On skunks and blunt-peaked tin-peckers

Published: 4/8/2019 6:44:12 AM

Having grown up in Southern cities before moving to the unexpected wilds of western Massachusetts, I never imagined myself saying with puppy-jumping eagerness out loud, “You know, there’s something comforting about a skunk under your house.”

Or even odder, what I actually say is, “Woo hoo! The skunk is back.”

Those of you who grew up in the well-known wilderness of western Massachusetts are probably asking, “Are you out of your freaking mind?” I remember when Ashfield elder Norm Nye was consulted on what to do about a skunk living under Anna Fessenden’s house one summer a few years ago, he replied “Only one?”

Every year, for the last five years or so, on one particular morning in deep, late, cold, worn-its-welcome-out winter, I quietly wake up to the warm, happy smell of either someone crouching just below my window smoking a whole bowl of pot or my skunk. Returned again as the harbinger of a future where we all might bare our arms again. Where children and hipsters can run without shoes, and if we break our kneecaps, it’ll be from skateboarding and not involuntary ice-surfing.

I don’t know who that skunk is – I’ve never seen him come or go. I just smell him, starting at about 5 in the early morning. He seems to stay out drinking with his skunk friends all night over at the Opossum Bar (where a fox bartends and frogs play pool in the corner) and just as the sun starts thinking about rising, he slinks on home to sleep it off.

He swaggers in his skunkiness and envelops the whole house in his stinky entourage of effluvium as he parades on in. And the little apartment he comes home to is the one right beneath my bedroom window, under my house.

You want to know why I don’t fix that broken lath under the house? Because then he would have no place to go at 5 a.m., and I want him to know that in my book, he’s as welcome as the swans from Capistrano, or the geese from South Carolina. He means spring, and that means we will all survive.

I don’t really know how skunks work – the skunk smell hangs out around the house all morning until about 11 or so and I don’t know if that means he’s awake, he’s gone, or he’s just gotten embarrassed that he kept all that stink around him and now he’s turned it off, but it disappears until the next morning at 5 when he smells the place back up again.

The skunk brings a friend with him every year that I don’t understand, a fellow spring heralder who arrives in the shape of a bird that I’ve never seen, but goodness knows I’ve heard. He’s the original nature-driven head-banger, and that’s just what he does – bangs his head (or beak?) on hard metal roofs, just out of pure excitement that spring is sneaking up the hill.

He’s not a woodpecker because they peck on wood and not metal. He’s a tin pecker and I’m not making this up.

Ornithologist Helen Snyder (sister of Anna Fessenden and a former resident of Ashfield) told me the name of this bird once, but I don’t remember it now. I just remember him as the blunt-beaked tin-pecker, herald of warmth. (Look him up. John J. Audubon catalogued him, I’m sure.)

This is the time of year when the chipmunks climb back out of their little beds in my attic in order to resume their midnight gnawing on the furniture, but again I will put up with chair-gnawing much happier in spring than I do in autumn when the sound of it just means lop-sided chairs and the end of warm daylight.

Yes indeed – spring’ll make you put up with all kinds of stuff you’d never entertain in your right mind. And it’s not really even spring yet.

It’s just sticking your nose out, happy it’s not getting frostbit this time. It’s recognizing that Vitamin D can cure you right up in a form found beyond capsules and whole milk. It’s knowing that all the stuff that was frozen up all winter will start leaking now – wait a minute; let’s just concentrate on the good stuff.

It means that if I can figuratively hug and kiss a skunk living right under my house, then there is hope for love, peace and understanding all over the world, regardless of whatever else might be going on out there. Even blunt-beaked tin-peckers as loud as they can peck.

Nan Parati, a resident of Ashfield, writes a biweekly column about hilltown life.

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