The name for our one-of-a-kind marsupial, the only marsupial in North America, comes from the Algonquin word apasum, which means “white dog” or “white animal,” due to its white face and silvery gray body. I do not know a Southerner who does not shorten it to ’possum.
After 3 million years of country living, the possum does well in the city, too. The urban possum takes bumbling joy in the back alley wilds. She thrives on the periphery, babies clinging to her back, scavenging for tasty morsels along the creeks and byways. You may find the possum rooting around down by the edge of the quarry lakes or rummaging through Old City dumpsters. Whole worlds teem in the cracks and borderlands of our mid-size Southern city, whether someone tells their stories or not. That’s what I’m interested in: a possum’s-eye view of the city.
From 2011 to 2013 I wrote a column for Metro Pulse about local people making things happen in the clandestine corners of the city. I believed then—and still believe—the most interesting places are the weedy lots, alleys, abandoned buildings, creeks, quarry lakes, all those places that are not manicured, that have been forgotten or ignored by those in power. These places are available for the use of small folk.
Let’s, of course, celebrate people and institutions working to improve Knoxville’s environmental and social health through mainstream channels.
I honor people like Knoxville’s first urban forester, Kasey Krouse, hired by Mayor Rogero to carry out a well-researched agenda to grow and maintain the city’s tree canopy. This endeavor is so obviously worthy—trees provide shade and shelter, and improve the quality of our water and air. Less obviously, more urban trees may reduce crime and poverty, according to studies cited in the city’s tree plan. Urban forests are good for people and possums alike.
An institution to celebrate is Tennessee Clean Water Network. In 2013 I wrote a “cute animals” story about goats that brought my attention to a much deeper and more interesting story. TCWN had employed a herd of goats to clear invasive shrubs in the newly acquired (and deeded to the city) Williams Creek Urban Forest. The area had recently been an unofficial garbage dump and the creek was contaminated. Since then, TCWN has acquired even more land in the area, with the aim to deed it to the city as a wildlife corridor/city park. In a future column I will be exploring Williams Creek Urban Forest and reporting on how it stands today. Buying wild land to save it from development is only trumped in my book by buying ruined land in order to restore it to pristine woodlands.
After interviewing Brian Campbell, Knoxville Botanical Gardens horticulturist and mastermind behind the Butterfly Conservation Meadow, I was inspired to buy a vacant lot near my house and plant it with pollen-rich native flowers for pollinators and other wildlife.
I also wrote stories about people on the periphery, who seemed to me a little magic. They were small stories about extraordinary people that—the closer I looked—seemed more and more important to the character of the city. I wrote about a homeless man building a stone house for himself in the woods by Fort Dickerson quarry, a woman gathering wild mulberries for wine and jam from trees in Parkridge, a couple making a starter home in an East Knoxville abandoned house. They were people building and making, without a lot of fanfare, sometimes in secret. These are the stories that keep the poetry of the city alive. They are possum stories.
The possum is omnivorous, tenacious, and resourceful, resistant to snakebite, a survivor. The possum is shy and slow, but prone to go all-out redneck in a fight, alarming its opponents. The possum was here long before we were and no doubt she’ll be here long after we’re gone.
I’ve thought about it a lot and I can’t think of a better mascot for Knoxville than the possum. Just when you are sure she’s dead, she twitches her ears, shakes the dust off her fur, and continues on her way. It turns out, the possum is just fine.
Eleanor Scott is freelance writer and columnist from Skinem, Tenn. She maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.
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