Aposematism. “Fair warning.” That is what that long Ancient Greek derived word means. “Stay away!” Or as it applies to skunks, “I stink; get back”. When one sees the white stripes among a skunk’s black fur Mother Nature apparently believes that is sufficient warning of skunks’ antisocial character. The Greeks used the term, aposematic, to identify any animal that had a way to warn off enemies.
My recent experience with skunks has led me to question whether skunks understand the “stay away” thing should go both ways. It also confirms my long held conclusion that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had already discovered over 2,000 years ago almost everything worth knowing.
The Ancient Romans provided the term for the scientific family we call skunks. It is Mephitidae which was based on the Roman god that referred to the malodorous gases emitting from swamps and volcanoes. It appears skunks had infiltrated the greatest cultures of Western Civilization. Of course, skunks and their relatives have not spared any other great cultures either.
But, Gentle Reader, we are not concerned with etymology, the origin of words, but with the origin of behavior, particularly skunk behavior as it relates to the family of skunks that has apparently decided Peg and I are their friends and that our home is, also, their home. What happened to that age-old skunk/human dynamic of don’t bother us and we won’t bother (or spray) you?
For three weeks now a family of skunks has been determined to live with us. This might not have been intolerable if the family of opossums and one squirrel that had already chosen our cabin as their home would have just moved on and given our crawl space to the invading skunks. However, reasonable retreat was not the opossums’ and squirrel’s decision. War was declared and you already know what the Dooms Day war weapon of skunks is. The skunks beneath our cabin deploy their spray frequently every night between about 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. depending upon the aggression of the opossums and the squirrel. Of course, Peg and I, whose only role has been to provide a warm dry area for all involved, get the collateral damage from this domestic terrorism. The stench wafts up through the floor and pervades every inch of our living space.
Peg used to tell me I needed to understand the competing animals are simply some of our fellow mammals acting naturally. My attitude started out negative and has rapidly escalated to that of Bill Murray’s as the golf course groundskeeper in the movie Caddyshack and his battles with gophers. I just want them out from under our cabin and out of our lives. I realized I had slipped over the edge when I began to visibly rejoice each time I’d pass a dead skunk flattened on the highway. And Peg’s “tsk, tsk” admonition to me finally changed last night.
About 2:00 a.m. Peg heard a noise and got up to investigate. She opened the bedroom door that leads out to our porch. Fortunately she had switched on the outside light first. As she gingerly put a foot out the door a skunk came around the corner and headed into our home. Peg screamed, “Skunk!”. I grabbed my shot gun. The skunk kept coming. Peg slammed the door just as the skunk’s nose hit the glass. Peg and I are finally on the same page. Terminix, traps and anti-critter sprays and pellets are now our mantra. One positive thing is the opossums have decided they are through fighting and they and the squirrel have “moved on”. Now we just need to convince the skunks, starting with this “adorable” white with black stripe specimen that we caught last night. See the Euell Gibbons-like photograph Peg took.
Peg and I recently moved from Posey County in southwestern Indiana to Osage County in northeastern Oklahoma. The acculturalization for me was fairly seamless as I was born in Pawhuska, which is the county seat of The Osage. As for Peg, she was born in Schenectady, New York and has lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River her whole life. She is what we of the Oklahoma persuasion would generally classify as a “Yankee”. For Peg, the move from the land of corn, soybeans and concrete has been, well, let’s just say more interesting. And our log cabin out on the prairie thirty miles from the nearest Walmart occasionally poses new challenges for her. Oh, we do have a Dollar General about five miles away, but there’s one of those everywhere so that does not assuage Peg’s concerns.
As Peg becomes accustomed to being called “Ma’am” and getting to frequently use her high beam headlights on the uncrowded highways she is often confronted with the ambiance of a life lived among creatures she used to assume lived in zoos or within the confines of the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve or the 3,700 acres of the marvelous Woolaroc Museum with bison and other animals only 7 miles from our cabin. Imagine her reactions when she began to encounter hawks, eagles, deer, wild turkeys, cattle, armadillos, scorpions, coyotes, opossums and raccoons right outside our door. Actually she has habituated quite well to most of Mother Nature’s creatures even when they pushed their way into our personal space. Unfortunately, our most recent visitors have been a family of skunks. That’s right. What the French zoologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857) classified as Mephitidae, which means stink.
When Pepé Le Pew was cavorting on the cartoon movie screen in search of love while spouting off in a French accent, the skunk came across as cute and lovable. However, when our own skunk family took up residence under our cabin and spent their nights defending their territory by spraying copious volumes of malodorous ink at the opossums challenging for the same space, Peg called for Terminix. The nearest office was in Tulsa fifty miles away.
