I know the notion of a San Francisco urban farm sounds romantic. When I set out to create mine, the vision was clear. Me in my overalls, neo-hippie tie dye tank top and muddy gloves, wielding rakes, hoes, that twisted dirt digger thingy, planting and then harvesting oodles of green, red, and purple vegetables. The idea of fresh lavendar in the bathroom, mint for my mojitos, and apples for my pies still lingers. For 5 years now I’ve spent many a free weekend alone, cutting by hand terraces from the steep slope that is my yard. I wedge found objects like giant drift logs hauled from Pescadero Beach in the back of my station wagon, beach rocks, or old bricks from the neighbor’s remodel, into the sides of the hill in a futile attempt to hold back the inevitable slide. The soil is highly acidic due to the pine tree and redwood that combine with the rest of the neighborhood to create the illusion of a forest in San Francisco.
I’ve been diligent about the compost. Early on my friend Rebecca and I made a rather large cage (we over-measured) with old boards and chicken wire to keep the critters out. I even got a donation of worms from a vineyard in Napa. Since then, the pile on of leaves, greenery, and food scraps has generated about the biggest private compost pile I’ve ever seen and a cute parade of critters every time I make a new contribution from my active kitchen.
The garden is 3 stories below the main living area of my house so getting down there requires commitment but the reward is blessed isolation. At least from other humans. My bedroom opens to a deck with circular stairs leading down to the garden. During our rare heat waves I leave the slider open just a wedge to let in the fresh air.
I’ve always known about the critters that give me a sense of connection. I enjoy the notion that nature is just outside my door in spite of the sounds coming from the Bart and 280 freeway late into the night. I’ve seen raccoons climbing the stairs to sniff out empty compost buckets, skunks scuttling across their established paths between yards, Redtail hawks waiting on the compost fence watching for rodents. All of this seemed non-threatening until I decided it was time for a farm dog. Given the commotion junky I am, I went for the Jack-a-poo which is basically short for “Jack Russell Terrier cleverly disguised as a Poodle.” We rescued Finn(Again-Again) at the Christmas Rocket Dog Rescue fair in the Castro and he has been a great gift. He’s gleeful, hyper, barky, cuddly, and carelessly aggressive with Pit-bulls. I know, I know, sounds like his owner right? Anyway, Finn has always been a garden avoider for pooping and peeing, insisting that we walk him. But, when it’s compost refresh time Finn is the first one to the pile waiting for a discarded slice of pizza, loose avocado shell, or rotting piece of cheese. Many a day Finn will disappear only to come back hours later with a brown nose, leaves dangling from his whiskers and breath like a sailor. I’ve always had this feeling that someday, somehow Finn might just meet a critter.
Well my friends, last night was theeeee night. I’d been out at a GGMC Board Meeting debating the merits of renting a port-o-let for our always sold-out Holiday Concert. Being on the board of a not-for-profit is not as sexy as one might imagine. It’s true tedium. But somebody’s got to do the work to keep the music going. These meetings, jovial as they are, always make me ready for a long night’s sleep dreaming of more glamorous environs and last night was no exception. Around midnight (12:11 to be exact), as I lay in bed next to my five-year-old son I was awakened by the most pungent, unpleasant smell I’ve experienced since my visit to the fish market in Hong Kong (gulp 31 years ago). I have a very sensitive nose which triggers my over-active gag reflex. My mother will tell you I complain loudly if I have to ride in the car with her when she wears too much perfume. A strong smell will always wake me up. This was not a smell I recognized. It had an acrid, almost gassy smell to it but also, in my drowsy state made me feel as if something was cooking in the kitchen. I ran outside to see if we were under chemical warfare attack (not a smart first move in the event of an attack) or experiencing a gas leak from the now suspect California gas lines but the air outside was refreshing. I took a deep breath and went back inside where the scent was overpowering, ignoring the dog lying next to my son on the bed. I ran upstairs to the kitchen thinking my mom might have left something cooking on the stove. In the back of my mind I had this feeling (learn to trust that feeling) that Finn had been skunked. But it didn’t smell like the skunk I’ve smelled many nights from a distance. This was like something dead. I took one last comforting ride on the denial train and slathered some Vicks Vapor Rub under my nose thinking the smell might just go away. I ran back downstairs now remembering that Finn was in my bed, with Gil. As I came through the family-room door I spotted Finn frantically doing that rubby thing that dogs do with their face against the 40-year-old carpet. He looked crazed! Skunk, I yelled and grabbed Finn. At this point the entire universe is saying “duh!” Sure enough (thank God he’s white) there were yellow splats on his head, across his nose and down his chest. His eyes were bulged and swollen shut. Of course by this time I’m holding him against my nighty, my hands are in his hair as the realization sinks in that we’ve got a mess on our hands. By “we” I mean me, myself, and I. That well-rounded can-do team single moms rely on.
Thankfully, or so I thought, my mom was in town and had stocked the fridge with everything including V8 juice (something I would never think to buy). I threw Finn in the garage, ran upstairs and grabbed the V8. My mom, hearing the commotion came out to ask what had happened. When I said, “Skunk,” she calmly walked back into her room and shut the door. Smart woman. I also grabbed a gallon jug of vinegar having heard somewhere that that works too.
Well armed (or so I thought), down I went into the laundry area of the garage to do the job. Everyone who knows me will tell you I am not an external freaker. The only way you can tell I’m under stress is by my rapid body movements and the furrowed concentration in my brow. I rarely acknowledge the stress of a given moment until long after that moment has passed and last night was no exception. I placed my poor desperate puppy into the utility sink and dowsed him with tomato juice, then vinegar, then tomato juice, then vinegar. Still the greasy, yellow, smelly stuff remained. After about 15 minutes I realized this wasn’t working. I rinsed the dog, dried him off, left him in the garage to rub on the old carpets we use to store our shoes and ran back to my computer. Thank God for the Internet. I googled “how to remove skunk smell from dogs.” The first entry that popped up was from About.com (a site I’ve found useful many, many times). This quote immediately popped out at me:
“Hey, that’s what I thought,” I said to myself cursing the millions of people who still believe this crap. Fortunately, the ingredients for the household chemical cure are the same ingredients I use to keep my hot-tub clean and naturally toxin-free, Hydrogen-Peroxide and Baking Soda. I quickly found the ingredients and whipped up a batch. Within minutes, faithful Finn’s eyes were back to normal, his fur was white (or at least off-white) and the smell was starting to disappear. Exhausted, I toweled him off, removed my nightgown, and began the job of household clean up. I had to throw out the duvet cover, the carpets are being cleaned as we speak, and the stench still lingers in my nose.
This weekend I will be purchasing a bin composting system like a normal person, installing the screen doors that came with my sliders, and heading back down to the garden. If you smell me coming towards you, run, don’t walk.