Up on the hill behind our house in a grove of oaks sits the cottage Sweetheart Al built me for my writing hide-away. From my desk’s window, I can see across miles of undulating foothills and on into the craggy High Sierra.
In good weather, I write to the thundering sound of squirrels galloping across the roof, leaping to and from the nearby trees.
Sometimes in the afternoon, herds of deer wander through, coming so close to the back windows that I could reach out and pat them.
But when winter storms slam our area, whipping the oaks into a frenzy and swelling nearby creeks to overflowing, I hurry down the hill to the house and the wild critters take shelter wherever they can.
Not long ago on a morning following such a storm, I climbed the steps to my writing-cottage front door and was surprised to see a muddy little paw print, not far below the doorknob. Obviously someone wanted in during the storm. Someone needed shelter or food and was convinced the white door at the top of the stair was the key to both.
What animal could have climbed the 10 steps, and then stood on its hind feet to make that perfect little five-toed paw print? I searched the Internet and believe my visitor was a striped skunk. There are plenty of them in the area.
I’ve seen them waddling up the hill behind our house at dawn. I’ve seen two of them playing together, rolling like a striped bowling ball, at the edge of our steep drive. And late one night last summer I had a startling encounter with one in the woods behind my cottage office.
I’d been writing late and it was well after dark when I heard a curious whimpering sound. Where we live, once the sun sets, it’s very dark. In our black night sky, the stars are so bright and close that you could almost reach up and pluck them.
I heard the whimper and decided to explore. Unfortunately my flashlight’s battery was weak. Nonetheless, I headed out, looking for I wasn’t sure what.
As I rounded the corner of my cottage, I saw in the flashlight’s failing beam what looked like a bright-eyed little face, and two little hands.
The hands were holding some kind of food and the little mouth was eating eagerly. But as my flashlight beam touched it, the creature dropped down on all fours and disappeared into the blackness.
What could that little critter be? I wondered, and walked quickly to the place where it disappeared. As I stepped behind a tree, there he was right at my feet, the size of a large black house cat, with two bright white stripes down his back, and a huge, bushy black tail.
He turned his sweet little black face to me, bright eyes blinking in the flashlight beam, and I knew exactly what he was. I must have jumped three feet up in the air, spun around and ran down the hill screaming, expecting at any minute to be enveloped by stench.
But it turned out that I was more frightened than the skunk was. While I was running and screaming, he was probably just waddling off into the woods.
As you may know, striped skunks can spray their fetid, oily, yellowish musk up to 15 feet. The odor can carry a mile.
But there’s been no spraying around our place. Not that night. Not since. The skunks that share our property help keep it clear of beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and other creepy crawly pests. Like the bats that reduce our resident mosquito population, the local skunks are welcome to share our acreage.
And I’m glad one felt comfortable enough to leave his calling card on my office door.
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