Now we have live traps baited with some kind of cat food and cement poured into every cranny around the base of our cabin. Each night the skunks find a new way to burrow, chew or claw their way back under our home. Gentle Reader, please imagine city girl Peg’s reaction to the wafting of odiferous waves of stench up through the floor and into her rugs and clothing. That’s right. It ain’t pleasant.
On the positive side we probably do not need to worry about any visitors wanting to stay even the traditional 3-day limit. As for Peg, she now understands why I bought a shotgun when we decided to move west.
Before he served our country in Viet Nam my friend Jimmie Reed worked on his dad’s ranch in Foraker, Oklahoma. Jimmie and Bill Moon and I played football for the Pawhuska, Oklahoma Huskies and graduated together in 1961. The summer between our junior and senior years Jimmie’s father, Phil Reed, needed some fence built and Jimmie volunteered Bill and me to help. Mr. Reed paid us $7.00 per day plus a hamburger at lunch time at the old Foraker store.
One typical Osage County July day Mr. Reed and Jimmie came into Pawhuska at 6:00 a.m. and picked up Bill and me to work. If you have never had the experience of building barbed wire fence across a pasture of unyielding Osage County sandstone where shade is illegal, may I advise you to maintain your current status. We were equipped with bales of barbed wire, wire cutters, wire stretchers and, surprisingly to me as a town boy, sledgehammers and long iron pikes. Oh, we had manual post hole diggers but they shrank in fear when encountering two inches of top soil over two feet of rock.
About the only way to drive a metal fence post deep enough to hold stretched out wire was to first stand on the tailgate of a pickup and make a hole by driving down an iron pike with a sledgehammer. Then we had to drive a post into the hole.
That particular bucolic summer day on the prairie as I dodged the zooming grasshoppers and wondered how I was going to pay Jimmie back later by beating him at snooker at the local pool hall if we made it to dark, a cowboy from the nearby Boots Adams ranch drove up and spoke to Mr. Reed. Mr. Reed who was usually calm and laconic got agitated. I overheard him tell the cowboy something had to be done right away. Mr. Reed used a couple of emphatic words I had never heard him utter before.
Gentle Reader, you are probably wondering why Mr. Reed and Boots did not simply discuss the matter via their cell phones. Well, in 1960 a pickup was the cell phone. Anyway, the cowboy took Mr. Reed’s comments back to Boots. Here’s what it was all about.
Boots Adams, who was once the president of Phillips Petroleum Company headquartered in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, used to regale eastern dude money men with the great golden west by introducing them to cowboys, horses, cattle and the small herd of buffalo he kept at his ranch. We called them buffalo before the Nature Conservancy opened shop and made us say bison.
It turns out bison and cattle are kind of like Democrats and Republicans. They generally do not play well together. So, Mr. Reed told Boots’ cowhand something had to be done when the cowhand said seven of Boots’ buffalo had broken out and were causing havoc among Mr. Reed’s cattle.
Well, Boots’ cowboy hurried back to Boots with Mr. Reed’s concerns then returned. I heard the cowhand say, “Boots said to just shoot ‘em”. Actually, Boots used somewhat more colorful vernacular. As for the cowhand he produced several rifles and ammunition and told Mr. Reed that Boots was sending a flatbed truck with a wench to meet up with us where the buffalo were roaming.
Mr. Reed, Jimmie, Bill, the cowhand and I jumped into the two pickups and flew off to hunt buffalo! It was not long before we found the burly beasts ambling around Mr. Reed’s pasture as though they belonged there. And just as the politically incorrect buffalo hunters who used to kill herds of buffalo from a train’s flatcar, we removed the seven marauding behemoths.
Please do not castigate us, the last of the buffalo hunters, for protecting the cattle. It was a job that had to be done. And it sure beat building fence. I wish Jimmie and Bill, and Mr. Reed too, were still here to fill any gaps in my recollection. On the other hand, I know wherever they are they are cooler than in The Osage in July and are perhaps still chasing after some mystical buffalo instead of pounding down fence posts.
Ma’at, the daughter of Ra, the sun god and Hathor his wife, may be the earliest recognized use of a deity holding a scale to represent justice. A few thousand years later the Greeks looked to the goddesses Themis and Dike to balance court cases, then the Romans envisioned Justina as a blindfolded law-giver carrying a set of scales and a sword.
I do not know why humans tend to look to women as the bearers of truth but my guess is it is because we all had mothers and most likely we realized early on that what mom said was the law. Dads may occasionally get to brandish a sword but all smart husbands know when the rubber meets the road mom rules.
Regardless, all those female judicial goddesses are portrayed trying to balance the scales of justice. One does not need to be a judge in a court to understand law is a matter of balancing interests, the yin and yang of life.
