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Against olfaction 

The moist coolness, the enveloping darkness, the fast-asleep quiet: They were all exhilarating. On an early-morning walk long before dawn, I assumed I shared the paths with only dewy spider webs. On that new moon night, the stars were everywhere. The twists and turns were so familiar that I navigated them all in the relative dark. Away from the house and looking north away from town, I watched for shooting stars. Where evergreen ferns met running cedar, I was in nature, clear-headed and free.

And suddenly, squish. I slipped on something that sounded, well, unsavory. My heart pounding and the moment clearly hijacked, I slowly pulled a flashlight from my backpack. Next to my foot was a two-foot, black mound of something flattened, dead and with a tail. Wiping my shoes on a clump of tall grass, I stepped away awkwardly from the road kill.

I continued on the trail, but my nerves were shot. I now looked down warily instead of toward the sky; any shooting stars or other celestial omens eluded me.

Back home, everyone was still asleep. I kicked off my shoes and started making breakfast, beginning another day of family life. That is, until my wife's yawning voice alerted me with disturbing news. Another same-old day had begun: "Hey, did you step on a skunk this morning?"

I don't have much of a sense of smell. I used to. Some years ago, I suffered a two-month bout of Bell's palsy that crushed the right side of my face. The urgent care docs loaded me up with a major-league supply of steroids and sent me on my way. The meds turned me into the Incredible Hulk that spring. My own "steroid era" featured great feats of brush clearing and absurd outdoor excess. I was a chainsaw fiend. They also cured me of my paralysis. But over time, most of my senses of taste and smell never really returned. I'm not the guy to see if the milk's bad; it always tastes and smells good to me. But who's up for some vindaloo?

The whole house now reeked, to everyone but me, of pungent polecat. The dead skunk in the middle of the trail created a problem, and as is the natural world's way, we had to deal with it. The laundries started to run.

Nature asserts herself when least expected. There are no accidents; we're just witnesses. Fall rains wash out a children's bridge crossing a favorite creek, and the next spring, there's a new grove of atamasco lilies downstream. A lightening strike cripples a tulip poplar, sending shards of wood in an uneven circle around its stump. Not only do we have a cord of new firewood, but the clearing also becomes a new exploration destination. A fast moving brush fire torches 20 acres, weeding out weak pine trees; several decades later, herds of deer use the bulldozed firebreaks as easy-access interstates.

In short, there are always chances to stop and smell the roses, or skunks—even if you can't smell much of anything. And if anyone has a great recipe for ultra-spicy jambalaya, please do send it over.

  • I'm not the guy to see if the milk's bad; it always tastes and smells good to me. But who's up for some vindaloo?

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