NATURE RAMBLINGS: Ohhh, that smell!

PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN FINK The beautiful spotted skunk, just as "fragrant" as its striped cousin.

Sally Roth

We’ve been listening to a lot of music we haven’t heard in years, thanks to Pandora. Some we love. Some we don’t, yet we sing along because the lyrics are still embedded in our brains 40 years later—like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Oh, That Smell.”

Music memories last forever, according to scientists and bolstered by poignant stories of people with Alzheimer’s still able to play the piano sonatas they learned before their brain so sadly deteriorated.

Memories of smells are stored differently than music in the brain. It’s the scent, plus all of the surrounding memories of place, time, and emotion, that are stored together. Which is why it’s surprisingly tough to identify a smell alone, without any of those other cues. (

A few weeks ago, I learned just how hard of a feat it is to peg a smell alone.

I was sound asleep, window open on my side of the bed in the last of those warm days, when a smell hit my nose.

“Electrical fire!”

That was the first connection my sleepy brain came up with. Overpowering acrid smell, so strong it was making my eyes water? Must be an electrical fire!

I leaped (okay, shuffled) out of bed, to the spinning fan in the room. Sniff, sniff—nothing.

Just as I was about to wake up my sleeping husband, my tardy brain put 2 + 2 together, drawing on a memory of a few years ago.

Not an electrical fire.

A skunk.

We all know that perfume. But, boy, is it a different story up close, compared to driving past a dead skunk in the middle of the road. (Go ahead, sing the first line, I’ll wait.)

I’d first gotten that super-strong blast several years ago, when the spotted skunk that lived beneath our mountain cabin let loose outside the window one night.

We’d made “Spotty” a pet of sorts, putting out cat food down in his domain, and smiling whenever we smelled the faint signature aroma of his comings and goings.

Only once did we catch a glimpse of him, although we were sure hoping to one day see him doing his amazing handstand to warn off a predator before spraying. (Yes, a handstand! Here’s a video:

Spotted skunks are much less common than striped skunks, the usual species we see—and smell—in Northern Colorado. But their musk smells the same.

We never smelled Spotty again after that close-up spray. Cat food went uneaten.

“The owl must’ve gotten him,” we agreed, sadly. A pair of great horned owls—the only regular predator of skunks—were nightly visitors to our yard.

At previous homes, I’d made “pets” out of skunks that visited the bird feeders at night, or dug for grubs and yellowjacket nests in the yard. Never once did one let loose near the house, until Spotty’s final night.

“Whitey,” a striped skunk friend who scavenged for spilled birdseed at night.

And now, once I realized that the acrid smell wasn’t an electrical fire, I pointed the fan out the window, turned it on “high,” pulled the covers over my head, and went back to sleep.

By morning, only the faintest of aromas still lingered. And husband Matt, grrr, had slept through it all unawares.

Unfortunately, skunks may carry rabies, parvovirus, and leptospirosis—nasty diseases, all. So give them plenty of respectful space, and watch your dogs at night.

Oh yeah, that reminds me—we did have another closeup run-in with a striped skunk.

On our wedding night, when we took our dog outside the motel before bed.

An hour of scrubbing a reeking dog in the bathtub, then transferring her to the car to spend the night, and opening wide the room’s windows (brrr!) sure changed the honeymoon mood to helpless laughing. Which was reinforced the next day when we walked into a coffee shop and other customers raised their noses, sniffing.

Ohhh, that smell! No, it sure isn’t as appealing as the aroma of a roasting turkey or the cinnamon scent of a bubbling apple pie. Still, sentimental memories of all sorts linger long after the smell is gone.



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