Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ahimsa (up to a point)

Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word ('noninjury') for the Buddhist doctrine of avoiding harm to any living being.  In the year we spent in Thailand where I was an exchange teacher we often visited Buddhist monasteries because the grounds were, by default, wildlife sanctuaries. We could see even from a distance, driving up to them, trees filled with stork nests or sleeping giant fruit bats. But even devout Buddhists had to face certain practicalities. As, for example, when microscopes were invented, and people learned for the first time that the water they drank was filled with microscopic living creatures. They had to wonder: When I take a gulp, am I destroying millions of living things? They sensibly decided they were only responsible for things they could actually see.

Ahimsa: Reverence for Life. It's an important doctrine for us, too, in our sort of secular Buddhism, but we also have had to face practicalities. I don't remember if it was The Shadow or some other of the crime fighters I listened to on radio when I was a kid, whose motto was: 'Friend to those who have no friends, Enemy to those who make him one.' I have added that motto as a footnote to my use of the word Ahimsa. It gets us past chiggers and ticks and mosquitoes and fleas. Well, add yellowjackets and the big red paper wasps, whose nests I don't allow in the yard since they tend to attack us. But otherwise we are tolerant of the arthropods that live in our neighborhood, in fact we do all that we can to attract them to us.

What about mammals? Well, we love mammals too. When, some forty years ago, we moved into our little house out in the country, we thought our place had it all: it was on an acre of land, a dirt road in front, fifteen or twenty healthy oak trees about forty years old, railroad tracks across the street perfect for elevated walks for miles through fields and swamps, and across the tracks a twenty-or-so acre untouched woods also forty years old (the deed to the house showed us the area had been clearcut forty years ago). Lots of mammals were present. Coyotes denned in the row-crop fields behind our house, and when the trains sounded their whistles, the coyotes howled in return. Voles and shrews had tunnels under the leaf-litter, cottontails were numerous in the yard and chewed up the saplings I was planting all over, but a wire cage around each shoot solved that problem. Beautiful fox squirrels came over from the woods to share sunflower seeds with the birds at our feeders. When we moved in, our house was not very rodent proof and in our first winter house mice invaded in droves. We could hear them in the attic chewing the insulation on our electric wiring. That made them an ENEMY. I set out snap traps and caught them by the dozen, and we sealed up the house better.

Raccoons and opossums were common. We always had one or more cats which wandered in and adopted us. We fed them on the front porch, and sometimes at night if we turned on the porch light we would see them sitting out there with a raccoon sitting comfortably next to them. The raccoons had one bad habit though. We hung plastic cages of suet blocks up in our trees for the birds, but sometimes in the morning we would find them missing, and if we walked across the street looking for them we eventually would spot the cage hanging thirty feet up in the raccoons' den tree. We forgave them though, because sometimes the mother would bring her troop of babies into the yard and they were so comical to watch, invariably one still pottering around in the yard when the rest had left, then the mother coming back irritatedly to fetch it.

But we had our closest relationship with the opossums.

There were openings under the house to give access to the crawl space, and in our first winter an opossum moved in. One day I looked out the back window and saw him do something astonishing: He gathered together a big pile of fallen oak leaves, then wrapped his prehensile tail around them and carried the whole stack under the house. He built his nest right under the bathtub, and when we sat in the tub (which no doubt spread some of its warmth underneath it), we could hear the opossum, inches away, scratching contentedly, then beginning to snore.

But in the spring when I crawled under the house to see how things were I discovered that he had pulled most of the insulation off of our heating and cooling ducts, finding that to work better than dried leaves. He became ENEMY number two, and when he met the fate of most of his kind and was run over on the road out front, I put wire grills over all the openings.

There were other adventures, but let me come forward to last winter. On a number of occasions we began getting fairly strong whiffs of skunk, on our porch, or in the backyard. And then one night we heard scratching around under the living room floor, and realized it had moved in with us. When I looked out back the next morning, I saw where it had pulled one of the screens out a little ways then tunneled underneath it.

At first I thought, if it behaved itself maybe we could co-exist. Lately we had replaced our old heating and air-conditioning system, and now the ducts were up in the attic and the vents were in the ceiling. But the old heating and cooling floor vents still remained, though we had blown them full of insulation to block them.

Well, one day I noticed a funny smell in the living room, but couldn't work out where it was coming from. Then it got stronger. We thought maybe a mouse had come into the house, and the cat (an indoor cat) had killed it and left it under the couch. We searched every inch but found nothing. Finally we traced the smell to the heating vent. It was coming from the skunk's nest, and no matter how much insulation we stuffed in the vent, we couldn't stop it. It wasn't the skunk's defensive smell; it hadn't had an encounter with some other animal under the house. That would have been really bad. No, this was just the smell of a skunk at home, and, we learned to our surprise, they are very smelly animals.

ENEMY number three. Now you might think I could wait for it to go outside, then seal up the openings airtight. The problem is, this was mid winter, freezing temperature outside. That skunk was for the most part sitting tight. There might even have been enough mice down there to keep him going. Perhaps he only went out once every couple of weeks. So how would I know when he was out? You'll say, that's easy, put some flour out and check the opening (several times a night?) for tracks leading out, with no sign of tracks leading back in. I even tried that, but after a couple of days the flour gets rain or dust on it, and you can no longer read tracks on it.

