Skunks are handsome, skunks have style—the nobility of that roly-poly, ambling gait! Long live the skunk. But in all the woods, the thing to envy is not, surely, this particular skunk kit, half carried, half dragged down these train tracks, the nape of his neck fast in his mother’s not terribly careful jaws.
With his eyes closed, he doesn’t show too many signs of life. He's dead weight the size of a tea-cozy. He’s as long as his mother is high, which is to say, not very, and his limp legs bump on the railroad ties like a rag-doll’s. His mother mouths him, drops him, re-mouths him, carries on, all ambling noblesse, while he hangs slack as a Jolly Roger in the Doldrums.
Why are they here, six o'clock in the morning, these two striped skunks coming down the tracks at the rate of an old caboose missing its engine? If the kit’s eyes have been closed from birth, as is likely, and not from fear or pain, he's probably less than four weeks old. Are they changing dens? Have they been evicted from their most recent? And where are the other three to six kits a mother usually has with her this time of year? Is she ferrying them to some new safety, one by one?
But like the sandpiper with one leg, or the killdeer with a broken wing, or the opossum in rigor mortis, the skunk kit a few weeks old is more than you give him credit for. Dropped once more, he comes to life, paws pawing, tail twitching, blindly squeezing his way into the gap between the outside of the train track and a wooden slab wedged up against it.
Even his mother, sharp-nosed forager that she is, can’t get her snout in there. She gives a little grunt of irritation. A brown thrasher, as though keyed in to any new sounds for his mimic repertoire, pops up to a shrub beside the tracks to watch the action. He shuts the rusty fan of his tail like an opera-goer high on the mezzanine. Mother skunk, in a moment of inspiration as human as it is comical, reaches a paw into the crevice and scrapes her little one back out into the open. She picks up where she left off and they move on.
The June world’s taken everything by the collar, the hair, the ear, any handle it can find. No one has the luxury of sitting back to watch. The yellow-bellied sapsucker chicks are crying from their treetop hole like little banshees, and ants pour out from under the house by the thousands. A wildflower called Sleepy Catchfly blinks open for an hour on a rocky outcrop, then goes right back to sleep. The young, the unworldly, the next generation of things, all peek out from their nests, dens, lairs, and rush out into a place suddenly lacking corners. But this one mouthful of skunk, passing from one den to another, still blinder than any bat, bumping along the railroad ties as black as he—who’s to say whether he can feel the earth sprawling away from him in every direction, the brightening sky breathing down his neck?
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. A book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, will be published in the fall of 2014.