Playing Possum on the Bell Curve

A.V. Walters

It’s about nine miles into town and, at certain times of the year, it’s carnage. This is that time of the year. The hills are verdant. Our seasonal rains have started and the wild critters have come out, in force, to take advantage of the return of resources. That means they’re moving about and, unfortunately, they don’t understand the rules of the road. The only rule that should concern them (besides, RUN!!!) is that they cannot win in a faceoff with a motorized vehicle.

About a month ago, I noticed (what my partner calls) the annual, ‘Running of the skunks.’ All of a sudden, for just a couple of weeks, the skunks decide that they need to cross the road, now (and often fail.) Yes, of course, they’re trying to get to the other side, but why the sudden, yearly mass-migration, just to get there?

The steel-verses-fur imbalance is especially true of the possums. There were four of them on the shoulder today and they weren’t playing possum. Possums have an unusual survival strategy. When confronted with extreme stress—a life or death choice—they lose consciousness. That age old technique was a winner when their primary opponent was a predator. Some time ago, (say, a millennia) there was a survival advantage to fainting in the face of danger. (It worked for Victorian era women, too. Go figure!) Those oddball possums who developed this strategy, lived to see another day, and bred like rabbits.) It worked because many predators will only eat live prey, so the ‘play-dead’ strategy fooled them. Embedded deep in the predator instincts is the caution not to eat carrion—to protect them from illness borne by rotted or poisoned meat. (Oddly enough, that’s the strategy my partner used, growing up, while foraging through the family refrigerator.) But the possums don’t just ‘play’ dead, they actually go into a neurological overload, and completely shut down. They are literally, out cold.

When the threat at hand is a three-thousand pound, multi-wheeled projectile, hurtling directly at you, this passing out thing doesn’t quite cut it. Possums have failed to make the evolutionary connection to address this kind of threat. (On the other hand, they are such prodigious breeders, their niche in the ecosystem is safe— unfortunately, the predators don’t fare as well.)

In most species, a variety of coping mechanisms falls pretty evenly on a bell curve—some are aggressive, some passive (and in our species, some are passive-aggressive, but that’s another blog.) Someone once explained it to me this way: in an earthquake, some people will seize the moment and run outside the building at the first sign of a tremor. Others will hunker down in that “triangle-zone of safety” next to the kitchen counter or behind the sofa (or the I-beam tee-pee they had welded, ‘just in case.’) Nature can’t choose who will survive so she takes a Darwinian approach, and provides a range of personality types to address life’s risks. Maybe the guy who gets out, by running into the street, will be the lucky one (or maybe he’ll be crushed (inexplicably) by an I-beam tee-pee or cut to ribbons by the tons of falling glass from the skyscrapers above.) Perhaps the building won’t fall and the guy curled up behind a well-built sofa will brush himself off and go about his business. (Or, maybe he’ll die, trapped in his Ikea-built ‘cocoon of safety,’ before the rescue dogs can find him.) Since survival of the species appears to be nature’s objective, (okay, sometimes it‘s just a crap-shoot) she relies on variety to ensure that at least part of the team will make it to see another day.

Possums are failing that strategic variety test, and driving down the road, past the possums, makes me wonder how we’re doing in the strategic variety department. I wonder how the Walmart mentality of endless consumption ranks next to the possum’s self-induced anesthesia. Are we failing to diversify our options? From overreliance on fossil fuels, to the loss of species diversity, and the loss of knowledge of “the old ways,” (gardening, canning, cooking, building, animal husbandry and such) in the general populace, I worry that our culture is failing in its obligations to future generations (not to mention ourselves.) Politicians rail about preserving “the American way of life” without noting that it’s a recent phenomenon—and potentially unsustainable. What’s truly needed in our culture is a renewed diversification of talents , interests and, well, thinking.

I attended a party, last night, where the adults stood around chatting, wine glasses in hand, and the teenagers were in the next room, glued to the video games on the TV screen. I wondered, what kind of real, survival skills do video games develop. (Here’s a test you can do at home: Shut off the power, and see which kid gets up and looks for the fuse box, and which one just sits there in the dark.) In my narrow view electronic entertainment is a sorry waste of opposable thumbs. (Not that opposable thumbs would have done the skunks much good.) Still, the party was a holiday celebration for folks who’d volunteered all year to help fix up the homes of the poor and elderly. Those in attendance were builders, architects, tradespeople and genuinely nice people who volunteer their time for others. Wait a minute, there’s a survival strategy, altruism. On balance, I guess that helps a lot. That’s one area where we are ahead of the possums.