Yesterday afternoon while cleaning out the bird feed bins I looked around for the container of black oil sunflower seed that has supplied the cardinals and other birds with food all winter. It started with a 60 lb. bag from which I’d shovel a big servings every day for distribution at the foot of the feeding station.
Now the seed stock is down to a few pounds so I poured it all into a plastic bin and stored it at the back of the house. The squirrels found their way into the bin and so did an opossum.
Two nights ago the opossum apparently climbed into the bin to gorge itself on the sweet smorgasbord of plant protein. Unfortunately the bin must have tipped and dumped the opossum into our five-foot-deep window well. There is slept the day away despite its circumstance. The lifespan of most opossums is not much longer than four years, if they’re lucky. Many die as road kill or are attacked by owls or other predators. Some just starve or freeze to death.
I find wildlife encounters fascinating. So last night I brought everyone out to see the opossum. The fur is beautiful, and yet one of our children remarked, “It looks like old man hair.” It certainly did. All silver at the base with untamed strands poking up like the head of Bernie Sanders.
I thought about the origins of that opossum. Here’s a description of their lifestyle and biology:
Opossums are cat-sized mammals with a pointed snout, grayish fur, small ears, and a long, scaly tail. It can use its tail to hang from tree branches, and it has paws with opposable “thumbs.” Males are usually larger and heavier than females. The opossum is active only at night, and is a solitary animal. They have an eclectic diet and will eat both plants and animals, including rodents, young rabbits, birds, insects, crustaceans, frogs, fruits and berries, and vegetables.
I find facts like these fascinating. Opossums are also appreciated for their habit of gobbling up ticks, the most horrid creature on the face of this earth as far as I’m concerned. What is there to love about a blood-sucking critter that in some species can transmit Lyme disease to humans?
I was bitten by a tiny deer tick fifteen years ago and got the radar rash. That sent me straight to the doctor for medication. Thankfully I did not contract Lyme.
Regular old ticks are just as unnerving as those that spread Lyme and finding a tick on your body is always a disturbing moment. I’ve been running in our local grassland forest preserve and come home with four or five ticks in my socks. But far worse than that, I’ve found them crawling up my neck a half day later. Ticks are sneaky bastards, so I’m glad that opossums eat them. I hope they spit out their little tick souls in the process.
So I say “Welcome to my house, opossum.” There is a faint trail across my side yard where the critter traipses to our home during his nightly visits to our bird feeder. But the true trail of that opossum to our home goes back much farther than that. Opossums have come a long way through history to haunt our yards.
The website Sciencedaily.com offers fascinating information on the life history and evolution of marsupials such as opossums: “Marsupials migrated between North and South America until the two continents separated after the end of the Cretaceous period. Marsupials in South America diversified and also migrated into Antarctica and Australia, which were still connected at that time, Bloch said.”
“North American marsupials went extinct during the early Miocene, about 20 million years ago. But after the Isthmus of Panama emerged to reconnect North and South America 3 million years ago, two marsupials made it back to North America: the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), a common resident in the Southeast today, and the southern opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), which lives as far north as Mexico.”
The reason this information is so important to our existence as human beings is that it reveals the miracle of nature on its own terms. The long history of the planet earth and its paths of evolution are evidence of cause and effect. These dynamics undergird the rational foundations of all reality.
As human beings, we rely on cause and effect in our everyday lives. One common example is that cause and effect drives the training of athletes. It provides a foundation for the prediction of performance. When we say we’re “in shape” it means we have used the cause (training) to achieve the desired effect (racing and performance) around which achievements are based. We don’t just wish our way to success in any endeavor. Cause and effect gets us there.
Survival of the fittest
The colloquial term “survival of the fittest” that is traditionally associated with the theory of evolution is essentially a broad-based description of cause and effect. The opossum in my window well is the product of millions of years of cause and effect at a local, regional and global scale. From the continents shifting across the face of the planet to seas rising and falling as a result of those movements, creatures such as the opossum have been crawling through time to arrive at our doorsteps.
Human beings are not immune from the forces that shape and change our planet. Yet some people try to deny that fact on basis that we’re “specially created.” This claim rises from a literal interpretation of scripture found in the Book of Genesis, a document originally based on oral tradition that was written down more than three thousand years ago.
Noah and the Flood
That worldview includes the clearly mythical tale of Noah’s Ark, in which all the living things on earth save a few specimens are wiped out during a great flood.
The story of Noah and the ark is clearly is not literal in nature. There are far too many missing facts and enormous improbabilities for the myth to hold up as a scientific theory. Consider the opossum in our window well. Did the ancestors of that creature (was it a pair, or seven?) somehow swim across the salty stretches of Atlantic Ocean, cross deserts and mountains to board the ark and then swim back over the ocean again to settle in North America? No, they did not.
The flood narrative does serve as a paralyzingly cataclysmic morality tale. In its brutal finality, it demonstrates the inescapable truth of cause and effect. It warns the human race that arrogance and selfishness can lead to destruction at the hands of nature.
Despite the obviously allegorical purpose the flood narrative, biblical creationists are eager to defend a literal interpretation because it feeds into the notion that human beings are the saviors of the world, with Jesus at the top. This is cause and effect as described by religion. It likely has roots in a flood of immense proportions but the inherently limited knowledge of the world at the time of its recording precludes any claims that the flood was indeed a worldwide event. So the literal interpretation of that narrative is literally stupid. The choice to embrace a brand stubborn literalism is evidence of willing ignorance.
Instead we need to recognize that human beings are lucky to have evolved in the form they did. We have enough intelligence to calculate our own survival prospects, but not if we deny the material evidence that undergirds that existence. Depending on anachronism to describe the origins of the universe is not intelligent. It is selfish and dangerous.
Setting nature free
The wisdom of setting nature free is why we stuck a ladder down the window well to let the opossum creep out on its own. No need to call Animal Control or trap the animal and send it off to isolation or likely death in unfamiliar habitat. For the most part, the opossum has minded its own business along with the many creatures we watch our the windows of our house. Wood ducks. Canada geese. Numerous songbirds. And come spring, eruptions of migrating frogs. All have their rhythms. All living within the boundaries of cause and effect.
Nature knows what it’s doing far better than the impositions of human judgment and arrogance. Unfortunately, millions of species of animals are at risk of extinction due to human interference with the environment. That’s a cause and effect that should be unsettling to us all. Yet some people are too arrogant or religiously stubborn to comprehend the cause and effect of our own impact on this world. Perhaps those folks need to spend a night in a window well to help them realize life really is a product of cause and effect.