Saturday, February 14, 2015


I love this photo, not least because it’s a major help in my project of trying to get people to see religious beliefs as metaphors that have somehow become so real to them that they can’t see what was before them, under them, ahead of them.  REAL metaphors are always emergent, unfolding.

Jesus’ story begins with a magical cross-species birth: Jehovah/Yahweh "with" a human, producing a super-human.  The precedent had already been set by the Greeks with their swans, showers of gold, bulls, and the like.  There’s a poem somewhere about how everyone wants God to be in their image except bigger and better.  The God of the lions is an impressive lion, the God of the giraffe has a particularly long neck, and so on.  So what is the great talent of the human?  Is it not empathy or compassion?
What if the Kangaroo God had a pouch, so we all had pouches?   What would it mean? We’d have to ask an Australian aborigine, because we don’t know enough about kangaroos.  But I do know a LOT about possoms, including that a lot of people get as worked up about spelling (which -- let’s admit it) has more to do with people who write than it does with actual possoms/opossoms/possums.  My understanding of the animal has nothing to do with print or words -- just sense memories.

Not pretending.

When I was an animal control officer in Portland in the Seventies there was a major possum population boom and daily I picked dozens of their dead bodies off the pavement where they were in states of dismemberment.  One of the oldest and most primitive animals on the continent, they respond to danger by imitating death, “playing possum”, which is ineffective with cars.

They were very greasy and at some times of the years they had babies -- a LOT of babies -- at various states of growth, including some no bigger than a bean and some more like hamster-size.  The “pouch” of the marsupial mom was not in front like an apron, which is the way a kangaroo is arranged, but more like suit-coat with two sides, flaps over the two rows of nipples.  Didelphimorphia means “two wombs.”  I don’t know about internally.  The possum penis is forked. 
Everyone is comfortable except mom.

The teeniest babies were attached -- nearly grown onto those nipples -- and even the bigger ones hung on tight to their mama’s fur coat.  The whole bunch went into the  trash bag and into the garbage can.  There was no way and no time to separate the babies, no cage for them, and they would be killed at the shelter anyway.  What were we going to do?  Feed babies a couple of inches long with bottles when a dozen officers were each bringing in more than a dozen dead mothers?  

Nature and the urban smash together in deadly impact and we patrolled that boundary, handling our emotions as best we could.  They weren’t even mammals, much less humans.  This wasn’t the aftermath of a predator strike with blackened and dismembered human children, but in a way it was.  And in a way so are the ghetto apartments where children wait in dark, hot rooms for their mothers, victims of violence, to not return.  What we do with them is sometimes the equivalent of trash bags in the garbage can.

Is it milk yet?

The O’Postles would be against that.  I think that Superhuman Jesus raised those O’Postles himself, patiently urging bottles of . . .  what?  Could he change water to possom milk as easily as he changed water to wine?  I’ve bottle-raised animals and it is a very slow process that must be repeated and repeated and repeated every few hours.  I was bad at it.  If I’d had to care for the O’Postles, they’d have been an angry bunch.

Though possoms have truly remarkable sets of sharp teeth, they use them mostly to tear up ground debris.  Slugs, candy-wrappers, rotten junk.  A student at Portland State took on a study project in which he picked out the most intact corpses from our garbage cans and dissected each carefully to sort their stomach contents. So we KNOW what they eat.  

He was particularly interested in the fleas, which they ingested when they licked their fur.  He laid them out in tiny rows next to his microscope.  There were various species, some vectors to humans and some not, code carriers moving genes around.  (Are angels vectors from God hoping to infect us with something like compassion or generosity?)  He put his own money into little radio transmitter collars, which were pink to match their noses, but when he released them into the West Hills of Portland, they disappeared.  Forever.  I enjoyed the image of radio-connected rock ‘n roll critters, jive-dancing in the underbrush. But I knew it was a fantasy.

I am NOT a kitten!

The only bite report we ever took on a possum was an Avon lady who picked up a half-grown animal, thinking it was a kitten with an unusual nose and tail, which she intended to return to the householder in hopes that the latter would be grateful enough to buy cosmetics. In general, the animals do puff up and hiss, so that people who discovered them wedged behind the old fridge they kept on the back porch to store bait and beer would call for rescue.  I soon learned to pick them up by the tail and carry them like a handbag to the truck.  They were too heavy to curl up to bite me.

Mama possums do NOT carry their babies curled to their tails as though they were nappies on a clothesline, because mythology grows up around everything and you must test what you hear with your own experience, even scripture.  Just because it’s in print and bound doesn’t mean it’s true.    But babies can hang by their tails.


In time there was a plague or something -- some suggest dog distemper but they’re “robustly immune”, and then we rarely saw them.  We went back to picking up dead cats.  I used to tell people that possums didn’t have brains enough to catch rabies, but now I see this in the literature:  opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs, and about one in eight hundred opossums is infected with this virus.  

Nature’s law is that if a species doesn’t have enough success to raise every single baby in enough numbers for the species to persist, then the best mutations are the ones that produce lots and lots of babies, since most of them will die.  This is the nature of prey species, whose eyes bug out with alertness.  Humans are a mix of predator and prey and so try to make some people into prey -- enemies, the funny-looking, the Other, the dependent, and the criminal (which is a category that shifts around).  It’s not a matter of genes but of memes, which is what Jesus tried to tell us.  Memes are produced by the genetics of culture and can change quickly.  
Nature's Children

Possums have been the same for millennia.  They are omnivores and opportunists.  So are we.  Especially religiously.  They are plantigrade, meaning they keep their feet on the ground, which religious humans do not.  They are arboreal, which is where Jesus ended up though the tree was dead.   Maybe we are all spiritual marsupials, burrowing deeper into the pouch even when our protector dies for us.  

1 comment:

PBurns said...

Love this. I had no idea Didelphimorphia meant “two wombs.”