Cheryl went on line and found a local person who removed skunks. He charged quite a bit of money for the service, and besides, he had moved to Little Rock. But very decently, he left a detailed description of his technique, so we could remove the skunk ourselves. First of all, you got a big live trap. The ones for squirrels weren't big enough. You need one at least Raccoon size. You set it outside the opening baited with marshmallows, which of course no skunk can resist. Now you might think the skunk would respond with sudden anger to being entrapped, but the expert swore it wouldn't, but would be waiting patiently in the trap when you got up in the morning. The trick was, not to sneak up on the skunk and startle it. But to approach it from a little distance in plain sight, and approach "unthreateningly," that being the secret. And then, very unthreateningly, stick the skunk and the trap in the back of your car. Now when I lift up the back lid of our small SUV, it leads straight into the car, so I would be putting the skunk in right behind me. And then just drive unthreateningly, I guess, until you are at least ten miles away, as they have a good sense of geography, sort of Lassies of the mustelid world.

I saw a lot of drawbacks. The live trap sounded expensive. The detail cleaners might have charged a lot in case of an unprecedented accident.

In the end I went to Lowe's garden section and bought a few cinder blocks and flat cement slabs, nineteen dollars worth, and a dollar-fifty bag of marshmallows. We had heard the skunk moving around and thought this might be an activity period in the midst of its semi-hibernation. I put the bag of marshmallows outside the opening by our bedroom. I closed up all the other openings with the blocks and slabs so that a wolverine couldn't have scratched its way in. Then I closed up the opening near our room except for one skunk-sized gap (but I had a slab next to it that I could use to seal it in one second). I took a thin sheet of plywood and leaned it up against that opening.

As soon as it was dark, I took up my station in the darkened bedroom, straining my eyes out the window to see if the plywood had been pushed out. The first night I watched until I had to go to bed, and even then, got up several times during the night to check. Nothing. The next night looked like a repeat, so I yielded to temptation and went out to the living room to sit with Cheryl and watch a crime thriller on Netflix. The nest was under the living room and we heard the skunk stirring. I raced out to the bedroom window and looked, and the plywood had been pushed outward. I raced out and sealed everything up and came back to the living room panting. Maybe it had just peeked out and immediately gone back in. But maybe it had stayed out long enough for me to have caught it out. We waited a couple of nights and didn't hear anything. The third day I went outside and thought I could smell his personal B.O. on the porch. I followed the scent and it made a complete circle of the house, pausing especially by each opening under the house, as if looking for a way to get back in. The problem is, its smell seemed able to drift through the walls, so maybe what I was smelling was the skunk trapped inside the house, going around looking for an exit.

A week later there was a two-inch snowfall, and there were its tracks, very distinctive with their long nails, and it indeed circled the outside looking into every former opening for a way to get in. We kept the openings blocked all the rest of the winter, crossing our fingers that we wouldn't hear it stirring in its bed. In the spring we took out the blocks and just had the screens.

It was gone. It was gone!

But the house went right on stinking. It wasn't so bad, and sometimes it was almost gone, but when temperature or humidity were right, the smell would hang in the front room like a ghost, a presence that we couldn't quite see.

This past winter had been skunk free, the lingering odor fainter and fainter. So we were suddenly alarmed to get a strong skunk smell outside, the defensive smell, but just a brief burst, like it met up with an only slightly threatening animal, or even, who knows? had a touch of incontinence. Then a few nights later we were watching our crime program in the front room when we thought we heard a scratching around from under the floor vent, and I groaned thinking, How could I have let down my guard?

It was a bitterly cold night, just when a skunk might have been seeking a winter retreat. I went out the next morning and searched around. By great good fortune we had had frozen pipes earlier, so I had put big boards over the openings, to protect the pipes from the cold, and that had made the openings as secure as the big cement blocks would have been. When I checked, they were all in place, and it seemed to me there was no possible way the skunk could have gotten in.

Here is a picture of the screened opening, vulnerable to being dug under or pushed aside, and here it is with wood in front of it to protect the water pipes from cold.

We had heard the scratching under the floor, but I told myself it might just have been a mouse. Still, I caught myself waking up in the middle of the night and listening for sounds coming from under the house. Again the snow rescued us. We had had a few inches of soft powdery snow a week earlier, and most of it was still on the ground. There was another minor confrontation and a suffocating defensive burst outside the bedroom window. In the morning I had tracks to follow.

The skunk had walked all the way around the outside of the house. I could see the four feet of its funny loping walk.

And then I got perhaps some insight into its nervous squirts. Another predator was on the scene, our neighbor's burly tomcat had been striding through our back yard. I could see its bipedal track (cat's place their hind feet exactly in the track of their front feet). Right outside our bedroom window, the two sets of tracks crossed.

The best thing I discovered was out in the front yard where I saw a regular highway of tracks leading back and forth from a big outbuilding on our next door neighbor's lot. The building was half empty and they would probably never know the skunk was there. At any rate, the skunk was our neighbor's problem now, and we eased back into our love for all living things.