Archived Outdoors

Up Moses Creek: Mr. Plume

While all skunks have black and white coloring, the specific pattern can vary significantly between individuals. Fred Coyle photo While all skunks have black and white coloring, the specific pattern can vary significantly between individuals. Fred Coyle photo

I’d been sprayed once years earlier, so yesterday morning I knew what might happen when, standing on the ridge above our house, I turned and saw the skunk.

That first spraying happened in 1960, and though I was just a boy, my memory of it is still sharp. I was hiking across a field looking for adventure when I heard my dog, Caesar, barking at something that looked like a small black-and-white cat with a fluffy tail. I ran over to pull him off the little creature, and that’s when I heard a slight hiss in the air. 

I’d had my nose in a lot of bad odors before then, and, being a boy, I enjoyed making them myself. But the next thing I remember, I was running back towards the house as fast as I could go, coated in a skunky stench so putrid it made my nostrils burn and my eyes run. Even Caesar couldn’t outrun the smell. I heard him ahead of me yelping.

The dog beat me home, so by the time I arrived, out of breath and feeling sick to my stomach, my mother had an idea of what I was bringing home with me. She had locked the door. It was winter, but she told me from her side of the glass that if I wanted in, I had to take off my clothes first, tennis shoes too. Pointing to the back of the yard, she told me to leave everything there. 

By the time Mom finally cracked the door to my naked and shivering body, she had run a tub of hot water, mixed with tomato soup. I think she even dumped in a bottle of ketchup and a can of stewed tomatoes—tomatoes being a remedy for getting rid of skunk smell. Today the Humane Society says that tomato is not the best thing.  “A particularly effective remedy that’s safe for dogs and cats, as well as humans,” the organization recommends, is to make a shampoo of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid dish detergent. What the Society doesn’t understand is that the key ingredient in the old-time remedy was not the tomato soup, it was the vigor with which it was applied. When I got in the tub, Mom rolled up her sleeves and scrubbed me to a bloody froth.

If you think my mother’s reaction was over the top, keep in mind that the scientific name for the striped skunk — the kind that sprayed me — is Mephitis. That’s Latin for “a noxious exhalation from the earth.” Put your nose to the entrance of a skunk burrow and you’ll understand the source of the Latin name. Actually, the striped skunk’s full scientific name is Mephitis mephitis — “noxious exhalation” double concentrated. Chemists say the spray is “a chemical compound of (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol and 2-quinolinemethanethiol, as well as acetate thioesters.” Translating that into English, being sprayed by a skunk is like being gassed with a foul mix of maggoty meat, rotten eggs and tear gas. The stench is so powerful the human nose can detect it 3 miles away. It is so potent for self-defense that baby skunks are born with it, and they can shoot it by the time they’re eight days old.

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So you know what was going through my mind yesterday morning when, standing on the ridge, I turned and saw the skunk. But then I blurted out, “Well, where did you come from!” You see, I knew the skunk. In fact, earlier in the week I’d sent an email about this very skunk to our neighbors here up Moses Creek. 

“Neighbors,” I wrote, “I just want you to know that Becky and I have a visiting skunk. He started coming around our house at midnight two weeks ago. Though we couldn’t see the skunk, part of him would drift in through the open window and wake us up, sending us under the covers. But a few days ago he started showing up at the bird feeder in daylight to eat the seeds that the birds have scattered on the ground.” 

I went on to tell the neighbors that the skunk was large and handsome, all black on the legs and belly, with a vertical white stripe between the eyes. Individual skunks can vary a lot in their black-and-white pattern, and I’ve seen one almost solid black. But this skunk had two broad bands of white fur, one running down either side of his spine. And the bands joined at the rear to make a big, fluffy, pure-white tail. So, we’d named him Mr. Plume.

I ended my email: “Mr. Plume hasn’t bothered us; he’s not aggressive. He just wants to eat the bird seed.” 

To be continued. . .

(Burt Kornegay ran Slickrock Expeditions in Cullowhee for 30 years, and is the author of “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown Valley.” He lives with his wife Becky up Moses Creek in Jackson County.)

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