A while back I shared a rickety old weatherboard house with a roof full of possums. It was a quirky place clad to the rafters in timber planks which became a veritable possum central – a refuge beset by circumstance in the Sydney suburbs with so many cracks and crevices that accessing cavities in the roof, eaves and under the floor posed few problems for my marsupial housemates.
I learnt a lot about possums living in that house. Its threshold represented something more to me than just a hardwood step under the front door. My co-existence with possums provided me with some wonderful insights and revelations about wildness and nature.
While living there, across the road a whole street-block of timber houses of the same vintage were being demolished and the site redeveloped with far denser and modern residential dwellings (in what I thought was a sad loss of heritage for the area). Viable habitat for the local suburban fauna, therefore, was rapidly becoming sparse.
Built early last century, many of the house’s planks were rotten or had sprung adrift from their fixings. The only structural parts not built of timber were the fireplace, the tiled roof, and the fibro front porch as a later installation. On the exterior walls, planks horizontally overlapped one another under a chalky, peeling veil of whitewash. Inside, the walls of every room were adorned in planks, again horizontal, as were the ceilings and floors.
There were so many planked surfaces I’d sometimes look about inside and feel I was in a weird psychedelic world of linear perspectives. The abutted timbers formed parallel lines which ran down the hallway and over the bedroom ceiling and around the lounge room such that no amount of hanging pictures or decor neutralised the optical distortion. At night time, shards of light sliced through gaps between the planks which were visible outside from many angles. Nestled in dark leafy surrounds, the house lit up on its foundations like a defunct UFO.
I was given the opportunity to observe and experience possums’ behavior and habits and I loved being around such dogged, resilient creatures. Through their eyes, however, it was all about the lodgings with me being a pesky distraction from time to time. We often confronted each other on terms far closer than was comfortable – human-to-nature encounters I found scary yet invigorating and enlightening. I became emotionally attached at times but was often reminded that when natural wildness intrudes upon the staid rhythms of our everyday human undertakings, it can be brutal, honest and wholesome – emotions not to be taken lightly.
In the iconic children’s picture book: Possum Magic, Mem Fox and Julie Vivas craft a timeless and beautiful story about Australian wildlife depicted as anthropomorphised characters growing up and finding their identity. It is a fantastical tale about magic and the central characters – Hush and Grandma Poss – are very cute and lovable possums. But make no mistake dear reader: possums, particularly Common Brushtails found in Australian suburbia, are only cute from a distance. And lovable? Forget it! They are wild animals. Arguably, it may be possible to domesticate possums but I wouldn’t want any part of it. They are agile and nimble, they command their nocturnal environs, and they are armed with teeth and claws sharp enough to easily shred to pieces the most aggressive house cat.
Have you ever felt like putting your hand in a fire knowing full well you’d get burnt? That’s a little how I felt playing with possums in that house. Being a ‘resident in learning’ my contact with possums often occurred in such fleeting, spontaneous and powerful seconds which totally awakened me to the sensation of existing within the pure and present. By contrast, the smoldering aura of the possums living in my roof space gave me a primordial link to life outside of my four walls, to an order far bigger and more sophisticated than my own small existence.
Living in that quirky house allowed me to embrace a great admiration for possums. They are beautiful animals and their very presence exudes an intrinsic connection to wild nature which I felt privileged to have experienced through both our hectic and intense, and our more sedate and enduring encounters.