One night a few weeks ago, just when we were getting ready for bed, an odor drifted up from the basement — one that is instantly recognizable and universally despised: skunk. At first we thought the cat had unwisely cornered a member of the mephitidae family (a close relation of the polecat and weasel), but when I went downstairs to investigate, I encountered nothing but that overwhelming smell — as eye-wateringly potent and punishing as teargas. I’ve since learned that the skunk’s noxious scent and teargas are, in fact, both lachrymators — chemical substances designed to irritate the eyes and nose.
The next morning, we discovered a pane of glass missing from a window below our dining room — one that opens to a crawl space with a damp, dirt floor. A skunk’s spray contains thioacetates, that are initially dormant, but that can morph into smell-producing thiols when they come into contact with water or humidity — such as a damp, dirt floor. It’s the thioacetates, we’ve learned to our chagrin, that give skunk spray its staying power.
Skunks have very few predators, except for clueless dogs and speeding automobiles (skunks also have very poor eye-sight). We’re not the only mammals who don’t want to risk getting sprayed. Wolves, foxes, and badgers all turn tail when they spot a skunk coming their way. That’s why skunks can sashay around the countryside, flaunting their eye-catching black and white furs like Park Avenue socialites at a PETA rally. We never did actually see our home invader, despite the traps that were set up outside around the house. The smell is finally starting to fade. Though on damp days such as this one, you can still catch a whiff drifting up the stairs. An olfactory reminder of the wild world that exists just outside our door.
Here’s a poem by Robert Lowell, nominally on the subject, though its true text is madness which he came to know all too well.
by Robert Lowell
For Elizabeth Bishop
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love . . . .’ I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.