Gateway to the Classics: Winter by Dallas Lore Sharp
Winter by  Dallas Lore Sharp

The Peculiar 'Possum

I F you are a New Englander, or a Northwesterner, then, probably, you have never pulled a 'possum out of his hollow stump or from under some old rail-pile, as I have done, many a time, down in southern New Jersey. And so, probably, you have never made the acquaintance of the most peculiar creature in our American woods.

Even roast 'possum is peculiar. Up to the time you taste roast 'possum you quite agree with Charles Lamb that roast pig is peculiarly the most delicious delicacy "in the whole modus edibilis,"  in other words, bill of fare. But once you eat roast 'possum, you will go all over Lamb's tasty "Dissertation upon Roast Pig," marking out "pig" with your pencil and writing in " 'possum," making the essay read thus:—

"There is no flavor comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, 'possum,  as it is called,—the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance,—with the adhesive oleaginous—O call it not fat! but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it—the tender blossoming of fat—fat cropped in the bud—taken in the shoot—in the first innocence—" For no matter how old your roast 'possum, he is as tender as the tenderest roast pig. And that, of course, is peculiar.

But live 'possum is more peculiar than roast 'possum. It is peculiar, for instance, that almost all of the 'possum's relations, except his immediate family, dwell apart in Australia,—in Australasia, for marsupials are found also in Tasmania, New Guinea, and the Moluccas—which islands the marsupials seem to have had given them for their own when the world was made. There, at least, most of them live and have lived for ages, except the 'possums. These latter, strangely enough, live in South and North America, and nowhere else. The peculiar, puzzling thing about them is: how they, and they only of the marsupials, got away from Australia across the sea to America. Did a family of them get set adrift on a log and float across? Or was there once, as geologists tell us, a long string of islands close together, stretching from the tip of South America, from the "Horn," off across the sea to Australia, over which the 'possums might once have made their way? But if they came by such a route, why did not the kangaroos come too? Ah, the kangaroo is not a 'possum. There is no other creature in the woods that would dare play "Follow the leader" with the 'possum. No, I am half inclined to think the scientists right who say that the 'possum is the great-great-grandfather of all the marsupials, and that the migration might have been the other way about—from America, across the sea.

But what is the use of speculating? Here is the 'possum in our woods; that we know; and yonder in Australasia are his thirteen sets of cousins, and there they seem always to have been, for of these thirteen sets of cousins, four sets have so long since ceased to live that they are now among the fossils, slowly turning, every one of them, to stone!

A queer history he has, surely! But queerer than his history, is his body, and the way he grows from babyhood to twenty-pound 'possumhood.

For besides having a tail that can be used for a hand, and a paw with a thumb like the human thumb, the female 'possum has a pocket or pouch on her abdomen, just as the kangaroo has, in which she carries her young.

Now that is peculiar, so very peculiar when you study deeply into it, that the 'possum becomes to the scientist quite the most interesting mammal in North America.

Returning from a Christmas vacation one year, while a student in college, I brought back with me twenty-six live 'possums so that the professor of zoölogy could study the peculiar anatomy of the 'possum for several of its many meanings.

This pouch, for instance, and the peculiar bones of the 'possum, show that it is a very primitive mammal, one of the very oldest mammals, so close to the beginning of the mammalian line that there are only two other living "animals" (we can hardly call them mammals) older and more primitive—the porcupine ant-eater, and, oldest of all, the duck-bill, not "older" at all perhaps, but only more primitive.


For the duck-bill, though classed as a mammal, not only has the bill of the duck, but also lays eggs like the birds. The porcupine ant-eater likewise lays eggs, and so seems almost as much bird or reptile as mammal. And as the birds and reptiles lived upon the earth before the age of mammals, and are a lower and more primitive order of creatures, so the duck-bill, the porcupine ant-eater, and the 'possum, because in their anatomy they are like the birds and the reptiles in some respects, are perhaps the lowest and the oldest of all the mammals.

The 'possum, therefore, is one of the most primitive of mammals, and dates as far back as the reptilian age, when only traces of mammalian life are to be found, the 'possum's fossil ancestors being among the notable of these early remains.


The mammals at that time, as I have just said, were only partly mammal, for they were partly bird or reptile, as the duck-bill and ant-eater still are. Now the 'possum does not lay eggs as these other two do, for its young are born, not hatched; yet so tiny and undeveloped are they when born, that they must be put into their mother's pouch and nursed, as eggs are put into a nest and brooded until they are hatched—really born a second time.

For here in their mother's pouch they are like chicks in the shell, and quite as helpless. It is five weeks before they can stick their heads out and take a look at the world.

No other mammalian baby is so much of a baby and yet comes so near to being no baby at all. It is less than an inch long when put into the pouch, and it weighs only four grains! Four grains? Think how small that is. For there are 7000 grains to a pound, which means that it would take 1750 baby 'possums to weigh as much as two cups of sugar!

"I should say he was peculiar!" I hear you exclaim; and you will agree with an ancient History of Carolina which I have, when it declares: "The Opossum is the wonder of all the land animals."

I wish you had been with me one spring day as I was stretching a "lay-out" line across Cubby Hollow. (A lay-out line is a long fish-line, strung with baited hooks, and reaching across the pond from shore to shore.) I was out in the middle of the pond, lying flat on a raft made of three cedar rails, when my dog began to bark at something in a brier-patch on shore.

