(About springtime, an urban mammal, fascination & disgust, fences, and death)
Spring means the return of many things, and one of them has fifty teeth.
Spring brings buds and blossoms bursting from branches, the thick smell of softening soil, and the outdoor sounds of our community emerging to porches, sidewalks and Goodale Park.
Our world is waking up. Life and activity are back, but it’s not all good. Other parts of our community are emerging, too.
I just recently saw an opossum, my personal bellwether of spring. It was, by the way, alive. Dead opossums aren’t uncommon this time of year either, but they’re a better bellwether of traffic.
I see both types regularly during the summer, but during the winter, it seems that they’re even more reclusive than I am. My understanding is that opossums (or possums, as I prefer to call them) don’t hibernate during the winter, although I’ve never seen one during freezing temperatures. Instead, they evidently survive by foraging and scavenging (like they always do). It is impressive that, even in the winter, they scrounge enough nutrition to emerge alive. Possums are the ultimate dumpster divers: they eat anything, including the rotting flesh of dead animals.
A few days ago on a trip to the 300-gallon trash containers, I glimpsed our neighborhood possum in the moonlight, half-waddling, half-scurrying across the alley between back yards near my house. As it quickly approached a wooden yard fence, it never slowed down, and as it hit the impossibly narrow space between the vertical fence boards, its body poured through the tiny gap like a bag of Jell-O through a keyhole.
In an instant, it was on the other side. The fence appeared to suck the portly body right into it. I see this happen all the time, and it both fascinates and disgusts me. Possums disgust me all by themselves, without even doing anything. Each one looks like the combination of a plump rat and an old man with thinning hair. They act like abandoned fraternity brothers: disoriented, with no sense of social decorum.
The experiences of my family and friends have added to my cursory familiarity with these marsupials. Many years ago, a possum was living in a crumbling crevice at the apartment building next door.
My son was four years old, and he lovingly named her “Virginia”. A naturalist had recently visited his preschool class and introduced them to the cuddly and gentle side of the common “Virginia Opossum.” On top of this, he had embraced the arguably positive tree-hugging disposition of his vegan teacher, Heather. My son’s emotional attachment to the possum was disconcerting to me, because I wanted Virginia to quietly expire, or to go away, possibly to someplace like Upper Arlington or Dublin. I didn’t want to kill her; I just wanted her to disappear. When I made comments to that effect, we experienced family tension. My son was indignant:
Son: “I can’t believe you’re saying that about Virginia!”
SDD: “What do you mean?”
Son: “You’re not going to hurt her, are you?”
[I tried to pacify him (and not lie) by telling him that I hadn’t planned anything.]
Son: “Heather says that we should be kind to animals.”
I briefly considered finding a new preschool.
A friend on Buttles used to have a possum living under his back porch, and it regularly sat on his brick patio to share Purina at the same dish with his sometimes-outdoor cat. They “got along”, which is to say that they didn’t bite each other. I think it’s beautiful that this possum and cat could coexist as uneasy friends; it reminds me of a pre-gentrified Victorian Village.
To most people spring means life, like blossoms opening in the magnolia trees on Highland Street. Spring usually means life to me, too, though it involves possums emerging from under our porches and woodpiles. I don’t make a habit of dwelling on death in spring; it seems antithetical. But each year, my spring possum sightings are accompanied by a childhood experience that continues to haunt me.
I was seven years old, and that spring, when an unlucky possum sleepily emerged from its reclusive Wisconsin winter, it crossed the street near our house where it was struck by a car, tumbled into the tall grass between the edge of our one-acre woods and the road, and died. The next day, during my daily wanderings, I found the possum. It was covered with flies. I did not choose a name for it.
My experience with the possum was like any morbid event for me – a tension between fascination and disgust. I went back to look at it the next day, and the next day, and the next, and on and on through the end of spring and into the summer. I saw maggots and decaying flesh, its fifty nasty teeth exposed as the lips decomposed, and finally a skeleton loosely draped with matted hide. And of course, that horrid prehensile tail, which took forever to dissolve into bone. I am still bothered by possum tails; I still squirm as they slip through those fence boards.
Winter is only eight months away.