Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fun with skunks

Image credit: Creative Commons flicker user vladeb.
It was around nine at night; the kids were sleeping. I lay down in our sunroom porch after a long day of planting shrubs in the backyard, my skin hot with fresh sunburn. The day had been warm but the evening was proving to be cool. I had all the windows open and was enjoying a pleasant, brisk breeze.

I was about three pages into my latest book when I heard a crinkling sound from outside. My neighbor's house is very close, so at first I assumed it was her throwing out her trash. The sound continued, much too close to be my neighbor.

I placed my book down, stood up, and crept to the storm door. It was too dark to see outside, but the plastic crinkling was very close. I flicked on the outdoor light and saw my garbage can laying on the stairs. Exhausted from working in the sun, earlier I had thrown some garbage in the can and knocked it on its side; too tired to set it upright, I had let it lay there, figuring I would do it later.

I kneeled to investigate the source of the sound, assuming it was a cat, when I saw a black tail hanging out of the garbage can. Then it registered--a skunk. I had never been this close to one before. In fact, I don't think I had ever seen a real, live one.

Slowly, I rose, backed up, and began to close the door. The skunk remained unperturbed, too hungry or interested in the contents of my garbage to heed my presence. I swung the door shut until only a few inches remained open.

"Hey," I hissed, "get out of there!" and quickly closed the door. The expectant commotion did not follow. Neither did the stench of skunk spray. Warily, I stood on my toes and peered out of the door's semi-circle window. I couldn't make out much, except for that black tail poking out of the mouth of the can.

Son of a gun! The skunk hadn't run.

I tried again, and again met the same results. The squirrel was non-plussed; it was completely determined to get a meal, I suppose.

Finally, I closed the door and lay back down. There was no sense in bothering the skunk. I would clean up the mess in the morning.

A few minutes passed in silence until my curiosity got the better of me. Yes, you know where this is going.

Once again I investigated, but now the skunk was gone. I checked the can with a flashlight to guarantee that the skunk had fled before I crept outside. I scanned the backyard with the flashlight; the coast was clear. I was wearing a t-shirt, boxer shorts, and a pair of sandals.

I stood the can upright and began to re-arrange the other ones to make room for this can. I pulled a few cardboard boxes out of the corner where the cans normally stood when I heard a sound. I flashed the light into the alcove and saw black fur scurry.

Holy hell, the skunk was in there! What kind of silly animal hides a few away from where it has been shooed away from?

Very un-cinematically, I uttered a girlish scream and bolted into the backyard, fast enough to qualify for the Olympics that had just passed. I stopped at the fence line and crouched, my heart hammering in my chest.

I placed my hands on my knees and regrouped. I had just barely escaped being sprayed! My veins were thick with the rush of adrenaline. I smiled. What a thrill.

At that moment, there was just my heart pounding, the heavy draw of breath, and the moonlight. I felt so alive. Life was so immediate; there was no interlude of mental chatter like there normally is. There was just  the skunk, and then run like hell.

And for some strange reason I felt a deep kinship with all of the Zen masters of the past. I was a living koan. "What do you do when you see a skunk?"

You run. I don't care if you're the Buddha himself, you run when you see a skunk. That's what humans do. Buddha runs in the same way as Buddha mourns when someone dies.

Linji, Mazu, Chinul, they would all run when they saw a skunk. That realization made me smile. We spend so much of our lives in doubt. Am I doing this right? What will they think if I say that? What's wrong with me? Not to mention fear.

But here, panting in the moonlight, there was no room or time for doubt, there was just this. Action, flight. The path was clear. Humans run from skunks.

Laughing at the entire situation, I jogged to the front of the house, all of the Zen ancestors laughing with me.


  1. Your story not only made me laugh, but I truly understand you. Skunks are actually one of my favorite animals, yet I am so wary of them that they are usually one of my only insecure thoughts as I walk in the woods or through (an otherwise peaceful) field. Skunks just have that swagger, you know, like 'you can't touch me'. Due to their own brand of biological weapons, they have almost no 'natural' enemies (some owls do eat them) except the car. As you said it very well, that Zen master or no, when you see a skunk, you RUN! How's that for bringing us all together? :)

    Great post!

  2. Renata,

    Well put--"bringing us all together." Who knew that such a simple, immediate action had the power to cut through our false sense of separation? In the immortal words of King Arthur in Monty Python, "Run awaaaaayyyY!" Thanks for reading an commenting.