While every court case can be better understood applying the lessons learned from the study of balancing competing interests, rape cases can be jarring evidence of why tipped scales and slipped blindfolds have represented failed justice systems for thousands of years. The balance of power between a victim of a sexual assault and her or his assailant is often greatly weighted in favor of the antagonist. And not only does life on the streets usually favor the assaulter, when the legal system gets involved often such things as the wealth, power and fame of some defendants tilts the scales in their favor vis a vis other defendants. Therefore, not only does Lady Justice sometimes have her scales akilter against the victims of an assault, she also disproportionally imposes more severe sanctions on less well situated criminals, a dual slippage of the blindfold and an unfair tilting of the scales.
If a defendant has means and connections he or she may be able to avoid even being charged or, if charged, may be able to avoid jail or even a conviction by paying money directly to the victim. It is certainly justice to compensate victims but is not justice to buy one’s self out of jail. Such tilted scales can lead to a cynical belief in society that Lady Justice is no better than some other practitioner of situational ethics. And if society comes to believe that a thumb on the scales is to be expected, the goddesses will lose their symbolic moral authority and the justice system will be seen as just a system.
One judge bragged he could look an attorney right in the eye the whole time the attorney was making an argument but never hear a word the lawyer said. In fact, that judge was just like the rest of us. Much of what we appear to hear may as well be a foreign language. We smile and nod but are totally unaffected by much of what others try to convince us. And, of course, we all know very little that we say to others has any hope of convincing them to truly agree with us, even as they nod their heads up and down. If you are married, you might feel the truth, and frustration, of this phenomenon.
It is not just the state of my ability to hear that prevents me, and probably you too, from comprehending what someone in a movie, on television or even someone right next to us in a noisy room is saying. Just as a traffic cop continues politely filling out your citation while he does not consider your reasonable explanation, most of us already have our minds made up about practically everything. Therefore, please do not attempt to confuse us with information on the subject at hand.
In many situations it is not our fault that new facts are irrelevant to our decisions. Take our hypothetical traffic cop for instance. He/she often has but a moment to observe some fleeting situation. He/she may have an ill child or a demanding spouse or be behind on his/her rent. What he/she does not have is the time or inclination to debate with you.
The same thing happens with judges. By the time a case gets to court the judge may have already read the file including briefs and depositions. The judge may have predetermined his/her decision and arguments in court are simply something that must be endured, not listened to. Trial judges often believe that is exactly how appellate court decisions are made.
Regardless of your circumstances, you may feel no one is hearing what you want to say. Actually, others may hear us but they just have their minds made up and the competing demands of our busy lives drive out our ability or desire to reevaluate our positions.
That may be why the same sermons get delivered at almost every religious service and why parents have to constantly admonish their children to do their homework. We hear but we do not listen. We see but we do not comprehend. The constant drumbeat of others attempting to confuse us with their thoughts eventually becomes just so much “sounding brass or tinkling cymbals”. 1 Corinthians 13:1.
So the next time you grab someone’s arm and ask intently, “Are you listening to me?”, you can almost certainly assume they are not. On the other hand, you can hope they will at least smile and politely nod in response.
When our son, Jim, served in the Gulf War in 1990-91 and the Iraq War in 2006-07 and briefly in the Afghanistan War in 2007 he observed one of war’s most vital premises: our country should never fall behind the curve of military superiority. America was fortunate to recover from Pearl Harbor in time to help the Allies survive World War II. In the age of nuclear and cyber warfare we might not be able to survive World War III with outdated technology. The United States must remain vigilant. Vigilance does not call for aggression. In fact, our Constitution demands defense, not offense. However, we have been in an offensive mode militarily since we unwisely intervened in Viet Nam after France was driven out in 1954 after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Beginning in 1956 America saw fit to emulate the errors of the French and we have been intervening militarily in numerous countries ever since.
One thing we Americans thought we had learned from the discovery that our government had misled us into the Viet Nam War was the old truism that in war the first casualty is truth. This adage is often attributed to Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) but it probably has been noted by many observers of peoples drawn into wars by their leaders. By the way, those leaders have almost always not been the ones to do the fighting.
Such examples as King David sending Uriah to die in battle to hide David’s seduction of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, Second Samuel, chapter 11, or perhaps President George W. Bush’s false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or now our government’s claims about our war in Afghanistan may illustrate this ancient principle.
Just this month Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that America’s war in Afghanistan, our longest war ever, was conducted on a basis of lies to get and maintain Congressional political and funding support. The Washington Post newspaper published reports that Douglas Lute, former White House Afghan War official under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, had testified America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 without a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan or what America planned to accomplish there.
Of course, Americans are no longer surprised that our government misleads us into wars. Unfortunately we have become inured to it. That is the danger. It is as frightening as the old story of the boy who cried wolf. If our government continues to mislead us into unnecessary wars, will we citizens respond appropriately when, and it could happen some day, we are asked to sacrifice our lives and treasure for a just cause such as our country’s survival?