Possums – Playful, Pesky and Prolific, Provide Plenty to Ponder for Poetry and Prose

Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter, is Mozart’s Twenty-third Piano Concerto about?             Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Summer in Melbourne means active possums –– love them or hate them, everyone has a possum story –– encounters sad, joyful, poignant, funny or infuriating. Great fodder for writing whether in poetic or prose form, short story or memoir. Unfortunately, the days of prolific numbers of the Australian native in Melbourne, long gone as suburbia encroaches and destroys their habitat and domestic pets make war.

Midnight Visitor

Aurora barks and whines to be outside
Swallowed by the darkness, no need to hide.
I hear her snuffling at the back fence
Low moans and whines –– my muscles tense.
What’s wrong girl? Come inside! I demand
Edging forward, she ignores the command.

A sudden scuffle and my peripheral vision
Spies a tiny possum frozen in foetal position
Atop the fence post out of Aurora’s reach
Terrified, the baby clings like a furry leech.
Aurora growls to let the possum know
This is her territory now and it must go!

Calm down girl, I whisper, he’s doing no harm
Moving closer to the bundle, I turn on the charm,
But the little visitor fearing two enemies’ wrath
Finds new strength to take freedom’s path
Along the palings the tiny possum hastened
Leaving one black dog thoroughly chastened!

Mairi Neil 2014

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Australian possums are a diverse group, ranging from tiny gliding possums to large agile climbing brush tails and cuscuses. They all live in trees, although some take up residence in roofs, adapting well to urbanisation and the destruction of their habitat by scavenging in gardens and rubbish bins. Here’s one having fun in the grounds of Melbourne University, in Carlton, coming out to forage when most of the students have left for the evening.

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Shadows

Plaintive song resounds
in University grounds.
Students hurrying home
ignore skeletal branches
of winter trees, oblivious to
a bird’s lament.

The mournful song
recalls dinosaur dynasties
amid a whirr of bicycle wheels,
footsteps, ring tones,
mobile conversations
and Ipod seclusion.

The full-throated celebration
announces dusk,
a melodious call to rest
lights douse, shadows deepen,
doors lock…
and the campus empties.

Crowded trams trundle past
bathed in artificial sunlight
beneath a star embroidered sky.
Tall grey buildings cover the bones
of long forgotten species
The call of birded tongue
a melancholy echo.

Mairi Neil, 2008

In Melbourne an enterprising business operates: Pete the Possum Man. But be warned, as a protected species, Pete may remove them from your roof, but if he lets them out a few yards away, they’ll be straight back inside!

In Canberra, an old friend from university days has a constant battle with possums who have a penchant for her roses. When I last visited, before we could go out for the day, we had to search through the undergrowth for her shoes, the weapon of choice she uses at night if she spies the little critters munching on the flowers. (Aurora barking saves my roses, but the possums keep my camellia on high alert!)

In April 1996, new laws to encourage responsible pet ownership and protect native wildlife, came into effect across Victoria, concerning the keeping, control and conduct of domestic cats and dogs. Cats had to be registered as well as dogs. Kingston Council, along with others, added laws to foster harmony between the cat and dog owning public and the rest of the community as well as to protect the environment and wildlife.

That Cat Next Door

That cat next door is such a pest.
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest.
She crawls and creeps
Even pretends to sleep ––
until…
With a great big pounce
Over the shrubs like a ball she’ll bounce
And with her mouth open as if to yawn
She’ll snap at the birds feasting on the lawn!

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest ––
but …
No matter how expertly she hunts her prey
They always manage to fly up and away.

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks, with zeal and zest ––
but …
Shining silver bells around her neck sway
They tinkle and jingle a warning each day

Look out! Look out!
Little birds fly away
Come back! Come back!
When that cat’s gone away.

Mairi Neil, 1998

Despite some encounters being less than positive, I love possums visiting my garden and believe firmly in the motto ‘live, and let live’ after all they were here first.

