Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Last evening, as I was reading a line from Joseph Campbell, “Sri Ramakrisna says ‘Do not seek illumination/unless you seek it as a person whose hair is on fire seeks a pond,’” I was called to the kitchen window to see the illumination of something that set my hair on end – a huge skunk standing in the light of the yard lamp. Light shone into its expressionless eyes, but it went back to rooting for grubs like a pig after truffles, even when we beamed a flashlight on its body. From the direction of the hemlock in my backyard, a deer came out and observed this nocturnal beast for a few moments, and all three of us froze in a frame of territorialism, watchful against intruders.

The deer ambled past the fence, and I went out on the porch to get a closer look at the critter. Because we didn’t move around, it must have felt safe, and  it slowly undulated toward the hemlock, then disappeared under its drooping branches. To me, the animal seemed both beautiful and terrifying; the latter because years ago a skunk sprayed into a floor furnace beneath our home in Texas and also because the size of the animal in the yard was unlike that of a “regular” skunk. I thought perhaps it was a badger. However, “Pepe le Pew” presented a fluffy white tail, and, after researching the two animals, I discovered that badgers have stubby tails. At one point in this nocturnal drama, the skunk seemed to be dancing around in a frenzy.

This morning after Eucharist at St. Mary’s I asked Sister Lucy (who knows the wildlife around Sewanee) if she thought it was a badger, but she said “no” and that skunks in these parts are often as large as I described and have broad white markings on their bodies and, sometimes, a fluffy white tail.

I don’t know if I’d really like to have badgers around as they often burrow in yards and do a lot of damage. Still, when I looked at Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of a badger this morning, I really wanted to catch a glimpse of this nocturnal animal. Potter wrote a book about a badger and a fox entitled The Tale of Mr. Tod in which Tommy Brock, a badger who captures two bunnies (could my critter have been searching for the brown bunnies that brazenly graze on my lawn daily?) and puts his catch in an oven in the home of Mr. Tod, the fox who is temporarily away from his residence. When the fox returns home, he and the badger end up in a fight and roll down a hill fighting like the bad guys Potter wanted to portray.

Frederick Warne didn’t like Potter’s opening paragraph of The Tale of Mr. Tod in which she relates that she was “tired of making goody goody books about nice people” and that she’d make a book about two disagreeable people called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod. Warne changed her opening lines to read: “I have made many books about well-behaved people.” I almost expected Potter to step out of the mountain mists during the short time my nocturnal visitor roamed the yard – the scene was surreal, with the critter waving that white tail like I’d imagine a stripper waves a big white fan, then disappearing into the overhang of the hemlock.

I guess we’re luckier than one of our friends who lives in a home perched on the bluff near Monteagle, Tennessee where a buzzard frequently visits. She says she awakened one morning and found a large black buzzard eying her through the window of her bedroom, which overlooks a wraparound deck. We told her that the big bird was probably after smaller birds that often crash against the glass panes and die on her deck, and she registered some relief that the vulture wasn’t eying her for a meal.

Although we live on the campus of the University of the South, Sewanee is a village intermingled with deep woods, and I’ve written about some of the critters that roam around campus at night in my recent book of poetry entitled Alchemy. Alchemy should be available at amazon.com within a few weeks.

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