Monday, January 07, 2008

A reason to hope

Yesterday I found hope in the intestines of an opossum.

My friend Sam and I spied the casualty lying on the gutter on Friendly Avenue. Its whiskers were gray, its expression bleak. There was no obvious sign of injury, other than a small trickle of blood by its mouth. The body was soft and cool.

Sam squealed to a stop, propped his bike on the curb. “Y’all go ahead!” he called, and pulled out a plastic bag. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

An hour later the two of us crouched in the back yard, sporting one purple latex glove apiece. We opened the plastic bag and carefully lifted out the possum. His paws looked like little monkey feet, clenched in fists. His eyes were closed. We tied a piece of twine around each of the possum’s ankles, and hung it upside down on the chain link fence. Its soft white belly faced us. I thought of medieval torture scenes. Although, of course, our victim was already dead.

I shuddered as Sam confidently sank his knife into the possum’s chest and began slicing a horizontal line to its belly. The tugging of the knife at the stretchy skin made my own stomach writhe in horror. “I’m grossed out by this,” I said weakly. “I’m not even going to pretend like I’m not grossed out." I paused. "But I still want to watch.”

But within minutes, my repulsion began to fade. As Sam peeled skin away from the possum’s belly, I gazed at the sheaths of muscles impassively. It looked like an anatomy lesson. “So this is how you save the pelt, huh?” I said tentatively. Before long, I gave the skin a cautious tug myself. It’s hard work, peeling possum skin. It doesn’t want to come off.

Peeling back the right side, we discovered the cause of death. Judging by the congealed blood and spilling intestines, the animal had been struck by a car on that side and bled to death internally. Unfortunately those spilling guts were our enemy; if they ruptured, they would taint the whole body – including the fur and meat that we wanted to save.

We took turns trying to hold the guts in place and tugging at skin, but it was impossible. They wouldn’t stay. “We’ll have to take them out,” Sam said, and pushed deeper with his knife.

As we cut through the stomach muscles, a rainbow intestines and organs spilled out into my waiting hands. “My god,” I gasped. “It’s beautiful.”

I was holding a mountain of possum guts and all I could think was how beautiful they were. One loop of the intestines was warm pink; another was grayish blue, like the sky on a cloudy day. A third was mossy green, the color of a stormy ocean. Across all the colors spread brilliant veins of mauve, like cracks in a potter’s glaze. The muted colors reminded me of the rocks you pull out of a stream or the ocean – resplendent in their wetness, drying to a faded shadow of their dusky beauty.

We stared at the intestines in silence for a long moment. “Fucking humans,” said Sam in a small voice.

I gazed at the small gray stomach in my hand, full of one last possummy meal, and nodded mutely. The gray soft body we had spotted on the side of the road had been tragic, to me. One small animal doing its best to survive in a cement-covered world full of enemies and indifferent accomplices. That soft face, frozen in its last fearful sprint, had broken my heart. But here, upside down and cut open, the possum was no longer sad to me. “It’s better this way, at least,” I said softly. “At least we’re learning from it.”

My mind was boggled by the unexpected masterpiece before me. We live in a world so resplendent that even a handful of dead guts are as intricate as a work of art. I in my heedless rush would never have known it, had I not been stopped by this one small bloody-mouthed possum.

The natural world is both my hope and my despair. I despair at the damage we humans are inflicting, at our oblivious indifference to the destruction we are causing. But on a chilly January afternoon, crouched by a sad dead bloody possum, I took hope. I can’t save the world. I can’t change the way thoughtless humans neglect the magnificent nexus of wild plants and animals that we live amongst. But one moment of beauty is enough to make me stop and notice the magic that is around me. And those small moments: a hawk swooping overhead, a shiny black beetle lumbering across the sidewalk, a maple tree in a blaze of autumn colors – remind me what it is that I love so passionately in the first place, and why it is so worth protecting.

by Sadie Kneidel

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