Queen Anne style house, ca. 1885, Keene, NH

The calendar will tell you that today is the first day of summer, but I don’t need no stinkin’ calendar to figure out as much. The skunks serve the same (and more truly malodorous) purpose.

We moved to Keene last July, and one of the first things we noticed was how many skunks there are here. Now, we certainly had skunks living around our house in Hillsboro: in our early homeowning days when I used an old-fashioned, non-mechanized push mower to cut the wildflower-and-moss-speckled patch that we called a “lawn,” I’d regularly see the shallow scrapes left by hungry skunks digging for grubs. (Ours was an entirely organic “lawn”; besides having clumps of moss and clusters of wild strawberry, our yard was home to lightning-fast leopard frogs, slightly slower green frogs, and slowly-ambling-outta-the-way American toads. So grubs and the skunks that snout them were welcome as well.) The skunks in Hillsboro, though, were largely invisible; we saw their signs but not their selves. Since bears frequent the woods that surrounded our house, we kept our trash securely stashed in a closed garage: in Hillsboro, we took our trash to the local dump rather than setting it out for municipal pickup, which made for slim pickings for both bears and skunks.

Queen Anne style house, ca. 1885, Keene, NH

When we moved to Keene last July, one of the major delights of returning to the “big city” life of a town of 20,000 versus one of 5,000 was the phenomenon of street-side trash pickup. Although Keene doesn’t have municipal residential trash-pickup, most homeowners (especially those who rent portions of their property) hire private contractors to deal with their rubbish. Our landlord pays a trash collection service to pickup our trash on Monday mornings (yep, I just put this week’s offering on the curb), and various neighbors are under contract with companies that pickup trash on Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.

One result of this particular rubbish-removal setup is that there is no unified “garbage day” in any given neighborhood, which explains why on any given summer night you will see single skunks strolling down streets and sidewalks trying to figure out which residential “restaurant” will be putting out its weekly bouquet of aromatic delights. Skunks, in case you aren’t familiar with the stripey, stinky critters, love trash. Several years ago, in fact, several animal-rights organizations tried to petition General Mills to change the distinctive wide-bottomed, narrow-necked design of their single-serving Yoplait yogurt containers: it seems the things were perfectly designed to allow a hungry skunk to stick his head in but not to pull his head out. Although skunks aren’t large enough to knock over a full trash-can, they will nibble through trash bags and are savvy enough to forage through cans knocked over by renegade dogs. (Leash laws notwithstanding, you’d think the fact that we have stink-squirting weasels roaming nocturnal streets would be reason enough to keep your dog close-to-home at night, but apparently some folks think as if their heads were stuck in Yoplait yogurt containers.)

Queen Anne style house, Court Street, Keene, NH

During the winter months, skunks hibernate in dens which they sometimes share with up to 10 of their maladorous fellows (who else, after all, would willingly bed down with a skunk?) In the spring, skunks are preoccupied with breeding; now that it’s June, their first litters have been born. So the skunk we saw strolling down Marlboro Street here in Keene last night was probably out looking for take-out to bring back to Mom and a den of hungry kids. Male skunks, I read, can range between 4 and 5 square miles a night foraging for food, so their comic weasel-waddle is deceptive: when it comes to bringing home the bacon, grubs, or over-ripe yogurt, these creatures are diligent wanderers.

I kind of like skunks…from a distance. We saw them frequently last summer, and I assume they’ll be just as active this year. I’ve learned to put the trash out in the morning, not at night, just in case the skunks, raccoons, oppossums, or renegade dogs are about, and we’re careful not to let the dog outside off-leash at night. In the darkness, of course, skunks look something like bushy-tailed cats or enormous squirrels, and Reggie hasn’t yet had a chance to learn the hard way about urban skunkdom. Robert Frost wrote that good fences make for good neighbors, and when it comes to skunks, so do strong leashes and sturdy trash cans.

    Since photographing noctural critters is notoriously difficult, I have no skunk photos to share. So I hope you enjoyed more pictures from Saturday’s architectural walking tour. Both of these Queen Anne style houses are on Court Street here in Keene; the first was built in 1885 and the second presumably dates sometime similar.