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How I learned to love my skunk

AH, SUMMER. In New England, a friend here recently explained to me, there are three times of year. Either winter has just been, or winter is coming, or it's winter.

I know what he meant. Summers here are short - they start on the first of June and end on the last day of August, and the rest of the time you had better know where your mittens are - but for the whole of those three months, the weather is agreeably warm and nearly always sunny. Best of all, the weather stays at a generally agreeable level, unlike Iowa, where I grew up and where the temperature and humidity climb steadily with every passing day of summer until by mid-August, it is so hot and airless that even the flies lie down on their backs and just quietly gasp.

It's the mugginess that gets you. Step outside in Iowa in August and within 20 seconds you will experience a condition that might be called perspiration incontinence. It gets so hot that you will see department store mannequins with sweat circles under their arms. I have particularly vivid memories of Iowa summers because my father was the last person in the Midwest to buy an air-conditioner. He thought they were unnatural. (He thought anything that cost more than $30 was unnatural.)

The one place you could get a little relief was the screened porch. Up until the 1950s nearly every American home had one of these. A screened porch is a kind of summer room on the side of the house, with walls made of a fine but sturdy mesh to keep out insects. They give you all the advantages of being outdoors and indoors at the same time. They are wonderful and will always be associated in my mind with summer things - corn on the cob, watermelon, the night-time chirr of crickets, the sound of my parents' neighbour Mr Piper arriving home late from one of his lodge meetings, parking his car with the aid of his dustbins, then serenading Mrs Piper with two choruses of "Rose of Seville" before settling down for a nap on the lawn.

So when we came to the States, the one thing I asked for in a house was a screened porch, and we found one. I live out there all the summer. I am writing this on the screened porch now, staring out on a sunny garden, listening to twittering birds and the hum of a neighbour's lawnmower, caressed by a light breeze and feeling pretty darned chipper. We will have our dinner out here tonight (if Mrs B doesn't trip over a rucked carpet with the tray again, bless her) and then I will lounge around reading until bedtime, listening to the crickets and watching the cheery blink of fireflies. Summer wouldn't be summer without all this.

Soon after we moved into our house, I noticed that a corner of the mesh had come loose near the floor and that our cat was using it as a kind of cat-flap to come in and sleep on an old sofa we kept out there, so I just left it. One night after we had been here about a month, I was reading unusually late when out of the corner of my eye I noticed the cat come in. Only here's the thing. The cat was with me already.

I looked again. It was a skunk. Moreover, it was between me and the only means of exit. It headed for the table and I realised it probably came in every night about this time to hoover up any dinner bits that had fallen on the floor. (And there very often are, on account of a little game the children and I play called "Vegetable Olympics" when Mrs Bryson goes off to answer the phone or get more gravy.)

Being sprayed by a skunk is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to you that doesn't make you bleed or put you in the hospital.

If you smell skunk odour from a distance, it doesn't smell too bad at all. It's rather strangely sweet and arresting - not attractive exactly, but not revolting. Everybody who has ever smelled a skunk from a distance for the first time thinks, "Well, that's not so bad. I don't know what all the fuss is about."

But get close - or, worse still, get sprayed - and believe me it will be a long, long time before anyone asks you to dance slow and close. The odour is not just strong and disagreeable, but virtually ineradicable. The most effective treatment, apparently, is to scrub yourself with tomato juice, but even with gallons of the stuff the best you can hope is to subdue the odour fractionally.

A schoolmate of my son's had a skunk get into her family's basement one night. It sprayed and the family lost virtually everything in their home. All their curtains, bedding, clothes, soft furnishings - everything, in short, that could absorb an odour - had to be thrown on a bonfire, and the rest of the house thoroughly scrubbed from top to bottom. The schoolmate of my son's never got near the skunk, left the house immediately and spent a weekend scouring herself with tomato juice, but it was weeks before anyone would walk down the same side of a street as her. So when I say you don't want to be sprayed by a skunk, believe me you don't want to be sprayed by a skunk.

All of this went through my mind as I sat agog watching a skunk perhaps six feet away. The skunk spent about 30 seconds snuffling around under the table, then calmly padded out the way it had come. And as it left, it turned and gave me a look that said: "I knew you were there the whole time." But it didn't spray me, for which I am grateful even now.

The next day I tacked the mesh back into place, but to show my appreciation I put a handful of dried cat-food on the step, and at about midnight the skunk came and ate it. After that, for two summers, I put a little food out regularly and the skunk always came to collect it. This year it hasn't been back. There has been a rabies epidemic among small mammals which has seriously reduced the populations of skunks, racoons, and even squirrels. Apparently this happens every 15 years or so as part of a natural cycle.

So I seem to have lost my skunk. In a year or so the populations will recover and I may be able to adopt another. I hope so because the one thing about being a skunk is that you don't have a lot of friends.

In the meantime, partly as a mark of respect and partly because Mrs B caught one in the eye at an inopportune moment, we have stopped playing food games even though, if I say it myself, I was comfortably in line for a gold.

`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday, price pounds 16.99