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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Possum Soup

The racket had gone on for quite some time, and it was getting hard to ignore.  I was up in my attic room, studying during the days of coursework for my master's degree in wildlife science.  The rattle of pots had gone from a brief shimmy of sound that you might think you really hadn't heard to a steady clatter.  I had a hypothesis.  A few days before, a rat had come in from the dairy barns, and chewed up a wooden spoon I'd used to make jam.  A repeat visit appeared to be underway.  I wasn't interested in facing down a rat in the cupboard, but the call to some kind of confrontation became unavoidable.  Reluctantly, I headed down the stairs.

I'm often told by people who want to become wildlife biologists that they are motivated by their love of animals and of being outside.  I try not to tell them that most biologist spend an obscene amount of time tied to a computer keyboard, because a few of us manage to escape that fate.  Who am I to accidentally discourage the next extraordinary naturalist-ecologist? For myself, however, some of my best wildlife encounters have occurred when I've been off-duty, although admittedly nearly always when I'm away from my desk.

That evening, I left my makeshift desk and climbed down the attic stairs.  Grabbing the broom as some means of self-defense, I flipped on the light switch and cautiously opened the cupboard door.  A sharp face decorated with glistening button eyes and spiky hair gazed back at me.  Not a rat.  A young possum sat in a saucepan, its tail arching up into a question mark, punctuating perfectly the look of bemused confusion on its face.

Much better than a rat, but if I left the possum there, I would get none of my work done, and I doubted that staying in the cupboard was what the possum had in mind for the evening's agenda.  The saucepan handle was angled toward me.  I cautiously extended a hand toward it, thinking the easiest solution was simply to carry the pan to the door and unceremoniously dump the possum into the bushes off the porch.

The possum froze for a moment, and hissed.  The hiss was almost exploratory, as if the possum had not yet had to do this before and wasn't quite sure of the etiquette of self-defense.  Despite its uncertainty, the impressive teeth were on full display.  I decided that this was not the time for experiential education, and withdrew my hand.

The possum then seemed to realize that it was in a compromising position.  It scrambled out of the saucepan and retreated to the back corner of the shelf, still facing me.  I thought about trying to prod it out with the broom, but playing broom hockey in the tight quarters of the kitchen with an upset possum wasn’t the resolution I was looking for.  Then as I squatted, staring into the dark recess of the cabinet and wondering what to do, I could have sworn the possum was shrinking.

After a moment or two, there was no doubt about it- there was much less possum left on the top shelf.  The shelf had been poorly cut, leaving a large gap in the corner chosen.  The possum's backside had started to descend through the gap, the back legs and tail hanging down into the lower shelf space, the front legs and paws now pinned to the side of its head as it sank still further.

I grabbed the largest kettle, and positioned it under the possum's dangling backside.  I coaxed the rest of the animal through by tapping gently on its head with the broom, and finally gravity brought the possum down into the kettle with an audible plop.  Moving quickly, before the possum could regain its composure, I slipped the lid onto the kettle and carried it outside, the possum scrabbling impotently against its enameled prison.  The possum's vague uncertainty about the whole misadventure prompted me to simply tip the kettle on its side rather than flinging the contents out into the blackberry thicket.  I stood and watched as the possum ambled out, blinked a few times, and then unhurriedly slipped off the edge of the deck and disappeared into the darkness.  Equilibrium was restored.

I wished the young possum well, and returned to my attic and the theoretical study of wildlife.  My housemate later admitted he'd left the door open all morning, and had even heard a faint scrabbling that must have been the possum settling into the cabinet to get out of the unwelcome early daylight. The noise then stopped, so he did not bother to investigate.  He laughed when I told him of our visitor, and I've never had such a good look at a live possum since.

I'd much rather encounter the natural world on its terms rather than my own, and watch what unfolds without the need to capture, tag, measure, or otherwise harass whatever it is I'm studying.  We can learn a lot from ecological research when we design it properly and all goes well.  It is an important kind of information.  But I'm convinced that we can learn just as much by being more attentive to the everyday interactions we have with the lives of all of those around us, no educational degrees required.

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