Paddling in as fast as I could, I found the dog standing before a large 'possum, which was backed up against a tree.


I finally got Mrs. 'Possum by the tail and dropped her unhurt into my eel-pot—a fish-trap made out of an empty nail-keg—which I had left since fall among the bushes of the hillside. Then paddling again to the middle of the pond, I untangled and set my hooks on the lay-out line, and came back to shore for my 'possum.

I didn't quite fancy pushing my hand down through the burlap cover over the end of the keg; so I turned it upside down to spill the 'possum out,—and out she spilled and nine little 'possums with her!


I had put in one and spilled out—ten! And this proves again that the 'possum is peculiar. Nine of these were babies that had been hidden from me and the dog in their mother's pouch.

Peculiar, too, was the history of one of these nine young 'possums (the one we named "Pinky"). For after Pinky's mother choked to death on a fish-bone, I gave all his brothers and sisters away, and devoted myself to training Pinky up in the way he should go. And strangely enough, when he was grown, unlike any other wild animal I had ever tamed, he would not depart from these domesticated ways, but insisted upon coming back home every time I took him away to the woods. Of course he was only a few months old when I tried to turn him loose in the woods, and that may account for his returning and squeezing through the opening of the pump-box trough into the kitchen and going fast asleep on the cushion of the settee; as it may also account for his getting into a neighbor's yard by mistake on his way back one night and drowning in the well.

You have read of 'possum hunts;—and they are peculiar, too, as naturally they must needs be. For you hunt 'possums with rabbit hounds, and shoot them with a meal-sack—shoot them into  a meal-sack would be more exact. And you hunt by moonlight if you really love 'possum.

We used to start out just as the moon, climbing over the woods, fell soft across the bare fields. The old dog would be some distance ahead, her nose to the ground, sometimes picking up a trail in the first cornfield, or again not until we reached the woods, or again leading us for miles along the creek meadows among the scattered persimmon trees, before striking a fresh scent.

Wherever the trail started it usually led away for the woods, for some hollow stump or tree, where the 'possum made his nest. Once in a while I have overtaken the fat fellow in an open field or atop a fence, or have even caught him in a hencoop; but usually, if hunting at night, it has been a long, and not always an easy, chase, for a 'possum, in spite of his fat and his fossil ancestors, is not stupid. Or else he is so slow-witted that there is no telling, by man or dog, which way he will go, or what he may do next.

A rabbit, or a deer, or a coon, when you are on their trail, will do certain things. You can count upon them with great certainty. But a 'possum never seems to do anything twice alike; he has no traveled paths, no regular tricks, no set habits. He knows the road home, but it is always a different road—a meandering, roundabout, zigzag, criss-cross, up-and-down (up-the-trees-and-down) road, we-won't-get-home-till-morning road, that takes in all the way stations, from the tops of tall persimmon trees to the bottoms of all the deep, dark holes that need looking into, along the route.

Peculiar!—So, at least, a dog with an orderly mind and well-regulated habits thinks, anyhow. For a 'possum trail will give a good rabbit dog the blues; he hasn't the patience for it. Only a slow rheumatic old hound will stick to a 'possum trail with the endurance necessary to carry it to its end—in a hollow log, or a hollow stump, or under a shock of corn or a rail-pile. Once the trail actually led me, after much trouble, into a hen-house and into a stove in the hen-house, where, upon the grate, I found three 'possums in their nest!

It is a peculiar sport, this 'possum-hunting; yet it is mildly exciting; and when you get your 'possum by the tail, he smiles at you — grins, I ought to say—and has a fit. To go hunting for a creature that smiles at you in a dreadful manner when you capture him, that flops down in a dead faint or has a fit when you take him up by the tail, that shows the spunk and fight of a boiled cabbage—to go hunting for such a beast must be exciting, as exciting as going to the store for a quart of beans.

But here are the winter woods at night, and the wide, moonlit fields, covered, it may be, with the glistening snow. The full, round moon rides high overhead, the pointed corn-shocks stand silent over the fields, the woods rise dark and shadowy beyond. Only the slow, musical cry of the hound echoes through the stirless air, which seems to sparkle like the snow, as if filled with gleaming frost-dust that only the moonlight can catch and set to glancing silvery-bright.

You don't care whether you catch a 'possum or not; you are abroad in a world so large and silent, so crystal-clear and shining, so crisp, so open, so a-creep with shadows, so deep and mysterious in its distances, so pure and beautiful and unblemished, that just to be abroad is wonder enough, and you are not sorry to come back under the brilliant midnight sky with the old dog at your heels and over your shoulder an empty bag.

But if your bag is heavy with fat 'possum then that, too, is good. You have peered into his black hole; you have reached in and pulled him out—nothing more. No roar of a gun has shattered your world of crystal; you have killed nothing, wounded nothing—no, not even the silence and the serenity of your soul. You and the clear, calm night are still one.

You have dropped a smiling 'possum into an easy, roomy bag. He feels warm against your back. The old dog follows proud and content at your heels. And you feel—as the wide, softly shining sky seems to feel.

And that, too, is peculiar.

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