We arrived in Australia in the summer of 1962, on December 16, a week before Christmas. Dad’s cousin Kitty lived alone in the Croydon family home and welcomed us into the rambling old weatherboard set in several acres of land, remnants of a timber mill and orchard.

The ramshackle house, rusty machinery and trees gone to seed, a readymade adventure wonderland for 6 children used to the concrete pavements of Greenock, a shipbuilding town, on the River Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow.

That first summer we discovered the difference between blue tongue lizards and snakes (not much in the fright factor!); how to silence noisy cicadas by stomping near the roots of trees; that kookaburras always laugh when you do something stupid, and they love raw kangaroo meat, swooping low in the evenings to steal from the plates of pet dogs and cats.

We also discovered eating fresh plums can give you hives, and the jam Mum made not quite as delicious as the bramble jelly she made in Scotland, but still yummy. We couldn’t pick the blackberries in Croydon because they were considered a weed and the bushes sprayed regularly with poison.

The days of roaming free from dawn to dusk were heavenly, especially after being aboard a migrant ship for over a month. However, the nights battling mosquitoes (mossies) sheer hell! The tree canopy ideal camouflage for those vicious blood suckers. We looked like the Apaches from Hollywood movies, daubed with Calamine Lotion instead of warpaint as mum tried to stop us scratching and tearing at our skin. The pungent blue smoke of mosquito coils still clings to the inside of my nostrils, as does the vinegar compresses used to counteract the itch and sting of burning skin after too many hours in the sun.

The Australian bush holds delights and dreads. We watched out for the ubiquitous redback spider on the toilet seat, the bull ant bite to toes frisky and free in flapping thongs, and discovered first hand what ‘play possum’ meant, and that acidic possum pee is deadly and stinks!

Our summer freedom changed for the daily routine and discipline of school in February ’63. I started at Croydon Primary School along with brothers George and Alistair; older brother Iain and sister Catriona enrolled at Croydon High School. At the high school, uniform was compulsory (and expensive), but Iain looked smart in brand spanking new white shirt, striped school tie, grey trousers and grey v-necked school jumper with a riband in the school colours of rust and blue. The family budget wouldn’t stretch to blazers, but the jumper was an acceptable everyday substitute.

A couple of weeks into the term we set off for school, but only got as far as the clothesline where we found a tiny possum practising a tightrope act. It may have been its first sojourn alone, or perhaps it had become separated from its family –– whatever the reason, it now had an audience of five wide-eyed school children eager to give it a cuddle.

Brother Iain, the family animal expert took charge, having owned a hamster and a rabbit in Scotland as well as claiming the family Collie as his dog. The possum froze and ‘played dead’. A quick conference and in our ignorance, we decided the possum would make a wonderful family pet. We’d put it in the old disused chook house for safe keeping until we returned from school.

Iain prised the possum from the clothesline and murmuring soothing words cuddled it to his chest. It rewarded him by peeing on his new school jumper and as the shock made him relax his hold, the baby possum leapt back onto the clothesline to reveal how well the tightrope practice worked by scampering along and leaping into a nearby tree. (Ringtail and Brushtail possums have tapering prehensile tails with coiled tips, which they use as a fifth limb. Their digits are arranged so they have a pincer-like grip and long-pointed claws are not to be challenged!)

A day burnt into our memories as the possum pee scalded Iain’s new school jumper, which had to be thrown out because the smell remained despite repeated washing. Like Queen Victoria, Mum was not amused, but we learnt an important lesson about not interfering with wildlife unless absolutely necessary for their welfare, such as a recent intervention by my daughter’s boyfriend when he came to the rescue of a frightened possum trapped in the ladies toilet at the community house where I work.

There had been an electrician working in the roof during the day and a hatch had been left open. A possum found its way into the roof, wandered around and didn’t notice the open hatch. He fell through the cavity and how he managed to avoid going straight down the open toilet bowl is a mystery because the short distance left little room, or time, for recovery of balance. A middle-aged matron went to use the toilet and screamed. Although by the amount of possum poo I swept up later I’m not sure who was the most traumatised!

