Skunks and Snakes

Two skunk episodes and a snake story seemed fitting for Spring. The late Peter Harp’s delightful book, Horse and Buggy Days, a History of New Paltz carried the 1906 John Kaiser skunk story, written in 1965. The second skunk tale, by Vivian Wadlin, occurred in Plutarch in 1952, and her snake tale took place in Highland in the Spring of 1992.

John Kaiser

One of the first farmers I remember was John Kaiser, who lived on the south side of Mohonk Avenue just east of Tricor Avenue. He was short of stature and always had a long beard. He operated one of the many small general farms in this vicinity. When he walked to the village in the evening (he was an ardent member of the Knights of Pythias), he would carry a kerosene barn lantern. In the winter, like many people he used felt boots to keep his feet dry and warm.

One day, about 1906, a live skunk was discovered in the store of S. Deyo and Son at 58 Main Street. The customers fled–the help and Mr. Deyo retreated, but left the doors open so the skunk could get out, but he was in no hurry. A crowd gathered and they were trying to figure out a solution to this unusual problem when John Kaiser appeared. He walked into the store and calmly took the skunk by the tail, holding it at arms length so it could not use the rear legs to operate the scent bag and carried it to the rear lot giving it its freedom, to the great relief of all including the skunk.

Another Skunk Tail Tale

When my brother and I were in grade school, we had a trap line in what had been known as Crozier’s Ditch, that meandering swamp paralleling Plutarch Road to the east. Mink, or at least muskrat were our quarry, but we mostly trapped air.

One morning as I was leaving the house to catch the school bus, I heard my brother excitedly calling me from the swamp. I knew we had finally gotten a mink. Not exactly. I found my brother bracing a long pole with a fork at the end. The fork of the pole was through the O-ring on a trap. In the trap was a very large, very angry skunk. My brother instructed me. After all, he was my older brother. I would hold the pole. He promised that as long as the skunk couldn’t get its feet on the ground, it couldn’t spray us. Right. The plan was simple. As I held the pole, skunk swaying in the breeze, my brother would release the trap, the skunk would fall, we would run like mad before the dazed skunk could turn on us. It seemed like a good plan. Well, certainly better than anything I could think up, I was only seven. As I took control of the pole, the skunk, sensing an opportunity in our confusion, managed to brace its back feet against the pole. The skunk let me have it. And there was plenty of it.

My coat, which had taken a direct hit, received a decent burial. I was scrubbed down with tomato juice as my mother considered the appealing alternative of co-burial. I never regained a lust for fur.

Snakes alive

I’ve always liked snakes. I’ve kept them for pets, saved them from highway slaughter, and generally preached their protection as reliable insect and rodent eradicators. I loved learning about them. It never occurred to me that I’d learn something about myself from them.

One spring I had three snake episodes in rapid succession. I had seen a small black snake entwined in a honeysuckle vine just below my porch. The next day, forgetting it, I walked by its place. We startled each other, taking the equivalent of a back-slither/step. With an unhurried second measure of each other, we continued our separate lives. Not frightening, a mere startle. I was aware, vaguely, that my back-step was not an adrenaline-filled response to perceived danger. It was just an unanticipated presence and therefore startling. It could as well have been a bird.

About two weeks later my husband and I walked together out one arm of our circular drive to the mailbox. My husband stayed there reading the newspaper. I wandered back to the house along the drive’s other arm, engrossed in a letter.

In mid-step I was stopped by a very loud, guttural, non-human sound. Amazingly, I had made it.

Additionally, my arms had shot out to the sides as though to hold back my (non-existent) companions. There I stood, frozen. Less than three feet in front of me lay a coiled copperhead. Unblinking eyes challenged me for the sliver of driveway separating us.

There was no conscious processing of danger. I can’t say I saw the copper head until I stood transfixed by its stare. I had been reading a letter. Awareness was, instead, simply an almost physical blow to my solar-plexus. It created the sound, bent me over slightly, and threw my arms out, palms back. All the things you needed to do to warn your group/tribe of imminent danger.

In a fraction of a second, I was hurled back through time. I experienced a devolution of what had over the ages propelled each successive generation of my long forgotten, but still resident, forebears. They stood with me and within me facing this ancient danger.

The complete foreign-ness of that moment, the vivid, uncensored reality of my mind’s total focus, its clarity, continue to delight and enrich me. Some raw instinct for survival had been nudged and had sprung to life.

I liked knowing I probably would have survived back then, that I would have been a valuable neander- or homo-somebody to have had in one’s social group.

Weeks later, a third snake, a worm-like, five inch ring neck, had taken refuge under my garage door during the night. He was sluggish from the cold. I easily picked him up and housed him with some grass in a mayonnaise jar. Watching him, I re-lived the amazement of the other encounter. Reluctantly, I let him go.


Note: Under ordinary circumstances a snake will make every effort to get away from you. We’ve seen many copperheads and they were always intent on fleeing. This copperhead, however, would not leave our driveway, and we realized it had been hurt, probably by a car. Days later, and with great sadness, my husband killed it with his bare Saab. Homo-habilis never had it so good.

The Resident Tourist