The Warm And The Wild

After two days traveling, I’m finally back with my family for Christmas. It’s wonderful to be back here from my travels. I love to go out into the wide wild world … and I love coming home to my gorgeous ex-fiancee.

It’s got me thinking about the odd life I’ve led, and rather than write something about that, I thought I’d put up here a story that I wrote a while back about my craving for adventure and my love of home and hearth. So here’s a Christmas story for everyone, with my best wishes.

When I was a kid on the cattle ranch my stepdaddy worked in the surrounding forest as what’s called a “timber feller”. The fellers actually fell the trees, they are the aristocracy of the logging crew, and by all accounts, he was a good one. One of the things he was best at was finding baby animals whose parents had been killed and bringing them home for us kids to raise. And because she took care of the ranch and the cattle and walked the fields and fences, my mom used to find them as well. At various times we had a baby horned owl named Dr. Simpson, a baby flying squirrel that could really fly, and of all things, a tiny baby skunk. Named The Skunk. We also had a dog named Puppy until it died of old age, and a cat named Kitty. The Skunk was always and ever just called “The Skunk”, in capital letters like that.

Dr. Simpson was the most amazing baby bird. She used to ride around on my mom’s shoulder. Her head could do that crazy owl trick of going almost all of the way around and then snapping back to the other side so fast it looked like her head was going in circles. Us kids loved to walk around her. She liked to take showers in the sink. We’d turn on the faucet, and she’d hop in under it, and preen her feathers, and make her funny owl sound.

We never kept them in pens or cages or anything, they just lived in the house. The squirrel liked to glide from the upper bunk bed to the floor, with us kids cheering her on.

We never mistook the owl and the squirrel for domestic animals, though. And when they got older, they seemed to recognize that. We made no attempt to send them back to the wild, but at some point when they got old enough they started spending more and more time outside, and then taking forays away from the house, and longer forays, but always returning each night before dusk and sleeping in their old beds. Then, first one and then the other were just gone, and we never saw either of them again.

The Skunk 2

The Skunk was different from the start. There’s no mistaking a skunk for a domestic animal. When they are tiny babies like The Skunk was, they hardly have any skunk smell at all. Their squirt guns don’t even develop until they are a few months old. But even then it’s clear that they are wild.

Now you can get skunks de-scented, but when we first asked about it The Skunk was too young … and then the days ran on, and ran on some more, The Skunk was still around, ranch life went on, dog, cat, kids, horses, chickens, pigs, a whole raft of cattle, and the odd skunk … and one evening we were all getting dressed up to go to town. Going into town from the ranch was a big deal, seven miles of bad dirt road, it was always a notable occasion. And this time it was the school fair, involving bobbing for apples and the like, a night for kids instead of grownups. There were about twenty kids in our grade school, and seven of them were me and my brothers and cousins. My oldest cousin, she would have been maybe eleven, I was about seven. We were all excited to go. And that night, my cousin walked out on the porch, where she managed to startle The Skunk. He turned, and did that funny dang half-handstand thing that they do, lifted his hind end in the air, and gave my cousin the full head-to-toe treatment.

The Skunk

I’d never realized until that day that smells could be contagious, but that skunk smell was more catching than Ebola, and at least forty percent as lethal. My cousin came running back in the house, she was a very unhappy young lady … and when we laughed at her and said “P.U.”, that strange acronym from my childhood that meant she smelled really really bad, she understandably lost the plot entirely and tackled us and punched us around … by the time mom and my aunt came in from the back, every one of us had caught the smell. We didn’t just smell of skunk, however. We reeked of skunk, we radiated skunk, we were the source and very fount of skunk. It was one of those smells that seem to make the air around you shimmer like a heat mirage. The Skunk was still on the porch, no telling what he thought of the result of his first foray into the perfume business. All seven of us were unceremoniously dumped into the bathtub, the shower was turned on, and we were instructed to start scrubbing. Nowadays people talk about using tomato juice to get rid of the smell, but where the heck were we going to get ten gallons of tomato juice? Fels Naptha soap was what we used, and it does a dang poor job with skunk, too.

We finally got scrubbed up, and we got in the car, and we went to the school fair. We were not exactly pariahs, but people did tend to maintain a respectful distance from the entire tribe of us … and for weeks afterwards I’d turn a corner in the house and there that smell would be again …

The Skunk lived with us for some months after that. We didn’t hold that evening against him, we just kept more distance and moved kinda slow around him. And as he came of age he too started to travel further and further from home.

