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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Thawing Scents

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Verlyn Kinkenborg tells us why he knows when spring has come to his home in rural New York. He can smell the skunks again.


CURWOOD: The poet Robert Lowell once wrote that you can tell when it’s skunk hour because the little critters “march on their soles up Main Street: white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire.” Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says he knows skunk hour best – when he smells it.

KLINKENBORG: You don’t really notice a skunk’s smell. It notices you. It loiters in the air, nearly sentient, waiting to knock you down, strong enough to make you wonder how a skunk can smell anything but itself. I walked into a fresh scent on my way to the barn one morning a couple of weeks ago. A skunk could have been probing the wire around the chicken-yard, but there were no signs of digging in the snow. It might have been testing the duck-pen, but there were no tracks there either.

In the warmth of that afternoon I heard the sound of bees, and then I saw where the sound was coming from. The skunk had attacked a corner of one of the hives in the night. Its claws hadn’t done much damage, only enough to open a crack which the bees were trying to patch up with propolis. The month was still too cold for them. They wouldn’t have been out without the skunk’s provocation. But there was the answer to one of winter’s most pressing questions: are the bees still strong in the hive?

A farm is naturally a place of bold scents, though most of them seem to have been bottled up by the sharp cold of this past winter. A thaw releases them. Early spring suddenly smells like a very old barnyard. It hits me how long it’s been since I last cleaned the hen-house. But the real sign of the thaw we’ve been having is the skunks. They begin to come out into the margins of daylight in the same week the highways start to heave with frost. To drive around here is to feel your way along a lurching roadway from one slick of skunk-scent to the next. Sometimes I pass a skunk just changing its mind at the edge of my headlights. More often, I see those that kept right on going and didn’t make it. They leave in the air an immortality all their own.

That evening, I knocked together the corner of the hive that had been clawed apart. A couple of bees spurted out and droned around my head. But they weren’t entirely serious. I’ve heard that a skunk will disturb a hive not to get at the honey but to eat the bees that mob him. I’ve also heard that a skunk’s smell can travel well more than a mile downwind.

They say, in fact, that skunks in winter don’t really hibernate. They den up, five or six females with one male, and sleep deeply through the cold weather. The least thaw rouses them to hunger and desire. They stir from their nests and amble down to the road, as if drawn there by something only skunks can know. They wait in the night, trying to decide if the highway selects for boldness or hesitation.

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for the New York Times and is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Loudon Wainright III “Dead Skunk” ALBUM III (Columbia/Legacy – 1972)]



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