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If Skunks Come, Can Spring Be Far Behind?*

About a month ago, the small cluster of snowdrops by the chimney started poking up green tips. In New England, the end of January is not even within spitting distance of spring; but still, the little bits of green deluded me into thinking warmer weather was surely just around the corner.

A week or so after that, I caught a stinkbug in the house. This was not your small, delicate, if-I-can-only-make-it-through-winter stinkbug. This was your jumbo-sized, clearly-pleased-with-himself variety. Stinkbugs are called stinkbugs for a reason. I flushed it down the toilet.

The Hunter’s comment? “Stinkbugs mean spring is coming – and you just flushed it. Now we’re going to have weeks and weeks more winter.” Immediately the snowdrops were battered by a succession of storms.

A few days ago, confirmation that spring was indeed inching closer (take that all you recent snow storms!) came with the scent of skunk floating in the air. Skunks have their litters in April and May. To keep on that schedule, they must mate in late February and early March, which means hauling themselves out of a snug winter den and into the cold.

Some of them are quite enthusiastic, and frolic and chase one another along snow banks. As the flirtation continues, they are only thinking about one thing, and it’s not how to get safely to the other side of the road. Sometimes the ladies don’t want to be pestered just then. They simply aren’t in the mood, and they make their “no” very clear. In either case, sometime during the 40 days of Lent, we all become aware that the skunks are among us, once again.

That pungent, sulfurous, ammonia-ridden rotten egg odor is probably not the first item that comes to mind under the topic of the smells of spring, or for that matter, the smells of Lent.

Jesuit missionaries in North America sent yearly reports back to their superiors in Europe. In their 1634 report, they included this bit about skunks:

The other is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. It has black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and has upon its back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail, making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. The tail is bushy and well furnished with hair, like the tail of a Fox; it carries it curled back like that of a Squirrel. It is more white than black; and, at the first glance, you would say, especially when it walks, that it ought to be called Jupiter’s little dog. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal; two have been killed in our court, and several days afterward there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by Saint Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor.

So there you have it, straight from the Jesuits: the stench of skunk is the stench of sin. And how convenient that we are reminded of it rather frequently during Lent. Because surely the thought of passing eternity gagging on all that foulness is a spur to more and better repentance.

*with insincere apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelly and his last line in Ode to the West Wind: If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

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