Glen to the rescue – we had no idea how the possum would react after being trapped for hours and the frightened matron said, ‘it was huge’. A plumber who works for a local council, Glen assured us he often had to remove possums from strange places. Wearing leather gardening gloves and armed with a towel, our knight in shining armour opened the door – and closed it at once. He leant against the wall and took a deep breath, ‘that bugger’s huge!’

It was a hefty adult male possum and its terror had turned to fury by the sounds coming from behind the toilet door. We closed all doors into other rooms and opened the front door wide. Glen would have a clear run along the corridor once he caught the possum. And run was certainly the operative word.

The rescue over in a few minutes; no time to film the hilarious scene as Glen grabbed the possum, struggled backwards from the toilet, rushed towards the door with a frantic grunting possum clawing to be free. Within seconds it leapt free from the towel (or was let go?) to speed outside in a flash of grey fur and growls.

Of course, not all possums survive and when I walked my daughters to school we occasionally came across a dead possum. Distressed, yet curious, they’d have a strange fascination for the horror the transformation of death brings, as children often do.

Poor Little Possum

Poor little possum what happened to you?
If you were human, you’d be cold and blue.
I know you are dead, so still on the ground
The only sign of life, ants scurrying around.

Poor little possum, did you fall from a tree?
Attacked by a cat, you didn’t expect to see?
And then too late – caught unaware
To now loll lifeless with eerie empty stare.

Those glassy eyes, a fixed vacant glare
While hair from your tail fluffs in the air
Your partly-open mouth shaped in a grin
Tips of sharp teeth protruding from within

Did you die of fright? A dog’s sudden movement
Creating a hullabaloo you fell to the pavement?
Did modern disease snatch life’s breath away?
Toxic sprays, car exhaust fumes, air thick grey.

Curled paws reveal claws, perhaps your just asleep –
Tip-toeing nervously closer we dare to peep –
To examine your stiff body, look for a wound
Hope no horrendous injury will make us swoon.

Perhaps you did succumb to ghastly pollution
Although much more likely to be electrocution
Destroyed habitats mean possums struggle to survive
Poor little possum, I wish I could magic you alive.

Mairi Neil 1994

However, my daughters still giggle about an incident at Mordialloc College when they were teenagers. There was a ‘smokers’ tree’ at the edge of the school grounds where smokers gathered beneath a huge gum, to escape detection. One day, lounging and smoking, they chatted and laughed while feeding pieces of fruit to a possum. A teacher was spotted making his way across the oval, everyone jumped to stub out their cigarettes. Terrified by the sudden movement, the possum reacted by running up the trouser leg of a nearby boy – all the way to his groin! The smokers club ‘freaked out’ and forgot the threat of approaching authority!

I’ll save other stories for another day, but encourage writers to share theirs. This passing parade of possum poems, pictures and paragraphs sparked by my travelling daughter who has recently returned home. She looks out for possums on the overhead electric wires on our nightly walks and it is lovely to see her childlike excitement. These walks, our way of meditating to appreciate the beauty of our environment and our many blessings.

Moonlight Walks

Sea breeze absent
Some trees stark statues
beside the fluttering
foliage finery of those
sprouting new life,
shelter for nesting birds
and energetic possums.

Eyes drawn heavenwards
to a rosy sky spreading
bright benevolence below,
to soften the menace of dusk;
harsh reality of empty streets.

Darkness holds no fear
under a glowing orb
and sequinned sky
Their brilliance
a balm for melancholy —
whether brief painful thoughts
or permanent struggle
with life’s tribulations.

Time to ponder the vastness
and possibilities
of an unending universe —
the majesty of a sky
carpeted with twinkling stars.

Recall a tender kiss
soft as a breeze.
Hear the whispers
from the village that is a tree.
Feel Life pulsating in the breath
and beauty of nature’s rhythm
as shadows dance into light.

© 2014

3 thoughts on “Possums – Playful, Pesky and Prolific, Provide Plenty to Ponder for Poetry and Prose

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