Life In The Urban Forest

Kage Baker, as I have often noted, liked heat. She flourished in the hot, dry excesses of Southern California, where she lived most of her life. Occasional stints in oak savannah and coastal flatlands added a bit of variety to her chosen weather, but still maintained the triple-digit heat of late summer. And she loved it.

Oh, as a child she cursed the September heat with the rest of us. We were all sent through the labyrinth of Catholic school; it meant wool uniforms replaced shorts and T-shirts as soon as Labor Day was past. Tartan skirts in wool; long sleeved cardigans in wool; knee high socks with cables. In wool. And that was when the heat would, reliably as the tide, hit triple digits. Returning to school was like being shrouded and buried alive.

But as a grownup – when she traded the navy blue and tartan for silk pajamas – she loved it. The end of summer, when the heat soared – Kage would don her white silks, pin her hair up her head in a Gordian knot, adjust the standing lamp to breathe coolth on the back of her neck and write. She was as happy as a salamander in the caldera of a volcano.

I like heat, within logical limits. But the dry desert breath of California really is different, and more easily survived, than the exotic, panting steams of Louisiana and Texas and Missouri. I can breathe in California; the hot air is fine and silky and dry, scented with dry golden grass and fire. At least, it used to be that way in Los Angeles …

Nowadays, we get some sort of mutant semi-storm mass called “the monsoonal flow”. It’s a dry storm – no rain, except on the edges of the deserts and mountains, but literal tons of heavy wet air. They fill up the basin like an untended bath tub, driving the heat into triple digits in the day. And the alien atmosphere is damp and clinging and impossible to breathe – right now, at 8:38, it is 75 degrees and we have 70% humidity. You can’t even sweat successfully.

There are two main strategies for survival, since no native Angelenos know how to breathe in humid air.

1)  You can lock up your house and rely on the air conditioning: if you have a modern enough dwelling, you’ve got a hermetically sealed house with life support. You can live behind the airlocks of your doors, drawing shades over the windows where the panes of glass radiate heat like the walls of a kiln.

Or 2) you can set up fans in every room, to circulate what cool air you may be able to coax from old window A/C units and swamp coolers. At night, you open all the doors and windows and let the fans suck in the cooler night air, and it’s really not too bad. Usually it’s decent enough to sleep by 10 PM or so.

I live in the second model. The house is a snug little stucco just under a century old. It holds warmth in the winter, and cool in the summer – but it has no A/C, and eventually every summer we are adhering to the “open windows after dark” rule. But because the house is so old, not all the doorways are a regulation width. When one of these loses a screen, we need to have it custom made. And until it gets replaced, the door is open …

Such is the door in my room, which opens on a little porch. Trees overhang the arch of the roof, and it funnels in the evening breezes just beautifully. I can sit and type and be bathed in cool air … it’s delightful. However. Do you know what come in open doors besides cool air?

Skunks, that’s what. I’ve gotten used to the moths and crickets, and a candle does for the bitier bugs. Neighborhood cats keep their distance, because the Corgi is a paranoid about his territory, and the little black cat won’t tolerate trespassers, either. The raccoons prefer to skulk around the trash, and the possums don’t have the mental capacity to manage the stairs. But the skunks …

They’re not attacking, look you. They just have no fear nor sense of boundaries. And the babies are just at that curious kitten stage, where all the word is interesting. They’re also prone to hysteria …

Anyway, one came wandering into my room tonight. I heard little paws in the fallen wintergreen leaves, and glanced down to greet the little black cat. But she had suddenly acquired a lovely snow-white strip between her little black ears … a  small skunk came nosing into my room. And it’s a small room – seated at my desk, I am only about a yard from the door. Or the skunk, depending on the object of your closest attention.

I stood up.

“You are not supposed to be in here,” I said sternly (the first thing that came into my head). I backed up, herding the fascinated Corgi with me and so into the living room; where I told poor Kimberly that a skunk had just walked into my room.

When the tip-toeing mob that we comprised came back to search, my little visitor was gone. We looked in the likely places – well, what constitutes likely places in my room: under the parrot cage. Behind the giant Tupper that hold my sewing supplies. Under the desk. As I sleep in a captain’s bed, there is no under the bed: the bed frame is full of drawers. But we checked under the hems of the feather mattress and comforters.

Blessedly, no skunk. My schoolmistress admonition must have worked. But I had to close my door for the night, which is very sad in the current heat. Tomorrow, I’ll install a baby gate. Those don’t work too well on babies (who have thumbs and primate ancestors), but they work fine on skunks.

Kage would have insisted on a moat and iron bars, most likely. But, while I don’t have her fortitude for heat, I can handle skunks. I think.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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4 Responses to Life In The Urban Forest

  1. Tom B. says:

    For a while, there were three young skunk brothers living across the road from us. What a picture it was to see those three white-striped tails held high as the lads went back and forth together along the parkway!

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    • Kate says:

      Aside from their natural armament – and a slight tendency to dig up turf looking for grubs – they are really very nice little animals. Even with the chemical warfare, adults will usually stay calm if you do, and can be avoided or even persuaded to depart. Certainly my little visitor tonight was quite polite.

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  2. Medrith says:

    I’m proud of you! Just remember the warning signals: foot-stamping and back-turning with tail-raising.

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  3. I just love skunkies! They are soooo cute! I want to get a descented skunk and name him Petey. At Black Point, as I was heading to my hooch behind Main Stage, I had a baby skunk make a beeline for me, waddling in that adorable way and stand on my foot. He sniffed me a few times, looked up at me with those short-sighted eyes, sniffed again and toddled off. I just thought happy skunk thoughts. They are fearless little buggers. Glad yours decamped before startled.

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