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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Striped Skunk and Steam Plant (A Night-Wandering Tale)


Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), California: photo by randomtruth, 11 August 2011

On most nights the only sign of human presence on the sprawling university campus during the deep nocturnal hours is that of roving police cruisers, maintaining a constant vigilance lest scattered elements of the common urban riffraff -- that ever-growing army without standards, the hungry and homeless -- be found seeking, on a muddy creek bank or beneath a rat-infested bush, a place to lay down, for a few hours, that heavy, heavy thing, a weary head.

A small sharp wind was kicking up, blowing dead plant matter about, after the manner described by the poet Shelley, who wrote in his Ode to the West Wind of leaves fleeing as before an enchanter.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes

Heat is generated in the campus buildings by steam power. A massive building houses the steam plant. Through the terrorist-proof grated windows one can make out the enormous steam pipes, as impressive as the monster machinery at the Ford River Rouge Plant once venerated in the reverent mechanical-utopian images of Charles Sheeler.

Steam puffs issuing from subterranean vents waft forth constantly upon the air currents, blown this way and that, like ghosts with sheets disheveled, from an enchanter fleeing, their sheets flapping behind them.

Last night, the spiky little breeze was bringing forth great white billows of steam from the huge steamship-funnel-size vents of the steam plant. Passing through these clouds it was possible to view the world as a Gustave Doré illustration from Dante.

It took a moment to notice a small scrabbling sound from the drift of dead leaves littering the margin of the concrete path.

A skunk sifting through the vegetal rubble for something to eat.
And indeed a very handsome Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis, a much maligned yet entirely innocuous and splendidly attired creature.

From six feet away, we exchanged glances. The following conversation ensued.

"Hello, Skunk."


Back to the sifting, impassively ignoring the intruder's untoward presence.

Any urban-venturing deer would have frozen warily in its tracks until the passage out of range of the trespasser in its space.

The skunk, though, as if better accustomed to the project of sorting out the dangers of the night, apparently sensed no danger.

And a very pretty skunk it was, so intent, so beautiful, so industrious, framed there as it was in the billowing white cloud blown over us both by the steam plant, there in the middle of the night of the world.

Museum director Lilly Tellefson at work in the Georgetown Power Plant Museum, Seattle: photo by Joe Mabel, 12 January 2008


Ed Baker said...

cheap (dirty) coal is used to fire those boilers that make the steam from the boiling of water that drives the turbines that make the electricity that we use to add to the skunky air up there in Seattle ! and LA and SF and etc

I miss Peppy Le Pew

vazambam said...


Pleasantly odoriferous
Ode full of whimsy powered

By billowing puffs of steam—
You’ve skunked us again.

word verification: tommorp!

TC said...

Perhaps I've finally found an animal totem that fits.

I think they use gas to fire the boilers.

Some twenty years ago I happened to be in a building near the steam plant when an explosion rocked the joint. Standard earthquake-panic moment... later it was learned the cause had been a blast in the steam plant, killing one worker.

A few months ago, still impregnated with that memory, I was night-wandering up there, through the steam clouds, when I noticed a powerful odour of gas. Found a university parking cop on a campus-access road a few hundred yards from the noxious-stink-site and attempted to report this news, but he declined to look up from his labour of copying-out license-plate data, and grunted "Not my department".

Right. Isn't that called strategic specialization?

Keeping all those classrooms and offices (over)heated at a time when the state is bankrupt is anyway merely another case of standard contemporary denial raised to the level of rarefied lunacy. Just another reminder that the demise of the historical epoch of Industrial (D)evolution has been prematurely anticipated.

Newspaper story last week reported the university has 3000 employees "earning" over $200 k per annum, while the common people of the streets starve and weep.

Tuition at this "public" institution is meanwhile set to rise to $22 k per annum.

Putting the "mock" back in democracy...

As the laughing vultures said over the rotting corpse of the clown in the desert, "Something smells funny".

(And it's not a skunk.)

Nora said...

My freshman year of college (at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD), I used to sneak down to the boiler room beneath the dorm when I couldn't sleep. I was so unhappy, and it was so, so loud and strangely comforting.

Also, one sleepless night, I happened to run in to a friend of mine while walking across campus. He lived in an apartment nearby, and had caught a raccoon in his garage. Somehow (the reasoning has been lost to history), I ended up on the back of his motorcycle, holding the raccoon, which was stuffed inside a cat carrier. We drove out to the edge of the city, and he let it go.

And that's all I have on steam or creeping crepuscular critters.

TC said...

Hi Nora,

Boiler rooms must be the universal refuge of misfits. As a youth I had a "janitorial position" (well, it shouldn't be laughed at, as currently the prevailing position is pretty much "prone"), and the building had a caged-in boiler room, deep in its nether regions. Once I had concluded that no one ever ventured in there, I set up a sort of nest (cocoon? pouch?) made of gently cushioning rag-scraps. It was possible at opportune moments to escape thereto, for comfort and consolation and paperback-novel-reading. Vanishing from the workplace without being seen exiting the building... well, it worked... for a while.

The raccoon in the cat carrier must either have been a docile sort, or charmed by you. The very thought of how one might manage to coax a raccoon into a cat carrier gives pause.

Here, the raccoons rule the night. As our cats have learned, to their dismay. You will remember that big old redwood tree. That is their kingdom. They come down at night to forage. We smuggle bread scraps out there and leave these offerings in the overgrown ivy. The neighbors of course consider this a form of terrorism. Around here, there are residents who will call in the police to "deal with" a raccoon that dares to exist. And indeed they are tenacious existers... for a year or two -- their average urban life span. In the "wild" (but where is that, any more?) they are said to survive upwards of twenty years.

Long may they continue.

There are small odes to raccoons scattered all about this overgrown blog.

Here's one.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Great comfort in this post and its comments, Tom. My, such a lovely assembled group of wanderers and scavengers, lovers and thieves, human and un.

Truly delightful to read first thing up at 5am. I'm steeled ... no, cushioned ... for the day ahead.


TC said...


Long strange night here -- well, even stranger than usual -- one of the cats having gone a bit loony, evidently unsettled by local real-estate displacements in the habitat, wanting to go out and check on things, and then come in and then out again, with great to-do, at five-minute intervals, all the livelong night... for the past month or so. An assembly of wanderers and head-cases, of several species.

In which odd context your steady gentle sensitive company is appreciated more than ever, among these friends...

All the bipeds and quadrupeds, each to its own niche and custom, here in the fog.

Ed Baker said...

I jus' kant keep mouth shut the door wide open these
comings & goings for company

the fog came in on kitty-cat paws, you say ?

(what's your cats-iz name ? "Cat" ?

TC said...

S. Smokingham.

Although he tends to forget...

Currently he seems to think his name is merely "A. Wild Animal".

But it is now morning, which often causes him to fall asleep... for about five minutes.

Cats are supposed to sleep 16 hours a day. But he does not subscribe to that theory. (I believe he fears he might be missing something.)

A handsome and curious fellow.