But curiously, he didn’t disappear entirely one day the way that Dr. Simpson and the squirrel did. Instead, he came home less and less often. He started by staying out overnight. Then it stretched to a couple days. But he’d show back up, and shoulder up to eat the dog food out of the bowl with Puppy, they were great friends. They’d chow down together, exchange pleasantries, and then he’d disappear for another couple days. Then his absences grew longer and longer, and one day he stopped coming back to eat at all.

And that would have been the end of it … except that there was a green grassy hillside across from the ranch house on the far side of the barn, with Latour Butte in the background behind the tall firs growing on the slope of that hillside. Just seeing that picture brings it all back, the place of my childhood, long gone now.

rough-diamond-summer

And late one afternoon, with the golden sunlight slanting far and low across the fields, we saw The Skunk sitting out on that hillside, just sitting at the top of the field below the fir trees and looking at the ranch house.

We all went out to see if it really was him, and it was. He was dignified in his greeting, skunks are great on their dignity. But he kept a bit of distance, he didn’t want us to get close to him. Although to be fair, we weren’t too enthusiastic in that regard either. But he didn’t run away. We sat with him a while, and after we left to return to the ranch house he stayed and watched us walk back. We waved goodbye to him.

And that would have been the end of it too, just as it was with Dr. Simpson the owl, and the flying squirrel … but for the next couple years, a few times every year, always in the early evening, I would see The Skunk at that favorite spot of his on the hillside, where he would sit, and look just across the little valley to the where the ranch house lights shone out through the windows. From there he could hear the shouts of us kids, and see the people come and go in the evening. He’d just sit there and watch us for a while, and then the next time I looked up, he’d be gone. I don’t recall ever seeing him arriving at that spot or leaving that spot, I’d just look up one evening and he’d be there, and I’d watch him sit there. I always loved to see him, and then after a while, I’d look up and he’d be gone.

Even as a kid I always wondered what it was that brought The Skunk back to revisit the scenes of his childhood, and more than that, what he was feeling when he watched the evening lights come on, what he thought when mom would call her kith, kids, and kind in from outside for dinner, a dinner that back in the day he used to share with us. I wondered, why didn’t he come and have dinner with us like he used to? He knew my mom’s dinner call of old. He used to show up just the same as the rest of us kids when her voice rang out announcing mealtimes. He would come in from wherever he was playing and he would shoulder up to eat next to Puppy then … why not now?

What did he feel, I wondered, when he saw mom once again framed in the front door with the light behind her, hearing the siren song of food and friendship from that warm ranch house in the gloaming, with the call of our mother, the only loving mother he’d ever really known, ringing out across the hillside, calling all of her children and charges to come to food and caring … and on on the other side, yet and still ringing back from behind him in the gloaming, the pulsing dance of the wilderness, the rise and dark loom of the forest, and the songs of all of his ancestors echoing from the hills? What does a halfling skunk feel then, a child of two worlds, pulled from both sides by the endless and intricate bonds of blood and adventure and music and wilderness and kinship?

As a man who loves to solve puzzles, I rejoice in the fact that this astounding planet provides a cornucopia of mysteries that I will never solve, questions that I will never answer … and as a stranger from my birth, I can only have compassion for The Skunk, for I too have spent a lifetime pulled between the warm and the wild.

However, I have no option. I have to have compassion for The Skunk and his choice, because over the years I’ve basically blown all of my opportunities to live a proper domesticated existence. At this late date about all that’s left for me is to keep on making the choice The Skunk made … don’t forget the warm, but keep living the wild adventure, keep pushing the boundaries of the possible, keep peering over the misty precipice at the far edge of the known world.

Because when the bell tolls and the ride is over, I don’t want to be sitting around with a bunch of geezers recounting how many warm dinners I had …

In friendship, and with thanks,

w.

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22 thoughts on “The Warm And The Wild

    • Thanks, Bear. I read that so long ago. What I remember is some guy freezing to death in the Yukon or Alaska and his dog going feral when the boss falls off the perch.

      Is that the one with the dogs competing to see which one can move sleds that start out frozen to the ice? I remember it as a good story, and London is a writer I admire.

      w.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, that’s the one with the pulling contest. Master dies and the dog avenges him and goes off to live with the wolves but comes back each year to mourn his master. That’s why your story reminded me of it. You have some great stories. I rank them with Robert Ruark for describing a time and place and he’s wrote one of my favorite books. Merry Christmas and may all your travels bring you home.

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      • WWhat is most remarkable about “Call of the Wild”, IIRC, i that it is told from the POV of the dog. Brilliant.

        TGannett

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  1. Reminds me in spirit of the words of our Nobel bard

    Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
    Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
    The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
    Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
    Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
    Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
    With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
    Let me forget about today until tomorrow

    http://bobdylan.com/songs/mr-tambourine-man/

    (According to Dylan, that song was inspired by a real person, a good character.)
    https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/20850-forgotten-heroes-bruce-langhorne

    “Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’”

    Thank you for the songs you play for us! All the best for the new year!

