An Animal by Any Other Name Would Smell

The perfection in euphemism could well be the "essence peddler." I recall the genteel nicety with which my discerning grandmother would announce at breakfast that an "essence peddler" had been in the neighborhood during the night, and she was forced to rise and close her bedroom window.

The essence peddler is a skunk, and in my grandmother's time, simple decency dictated that offensive speech should always give way to pleasanter words. A skunk, Grandmother might explain to you, stinks, but with "essence peddler" he takes on a sweeter, if only verbal, flavor.

While my grandmother observed such rules of ladylike conduct, I used to sit there eating my porridge and wonder boy-fashion whatever possessed anybody to meddle with a skunk in the middle of the night in our dooryard and cause such an unpleasant ruction. I smelled the skunk in the night, too. Calling it something else was not about to influence my opinions.

I have never, in all my years since, found the slightest clue as to why a skunk will go to the trouble of contaminating the countryside when there's no need to. What rouses the little beastie to such wanton extravagance? Why did he pick on us? Not a thing going on except the chirp of a cricket, maybe, and suddenly in the sleepy silence of the idle moon a passing skunk presumes he has been insulted and assaulted, and he rallies to his own defense. Which has no result or effect other than to cause a dear little old lady who is socially correct to call him an essence peddler. Which, to paraphrase somebody who used to be funny on old-time radio, ain't the way I smelled it. Grandmaw didn't tell it like it was.

The skunks I got to know went about like this: In the first place, a skunk is a good-looking chap, and if used as a household pet is the size of a cat but bushier in the tail. He is probably a better mouser than any cat now extant, and probably cleaner, although statistics on the domesticity of the skunk are lacking in some aspects. My own observations have shown that a skunk, while equipped to do violent destruction, is reluctant to do so, and will not respond at random.

He needs to be challenged close to, in a manner revealing animosity and promising suspension of civil liberties. He needs things spelled out before he takes umbrage. This is generally true, except for dogs. Skunks seem to disfavor dogs, and I suspect that it is usually a dog who gets a skunk's dander up in the stilly night.

Skunks are nocturnal, but once in a while my grandfather would find one by his beehives in the daytime. The skunk would be sitting by a hive's landing board, where the worker bees would be coming and going about their business, and Grampie noticed that when a skunk thus occupied picked up a bee to eat it, he always selected one that was returning from the field. A bee that had emptied his nectar and was setting forth to fetch another load was ignored. Homecoming bees are sweet.

Disliking this method of stealing his honey, Gramp would pick up the skunk by the scruff of its neck, as you would a puddy-tat, and carry it beyond the orchard wall, where he'd set it down and tell it to go home. It would be two or three days before a skunk would find its way back to the beehives.

One time Abner Littlehale told my grandfather that a skunk would sit by his beehive and lap up bees, and Gramp advised him to carry the creature away. So Abner tried that, and it didn't work the way it did for Gramp.

Mrs. Littlehale wouldn't let Abner in the house, and he had to stay out in the barn with the cows until after Christmas. He tried to tell his wife that Tom Gould had said it would be all right to move the skunk, and she told him to go up and sleep with the Goulds. Grandfather stayed neutral in this, saying only that "I dunno, Abner just must-a done something wrong."

Long after Gramp was no longer around to advise us, I had a task of cutting some Gatchell Birch that had taken over along the orchard wall. In Maine that's spelled Gatchell and pronounced "gitchell." It's a poor cousin of the paper birch, growing freely like alders, and it has no value as timber and makes inferior firewood.

CUTTING it was pure cosmetics, and I was laying the trees down with a chain saw, planning to stove-length them for the maple-syrup evaporator later. I looked up, and there was a young skunk going by. I was a half-mile from the house, and five miles from any dump, so I was perplexed that this little fellow had his head inside a used peanut-butter jar.

He walked slowly, unable to see, and he appeared to totter, suggesting that he had been wearing this glass bottle for quite some time. Somewhere he had found the thing and gone inside as far as he could, to see if any peanut butter had been left for him. A skunk's retreat from a peanut butter jar is a labor and a difficulty. My newfound friend was in palpable distress, and I was about to save him. I hit the bottle a good clip with the back of my ax.

Alas, dear reader, you have never been inside a used peanut-butter jar when your only friend hit it with an ax. You do not know what an incentive that is for an essence peddler to display his goods. But my little fellow did no such skunky thing. He shook his head, looked up at me in gratitude, and his beady eyes spoke unbridled thanks until he cuddled in the turf at my feet and went to sleep. He was still sleeping when I went homeward at chore time, and I made no effort to disturb him. No, I never saw him again. And I did pick up the broken glass.

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