The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

My First Skunk

By J. Carlton Smith © 1991

Issue: July, 1991

Have you ever been awakened in the night gagging and feeling like you could not get your breath because of a terrible penetrating odor? When you rushed to close your window you realized that an unwelcome visitor had paid you a visit and left their calling card.

Skunks like to come in the night and dig grubs out of the lawn or check out our garbage to see if there is anything in it they like. If they are disturbed they can use their weapon of defense, their scent, which they can throw or spray for several feet. This is quite effective against most animals and people.

It was not always this way in our community. Most of the people, even the older ones, had never seen a skunk. If this was their original habitat, they had disappeared long ago. Even the old timers had never seen one. This came to an end when an old trapper caught one in his rabbit trap or gum as called by local folks. This term goes back to the time when most rabbit traps were made from hollow trees. The same was true of bee gums. They were made from large hollow logs.

Mr. Watt was an old trapper. He was wise in the ways of wood creatures. He could keep us kids fascinated by his stories. As he grew older, he gave up most of his trapping except for rabbits and possums. During the fall and winter he kept his family well supplied with both of these.

One morning he went to his rabbit trap and found a strange creature in it. He was very puzzled because he didn't know what it was. Unlike my brother who caught a possum in his rabbit trap and thought he had caught the devil, Mr. Watt often caught possums and would have recognized one. He would keep them up and feed them for a while before cooking them. I have never eaten possum, but they look good baked brown with sweet potatoes baked around them.

Mr. Watt kept a flock of very hardy, half wild chickens. They scratched through the woods and were very good layers. He also had an old guinea hen who could fly and sail a long way when disturbed. I often frightened the old guinea just to see her fly.

The morning Mr. Watt caught the strange creature in his trap, two neighbor ladies came by to get some eggs to set as they wanted stock of more hardy chickens. He told the ladies about the strange unidentified creature he had caught and wanted them to see it. He poured it out of the trap into a gunny sack and slammed it against the ground until it was dead. This rough treatment made the skunk mad and it released its scent. The ladies holding their noses made a fast retreat. They said, "Mr. Watt, we haven't ever seen one but from that smell, we are bound to believe it is a skunk." They got their eggs and hurriedly left for home.

Word went out that Mr. Watt had caught a skunk. A lot of people wanted to see it as they had never seen one. We were just as curious to see it as other folk. We encountered the smell about a thousand feet from the house. It was the worst, most overpowering scent I ever smelled. Still we were determined to see what it looked like. Holding our noses we got close enough to look at it. I wondered how such a pretty animal could smell so bad.

As Mr. Watt was a trapper, he often skinned his catch and cured their hides. He could make a small amount of extra money this way. He decided he would skin the skunk and cure the hide over a board. When this was done, he hung the hide upstairs in his house to dry.

Well, during all the excitement, Mrs. Watt had been gone. She often stayed with sick people or in a home where a new baby had been born until the mother was able to be up and care for the family. She could earn some extra much needed money this way.

When she arrived at home, she was greeted by the awful skunk odor. When she learned Mr. Watt had skinned the skunk and hung the hide upstairs, it made her so mad she left again. She came by our house on her way to my grandfather's house to stay the night. She was still very angry.

She said, "I am going to kill that old man and nail his hide to the wall to dry." I don't remember how long it was before she got in a good mood and went home. Now I wonder how long it was before the skunk odor left the house.

This was the first skunk l ever saw or smelled, but unfortunately it was not the last. This was the first of a wave of skunks that moved down from the mountains and took up residence. They became so plentiful that you were always coming across one. I don't understand why they descended upon us in such numbers. It must have been that they found an ideal habitat and plenty of food.

If I saw one I always beat a hasty retreat. They always had the right-of-way as far as I was concerned. One time I had a very narrow escape. It was a drizzly rainy evening and I had to go milk the cow. This was a chore I did not relish at any time but a rainy time was no fun. I put the cow in the barn and began milking. About the time I got through, I smelled that terrible odor. I looked and there in the barn with us was a skunk! He had sprayed the cow in the face. I grabbed the milk bucket and ran. Although the skunk had not got me, the odor was so bad that I did not want the milk and fed it to the pigs.

For many years the skunks were so thick you were always seeing or smelling one. The dogs had regular encounters with them and lost, but they never seemed to learn. They would look so ashamed as if they realized how bad they smelled. They would roll in the dirt or grass but the odor was a lasting one.

One humorous incident I have heard about a man and skunk encounter, I will relate. This man was possum hunting and his dogs treed something in a hollow log. Believing the dogs had treed a possum, the man went up to urge them on. Just as he got to the dogs a skunk came out and sprayed him and the dogs. His wife made him throw his clothes away. "It was about a week before she would let me sleep in the house," he said.

A little girl once said she wondered why God made spiders and snakes. To this list I would add skunks. I know somewhere in the great plan for the universe they have their place. If only the skunk's bad scent had been left out.