A chill is in the air now, the days have shortened, the blooms in my flower garden have begun to fade. All the signs that autumn weather is upon us bring to mind the many outdoor chores that await me; putting to rest my large perennial beds and raking the leaves that inevitably blanket the ground as October begins to fade. As I sit at my window chin in hand, contemplating the work ahead, I find myself longing for Flower to return to the yard. I wonder if she will choose the underside of our deck to make her snug little nest for winter's rest again this year?
Last season, when I exclaimed with evident delight over what I considered to be Flower's wise choice, my friends' responses varied from mild shock to outright horror because, you see, Flower is a skunk.
Flower entered our lives early last autumn by displacing a young groundhog that had taken up residence under our deck. Built low to the ground with only one step leading down to the lawn, the deck offers a rather cosy and protected place for some of nature's more urban wildlife to find refuge.
The discovery of Flower's existence happened in the early hours of the morning, when unable to sleep, I heard the rustling sounds of unidentifiable activity beyond our bedroom window. Propping myself up to listen more intently, I noticed Leo, our normally night-prowling cat, sitting on the window sill staring down into the garden with the intense, fixed expression that only a mesmerised feline can convey. What was out there?
The first signs of unusual activity in the yard had begun a couple of weeks before when I noticed that the leaves normally covering the lawn at this time of year were missing. The deep purples of my crab-apple tree, the golden greens of the lilacs and the brilliance of fallen maple leaves were not there, and yet the trees were largely bare. What had become of them? I simply could not fathom my then six year old son taking it upon himself to skilfully rake up this seasonal evidence and my husband had certainly never willingly undertaken this task without at least some prompting. And yet, there was our green lawn with barely a wilting leaf to be seen.
My suspicions were further aroused when I noticed, much to my amazement, that one of the garden jobs I like the least, the cutting back and tidying up of the large day-lily bed that runs along the back of the house, had been partially completed. Being in a hurry I had left the contemplation of this mystery to another time which did not come about until I found myself propped up on my elbow listening, along with Leo, to the rustling night sounds.
Unable to contain my curiosity, I quietly slipped from the bed and crept to the window, hesitating for a brief moment before pulling the shade higher. I stood, staring into the darkness and suddenly she was there. Oblivious to either myself or Leo, or perhaps simply not caring, she worked diligently gathering into bundles the remaining day-lily leaves from the garden. Once a good-sized bundle had been made, she walked backwards down the slope from our house to the lawn rolling it along with her as she went. Placing the bundle between herself and the deck she proceeded to shove the whole business into a small opening there. She disappeared in after it.
As I stared at the spot into which she had disappeared I began to wonder if, in my early morning stupor, I had somehow imagined the entire episode, when she emerged, only to repeat it all again. Without hesitation I quickly jabbed my husband awake from what had been, he later told me, a profoundly deep sleep, so as to have this bizarre sighting confirmed. After stumbling around in search of his glasses, with me hoarsely telling him to keep the noise down, he joined me and Leo at the window.
After a time, as Flower kept busily at her task of what must have been the preparation of a very cosy winter home, we turned back to our bed knowing we had just witnessed one of those rare events that one is unlikely to experience again.
Later that morning in the light of day, I ventured out the back door, walking ever so gingerly across the deck, stepping as delicately as I could manage onto the lawn to inspect the results of the moonlight activities. My day-lily bed was a sight to behold. I could not have been more pleased if I'd done it myself. All the fallen and dead debris was gone with only the neatly reduced stalks left in clumps. Flower, I thought to myself, where have you been these past gardening years! I concluded that before taking on the lily bed Flower had effectively removed the leaves from the lawn, perhaps creating the foundation for the lily leaves to rest on. But I am only speculating here; skunk nest-building habits having never seemed important before.
We never actually saw Flower again, as we are not in the habit of being up at 2 a.m., but I like to think that she overwintered under the deck. On those bitterly cold, raw January days I would think of Flower hunkered down in her nest of dried leaves dreaming of the grubs that would await her in the spring.
It was when I shared this story with my two young children that the decision was made to name her Flower. I suggested what I thought to be more deserving names that reflected the diligent creativity of this obviously misunderstood animal, but because the children had only recently seen Bambi it meant Disney's influence prevailed.
I have not thought of Flower in some months now, but the sight of the season's chores brings her to mind with a fond longing many have had difficulty understanding. There is a strongly held belief that you cannot have a skunk without stink. It was when I tried to convince friends that our skunk did in fact not stink that I came up against disbelieving eyes. I was unable to convince them that what was missing from our well endowed gardens was a skunk! Yes, along with the many varieties and plant species we gardeners collect, the craze for all things terracotta and cast-iron, the toad houses, the water ponds, the lady-bugs to eat our aphids, and worms to do our composting, we have neglected the wondrous benefits of the skunk.
But I am quite convinced of the benefits, a true believer now, who waits hopefully for Flower's return bringing order to my dishevelled autumn beds and a tidiness my lawn rarely knows.
Carolyn Quinn, and hopefully Flower, are residents of Laperriere Avenue.