The Pastry clan was all up north this past weekend, partly for business, partly for pleasure. Little Jo spent all last week being spoiled by her grandparents and needed to be retrieved. The rest of us had business — ranging from meetings to shoe shopping — to get done. It was all pretty urban stuff.
Yet these days a visit to a big city like Chicago doesn’t preclude interactions with the natural world. It’s a big change from when I was a kid. Then, sparrows and goldfinches were considered exotic. Today Chicago — the “City in a Garden” — is something of a wildlife mecca. It’s the urban coyote capital of North America, home to hundreds if not thousand of the creatures (estimates vary). It’s got snakes, it’s got bats, it’s got birds of prey. Hell, a wild cougar was shot near a grade school in my old neighborhood just four years ago. I mean, if skyscrapers and mass transportation systems don’t insulate your children from predation by big cats anymore, do cities actually have a purpose?
I wondered something similar as I stood in the kitchen of my boyhood home in the ritzy western suburb of Hinsdale late Saturday. Mrs. Pastry, my mother and I were discussing the latest Olympic action when suddenly a smell entered through the kitchen window. It wasn’t your normal odor, friends. This smell had a vibration. It was like a dump truck of sliced onions poured on top of a tire fire to which road kill had been added. It was skunk…up close. We all ran for cover as the odor flooded in the window. Feeling heroic, I turned back and cranked the windows closed. Never in my life had a smell beaten me senseless, but the feeling was like being struck repeatedly in the face with a tire iron.
Fortunately after a few mintues the smell began to fade, though it lingered to some extent in the house all night. The next morning I walked outside and under the kitchen window. I couldn’t detect anything skunky, making me wonder what exactly happened. Had a skunk really sprayed there? Had a dog that had been sprayed wandered past? Whatever it was, I thanked God it was over.
Once I thought the gains made by conservationism were a blessing. I spent my entire childhood never having seen a fox. Now they’re a regular sight in Hinsdale. Small herds of deer — including six and eight-point bucks — now roam parts of River Forest in the early mornings. Just this weekend we saw bird life that included a snowy egret, a peregrin falcon and an American bald eagle. Still I’ll never shake the experience of having been skunked in Hinsdale…Hinsdale, where driving last year’s model of Lexus is a souce of shame. Are the local going to have to start keeping coon hounds and scatterguns to protect themselves from the varmints now? Chicago and Kentucky aren’t as different as they once seemed.