An incident in the garden this week fell under “things we never thought we’d have to teach.”
On Monday, during class, Canyon the dog was furiously digging under the shed and Antonio and Immanuel decided to investigate. They came back to us shouting gleefully that there was a dead skunk. I went to look into this and pulled at the black and white tail, revealing a skunk not only dead, but mummified—completely dried, with its skin, fur, and skeleton intact.
Mass hysteria ensured, along with much poking, prodding and running in circles screaming. Some of the kids were scared, others disgusted, and they were all riveted. To avoid destroying the specimen, we insisted they only look at it, while we talked about what to do. After some conversation, we decided to obtain gloves and proper dissecting tools, and cut it open next week.
That plan did not work. Dissecting a mummy is like cutting leather. With great effort we opened the carcass, and found only dust inside. What remained was to obtain the skeleton, somehow.
I could only think of one way: Boil it. I pulled out the camp stove, the propane and matches. The kids all wanted to light it, so we lit it several times. We dumped the skunk into a large pot used mostly for canning, and set it on to boil.
After an hour the smell was so hideous that I was worried neighbors would call the health board. After lunch inside, two hours later, I took the pot off and removed it to the back of the garden. The smell of boiling skunk was ruining my day. It all seemed like a huge mistake at that point.
When we dumped the carcass on the ground by the compost pile, I was ready to walk away from the whole project. Fortunately, Kannan has a stomach strong enough for the work of fishing the skeleton out of the mushy remains of our “project.” He retrieved the skull, and intact claw, and several bones. The rest of the mess was thrown onto the compost pile.
To this day the skunk skull, and the story of the Skunk Boil, are features of great pride and the subject of storytelling by veteran students. It felt like a heroic undertaking.
The Skunk Boil was an unexpected bonus in our ongoing studies of growth and decomposition, the processes that make soil, and the vibrant microbial worlds within and without us. And it has become part of the philosophical and spiritual reckonings around death that children naturally confront, in widening spirals, throughout childhood–and beyond.