Sunday, August 2, 2009


This afternoon, as we walked on the campus of the University of the South, we noticed an overwhelming silence in the streets. Students who attended summer school have departed, and as we trekked toward the post office (a trek that is billed as the highlight of the day for Sewaneeans, according to a legend on the back of a Sewanee t-shirt), I entertained myself by evaluating the vegetation along the way. Suddenly, my botanist friend Vickie spied a miniature pink flower with tiny white specks on the bloom that appeared to be its nectar guides. We later discovered that the flower is a diminutive member of the “pinks” family, a migrant plant from the Old World called Dianthus, which means “divine flower.” My father liked the name of this plant and claimed that my own name, Diane, was derived from the divine flower. He always planted a row of “pinks” along the front walk to please me, even after I had married and moved away, but none so small as this tiny flower.

After reading about cultivation of the small flower, I feel that I’m not likely to find a potted one with blooms as small as the one we plucked. It was in the front yard of an old house with a slatternly gallery and was almost hidden among greenery. Many times during our walks to the post office, we see a small bed of flowers beside the sidewalk of this old home, but we hardly ever see the gardener. Flower gardens along our route are scant, and this year I’ve been hearing complaints that the latest invaders of plots planted by persistent gardeners are skunks, one of which expels her pungent odor right outside my study window at Fairbanks Drive. I spied her one night as we walked back from a lecture at the Writers Conference, and my friend Vickie warned me to get inside before the skunk became disturbed –this animal is very neurotic about people who cross her path. And I’ve become neurotic about protecting my small flower bed! I can tolerate deer, moles, snails, and foxes who ravage our garden, but skunks are off limits!

When my oldest daughter was three months old, two skunks began to fight every night right under the floor furnace that warmed our “shotgun” frame house in Electra, Texas. One night, these rowdies had a violent brawl, and both sprayed at the same time. The fumes coming through the floor grates were so pungent they seemed to coat our lungs, and we could hardly breathe. I was afraid Stephanie’s tiny lungs wouldn’t survive the overpowering scent. “Get up,” I told my former husband, “and do something.” His reply was: “Take the baby and go next door. The neighbors will help you. I’m going to the office.” An engineer with Texaco, he seldom showed such enthusiasm about going to the office early, but he left me on the doorstep of the neighbor where I rang their doorbell at 5 a.m. The Wilsons took the baby to their warm bed and advised me to remove our clothing from the house and hang the articles on the clothesline in the backyard, then to burn sage in every room of the house all day. This remedy worked, and when my former husband came home later than usual, the smell and the chaos had subsided. He and the neighbor waited until dark and, shotguns poised, began a nocturnal vigil. Fortunately, the skunks showed up early, and by 10 p.m. they had departed this earth, never to roam the streets of Electra again. This act redeemed my former husband’s desertion of us after the early morning skunk spraying, but I often wonder what would have happened if my neighbor hadn’t been so accommodating.

Well, that was a stretch -- from Dianthus to skunks -- and I only have a photo of the flower that Vickie snapped– you can forget about me taking a picture of the skunk because if the aroma floats through my study window, I’m not regarding this as a photo op – she’ll just have to pose for one of the naturalists who live here on the mountain. For me, one time sprayed is all-time wise!

Photograph of the "pink" by Victoria Sullivan
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