When skunks and bears go to town

In 1987, my wife and I were teaching in Denmark. We did a few guest visits to a primary school to speak English with the pupils and answer questions about the United States.

The younger pupils had a strong interest in animals. One especially caught their attention - the skunk. Called a stinkdyr in Danish - literally a "stink animal" - it appears in enough children's books and cartoons to be well known. I carry a toy skunk on trips, and my wife and I know a few children's songs and stories about skunks.

They were amazed to hear that skunks are so common in our part of New Hampshire that we see them, or smell them several times a week. The defense system of skunks is good enough that they are quite fearless. Not expecting to be attacked, skunks don't fear even automobiles. This results in quite a few encounters, with the smell spreading in the process.

We have found that skunks are not the only North American animals that people overseas like to hear about. When we talk of seeing frequent deer, occasional moose, and even bears near our home, Europeans (and even Africans) often react with as much interest - and as many questions - as we do when an African tells us of an elephant or giraffe wandering through his garden.

How did we come to live near all these animals? Well, in a sense, they came to us. We live quite near the center of town, one block from the main street - but it isn't a large town. We have several acres of woods adjoining our backyard, and there is more extensive forest across the street. And why are there woods so close to town? Well, there is a reason.

New Hampshire was farmed intensively from colonial times through the mid-1800s. It became heavily industrial in the early industrial revolution, with many rocky streams providing water power for small mills. There were stone dams at frequent intervals on the rivers and stone walls separating the fields. The glaciers left granite stones mixed through the soil. But the soil shifts with the winter freezes, and the stones move, so you can remove all the stones from a field, and the next year there will be a new crop. The stone walls did serve a function, but in addition you do actually need a place to put all the new stones each year.

When farm machinery became common, the stony and hilly New Hampshire farms became uneconomic and were abandoned. For over a century, the survey every 10 years has shown a higher percentage of the state covered with forest.

When electricity came, and factories that no longer needed a water wheel for power were constructed, the small factories closed. Now, the towns in many cases are doing fine, with tourism and software among the new sources of employment. But many of the old stone dams are in disrepair, the old foundations cracking and decaying.

As you walk through the woods, you encounter the many stone walls and can see where the fields and cow pastures were a century ago. You find abandoned lanes bordered by stone fences, cellar holes, and stone foundations of abandoned houses and mills. A few flowers survive from century-old gardens.

As the forest spreads into what was once farmland, the animal population grows and moves about more easily. And new ski resorts and mountainside condominiums force animals into more contact with people. Both the people and the animals in New Hampshire seem to us to be coping with this pretty well.

When we arrived at our house this summer, we saw a mother deer and its baby browsing in our backyard. The neighbors said they had been there frequently while we were away; now that we've been here a while, they've found another field or retreated into the woods. We've seen moose within a couple of miles of home. And bird feeders are becoming less common, as the bears move in. Our daughter, eight miles away, took in hers when bears started emptying them regularly. She didn't want bears attracted to the yard where her young children were playing.

A friend living in a second floor apartment - its back balcony had a stairway to the ground - called a neighbor one day: "There is a bear on my balcony, trying to reach my bird feeder. I don't worry much about the bird feeder, but he's leaning on my sliding glass doors, and they are bending so much I'm afraid they will break. What shall I do?"

The neighbor went out and made a noise - near enough and loud enough to distress the bear, not so near as to endanger the neighbor. The bear left, and our friend took in her bird feeder.

When one reads of deforestation in so many places in the world, it is nice to live in a place with increasing forest cover. And while I'm not an expert on animal life, it is nice to feel that in this area at least, people are coexisting well with animals that many people in the world consider marvelous and exotic.

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