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  2. My cousins had a pet skunk named Petunia. It loved to play hid and seek and would stand and jump up and down stiff-legged when someone ran upstairs where she couldn’t follow (too small at that time). Just like The Skunk, she wandered off and disappeared.

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  3. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your Solomons trek with us all..it brought back so many fond memories for me. Very sad to hear that the corruption has become even worse…with the climate change gravy train providing a “legitimate” smoke screen for new and previously unimagined scams on a colossal scale.

    Darwin would surely be turning in his grave if he knew how his great insights into coral island growth had been spurned by so many supposed learned men 200 years later. It’s a little bit like the knowledge lost during the dark ages.

    Kolombangara is indeed a “man among men” in the island world; the most beautiful, perfect and mysterious of the Solomon islands in my opinion. Rangitoto in Auckland is it’s baby cousin and always reminds me of the BSIP.

    I can just imagine your photographic eyes soaking in all the sights, sounds and smells on that last stroll through Gizo. Always sad to leave a place you love.

    Like

    • Alastair Brickell December 26, 2017 at 4:50 am

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share your Solomons trek with us all..it brought back so many fond memories for me.

      Alastair, I can only say that it is my great pleasure to have people along on the trip. Ever notice how someone visits from out of town, and when you take them for a drive you notice all the things that have become so commonplace that you don’t pick up on them?

      For me, writing about what I do has the same effect—I see things with new eyes. I remark on curious and interesting connections that would otherwise pass me by because of familiarity, like the fact that the small denomination currency is oily and the large bills are not.

      So in truth, I owe you thanks as well, because without my readers it would have been a different and far less interesting trip to the ex-BSIP, the “British Solomon Islands Protectorate”. It was never a colony, too much malaria, they called it the “white man’s grave” … but so far, at least, I seem to have avoided both the malaria and also the dengue fever that both are endemic to the area.

      Best Christmas wishes to you and yours,

      w.

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  4. I love the way you tell stories, but most interesting to me is the way you see the good in the characters you describe; people I’m sure that I myself would have a hard time accepting and understanding. I don’t have the personality to travel and meet future friends that you apparently do.

    Thanks for letting me see them through your eyes.

    joe

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    • Thanks for your kind thoughts, Ronald/joe. I’m generally just so amazed by the different folks that I meet that I do my best to set aside my personal prejudices.

      It’s kinda like what I do in my cartoons of people. I do caricatures, but I want everyone in my cartoons to look like some idealized version of themselves. The way I explain it to myself is that in my cartoons I want everyone to look like a superhero … there’s an old saying, “No man is a hero to his butler.” I don’t want to be anyone’s butler in that regard.

      I also am cautious about what I write about others because I don’t know what they may or may not be sensitive about. I figure, if they want to write about some particular subject that I may know about, that’s up to them.

      Regarding having “the personality … to meet future friends”, I’m willing to say just about anything to someone I don’t know. I’ll compliment them on something, or toss out a joke, because I figure, where’s the downside? I mean, what’s the worst that could possibly happen to me? They say “Why are you bothering me?”, and I say “Sorry, I guess I was just feeling too good today” or something, and I go on to feast my eyes on something else.

      You might give it a try, push your boundaries, see where it gets you … I particularly like asking people what they do for a living. One thing I’ve found out in this life is that if you name any activity, say “mountain climbing”, there are people out there doing it for free, people out there paying to do it, and people out there getting paid to do it … I like finding out what people are passionate about.

      Best regards,

      w.

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  5. You !@#$%^&*U Make me cry. You write your stories like poetry and I pound out Me Tarzan you Jane and that doesn’t even work because Burroughs could turn a phrase.

    Any case my suggestion.. Since you’re so busy having the adventure, find an editor to collect your book. It’d be shame to lose the craft if you end up drown somewhere.

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  6. Willis, it was a delight to see this tale again- a few years ago I did a reading of it at a local open mike night in Tehachapi, CA, and it was warmly received. You have a gift for words, thank you for sharing them with us.

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  7. What a fine childhood you had, Willis! Thanks for sharing it.

    For the last week my emails to you at your surfacetemps address have been bouncing with the error, “The recipient server did not accept our requests to connect.” Do you have a different/better address, these days?

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    • Thanks, Dave. I had an … interesting childhood. Not sure I’d recommend it for everyone, but for me and my brothers it was astounding.

      On the other matter, my email got buggered up while I was in the South Pacific. I have a gmail address now, weschenbach at the usual gmail address.

      w.

      Like

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