The most common conflicts we encounter in literature, as well as in life, are man versus man, man versus self, or man versus nature, and nature is generally inanimate. It may take the form of a vast desert one must traverse, a towering mountain one must ascend, or a light shower when one has a fancy party dress and new hair style yet no umbrella. Of course, nature comes in many shapes and sizes. In The Life of Pi, a young boy is forced to share his small life boat with a large tiger. In Abel’s Island, Abel, a mouse, attempts to rescue his wife’s scarf and is swept away in a deluge. He ends up stranded on an island with no immediate means of escape. He’s lonely but safe, or would be were he not constantly fleeing from a highly determined bird of prey. And in Jaws, well, the name sort of says it all.
Although man versus animal conflicts may not be as commonplace, they can be incredibly powerful. And what’s even more horrifying than the fear of sudden and violent evisceration? There is one creature scarier than a tiger, more frightening than a great white shark, more terrifying than the “most foul, cruel and bad tempered rodent” chillingly depicted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He walks alone in the world because few ever dare approach. This seemingly harmless critter is the stuff of legend, famed in story and song, and perhaps best described by one of the most revered, highly respected lyricists of our day, Louden Wainright III in his timeless tune Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.
It is the rare individual indeed who will willingly tangle with Mephitis mephitis. Better known as the striped skunk, it’s one of the most common mammals in the United States and Canada. Why? That’s simple. No one wants to mess with him. As Wainright eloquently points out, even a dead skunk can stink to “high heaven” and that stink can sometimes be detected as many as twenty miles from the source. Thankfully, skunks are generally peaceful and tend to mind their own malodorous business. However, no matter how cautious you are, it is possible that old Mephitis mephitis may cross your path at some point. There is a right and most definitely a wrong way to handle such an encounter. I’ll give you an example of each.
My aunt Jane is one of the most rational, sensible people I know. She recently had a problem with chipmunks and squirrels, both members of the Sciuridaefamily of small or medium-sized rodents. The little buggers were helping themselves to the bird feeder, digging holes and making nuisances of themselves. Rather than go all Bill Murray–Caddyshack and bring in an arsenal of fire hoses, shotguns and plastic explosives, she did the humane thing and invested in a couple Have-a-Heart traps. A few unwelcome visitors were successfully relocated. Then, complications arose. Specifically, she trapped a skunk. What to do? What to do? The details are a little fuzzy but, best I can figure, she told her husband to deal with it. I told you she was sensible. Actually, they joined forces and their plan involved a blanket, a long tree saw and a lot of tip toeing. The skunk is now free and no one got skunkified.
And here’s an example of what NOT to do. Years ago, my wife and I were camping with some friends near the shore of Lake Ontario. We had adjoining campsites, and a single man moved into the next site down the line. I can only assume he was single because his wife found out he was an idiot and left him. One night, we were all sitting around the campfire, roasting marshmallows, talking and doing what campers do. Along came a skunk. We got very quiet and simply watched while Pepe Le Pew made his rounds. He checked out the picnic table area, sniffed at the small bag of garbage we’d hung in a tree and then went on his way. At the next site, unoccupied at that point, Pepe’s routine was about the same. Then, he ventured into site number three where the single man was presumably swilling beer and contemplating all the mistakes he’d made in his life. He saw the skunk… and went ballistic. He yelled. He cussed. He swore. He threw things. By all rights, the skunk should have blasted him with both putrid barrels. It’s absolutely what the guy deserved. Unfortunately, proving he was the more mature, Pepe gazed at him disdainfully and then continued on his way. There’s really no moral to this story. I just thought it was funny and I wanted to share.
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