Christmas
From the painter’s nephews and cousins:
Calendars, puzzles, books of rhyme;
Outhouse pictures by the dozens.

The family bathroom became the repository
For this mounting pile of privy lore,
Until it became so full it was impossible
To use the place for what it was intended for…

What to do? And where to go?
Asked her desperate kids and spouse –
The solution (thanks to Port-a-potty)
Was a modern out-back house!

Through wind and snow we then took the path
To the new bathroom way out back,
(At least there was Scott tissue
Replacing that damned old almanac).

Years later we lost our privy painter,
And her “collection” was garage-saled away,
The bathroom was clear and clean once more –
‘Till your gift arrived today!

How important the inheritance
Of family lore and memories,
But I must scratch my head and wonder
How this mantle has passed to me?!?!

Death Be Not Proud

Last weekend the broken gravestone for “Elizabeth wife of Jonas Jones” was dug up by an assortment of related wizards and clowns. It revealed a four-line verse, but unfortunately the break in the stone had occurred right through the final line, making it impossible to read.

We carefully brushed away the dirt, then smeared some in the inscription to facilitate our deciphering, but still could only guess at the final words.

“Friends nor physician could not save,
This mortal body from the grave;
Nor can the grave confine it here,                                                                                                     ?  ?  ?  ?  ?”

It seemed that the punch line to the rhyme on the headstone might be a precious clue, but what was it??

Luckily Cousin Don, telegraphing from a train station somewhere in the Rockies, solved our mystery:

Friends nor physician could not save,
This mortal body from the grave;
Nor can the grave confine it here,
She hated drinking, let’s all have a beer!

Wouldn’t you know…

And Things That Go Bump in the Night…

My basement is a bit funky. There’s the usual cellar stuff: bags of potatoes; shelves of canned tomatoes, jam and such; two freezers; woodworking tools, extra plumbing and electrical supplies; an old mini-port-a-potty; a retired foozball game; the water pump; clay pots and potting soil; a washer and dryer and – this time of year – about six inches of water in the low end that was created by pouring a level concrete floor across the cellar’s higher parts.

I don’t give the water situation down there much thought. Usually I pump it out, but if ignored, eventually the water seeps back through the cracks in the bedrock from whence it came, and things dry up. This is an owner-built-home, and we owners are pretty tolerant of its idiosyncrasies.

Last week I went down there to fetch a few potatoes for supper and was startled by the kerploosh of some fairly sizable critter doing a running swan dive into the deep end. “Holy shit. What the hell was that?!?” I wondered aloud. The red squirrel that’s been coming to the bird feeders crossed my mind, but as much as I scanned the water for waves or movement, nothing further happened. There is a sort of platform above much of this low area, and the mystery diver must have quickly found a good hiding place (or maybe – I hoped – an exit), so I took my potatoes upstairs and started dinner.

For the next several days, whenever I needed something from the depths of the cellar, I would quietly sneak down the stairs, hoping to get a glimpse of the invading creature, but no sightings rewarded my stealth. The furry Greg Louganis had apparently moved on, and I forgot about him.

Last night, tired and hoping for a good night’s sleep, I worked a crossword puzzle until my eyelids drooped, and then turned out the light. At that moment, all was peaceful and quiet.

Some little time later, I was startled wide-awake: there was an animal – a fairly large, gray animal – walking along the edge of my mattress!

Now you who read here often know that I like animals; I respect animals, but I don’t fear them. Even so, let me tell you that the unexpected presence of a critter about the size of a small beagle strolling along the edge of your mattress in the middle of the night is a pretty unsettling sight!

I grabbed the sheet with both hands, creating a sort of barrier between the critter and my bare hide. “Omigod!! Bob!! Turn on the light!! There’s an animal in the bed!!” I screamed.

Bob (never at his best upon awakening) eventually noted that something was amiss and mumbled, “Can’t you turn the lamp on?” to which I answered with the obvious – and high volume – reply: “I’ve got both hands on the goddam sheet!!!” Finally he managed to turn on a flashlight and then eventually an electric light, but by then there was nothing four-legged in sight. It was as gone as last week’s diver.

I reiterated that there WAS an animal “right there on the mattress beside me!” to which Bob asked (with a measure of concern appropriate to such a dire situation), “What kind of animal was it?” and I say (still a bit wide-eyed), “An armadillo!… then realizing how nuts this sounds, “…or something that LOOKED LIKE an armadillo. My husband, reasonable to a fault, asks, “You saw it in the dark?”

“Uh, hmmm, uh, gee, I don’t know… uh… good point…” and suddenly it dawned on me that I must have dreamed the whole thing. Nevertheless, remembering the basement diver, we did a thorough search under the bed, finding nothing.

Eventually the whole episode began to strike us very funny and soon we were laughing hysterically. It took another crossword puzzle and at least an hour before I was sleepy again.

All this “wholesome living” sometimes gets under your skin, I guess, but this is the life we chose…

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Scottish Prayer (traditional)

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
.
.

What’s in a Word

Have you noticed what animists young kids are?

When I was little, there were mice and ducks and dogs that talked. We took for granted that a certain yellow canary was verbally sassy: “I tawt I taw a puddy tat! I did! I did taw a puddy tat! Bad old puddy tat! ” and that Sylvester would answer with a salivating, “Sufferin’ succotash!” These days, cars are anthropomorphic.

And so it is that my four-year-old grandson is terrified of … THE BOILER… The boiler “lives” in our mudroom, making vague firing noises when water needs to be heated or if the woodstove goes out. Grandson is absolutely scared to death of the thing. Luckily, there is a door between the “play room” and that mudroom, apparently making the play space safe for four-year-olds (when the door is closed).

Saturday the little guy was here and headed for the play room when he saw that someone had left the protective boiler shield open. I was busy in the kitchen and didn’t notice his distress as he asked – more than once – “Gramma, will you shut the door?”

Finally, in desperation he yelled, “Shut the damned door!!!” which launched me to explain to him that “shut the damned door” isn’t a good way for little boys to talk. He listened, looked at me sweetly and said, “Gramma, please shut the damned door.”

Marilyn

For many years, I thought she might have been Meryl Streep. There was definitely a resemblance. Marilyn was shy and blushed easily. She was blonde and pretty and from the mid-west, and we both spent a year together (with about 50 other college kids) in Bregenz, Austria. The “men” in our group lived with Austrian families, while the women were housed on the top two floors of the town’s finest hotel, floors 4 and 5.

Behind the hotel was a cobblestone courtyard and some buildings that probably were once carriage houses. Also accessible to that courtyard was the back door to the local hofbrau haus or pub.

It was a fine spring evening. Five or six of us were in the courtyard, probably about to enter that back door for a stein of good Austrian bier, when shy, blushing Marilyn called to us from a 5th floor window. Our attention gained, Marilyn turned around and mooned us!

I have many memories of Austria. Being mooned by Marilyn is one I’m not likely to forget!