Flattened Fauna

North American Opossum with winter coat.
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This time of year when the vegetation is it’s flattest and drabbest, the cover of roadside snow, even in its ashen demise, is gone and the urges of the next wildlife generation have begun to sweep across the mountains–this is the time of maximum roadway ugliness.

Leaving the appalling layer of litter (literally) for another rant, it’s always distressing to me in late February the number of necrotic knots I drive over on the hardtop between home and Christiansburg. Hardly a curve of the road fails to reveal in the distance some blotch against the asphalt: the white on black (or sometimes all one or the other) of a skunk, and if there is any doubt this side of the road-smudge, ID is made certain beyond it if your windows or vents are open; there’s the buff of a former bunny who got tharned in the headlights; the rust of red fox remains, not quite foxy enough; the twisted stilts of deer legs on a ruptured torso that failed to pass initiation into the club.

The most interesting car-pressed creatures are the ones I can’t quite identify at highway speeds: long black or dark brown streaks the size of a frankfurter–most likely, a weasel or occasionally, a suede-black mink. Tiny rodents, the most numerous in the hair-covered food chain, rarely appear, having been picked up for a few revolutions in the treads of the enormous cause of death and spun into the weeds along the margins. There have to be at least hundreds of deaths per mile we never see.

And somewhere in the top five greasy spots of pre-spring’s roadways appear in the looming distance as streaks that goes gray to white as you get nearer–the ratlike toothy grin of the least agile of them all–the American Opossum–a beast, in my inner travel-narrative, I dubbed yesterday as the “roaches of the mammals”, the omnivore’s omnivore, resistant to acid, lightning, radiation and everything else–except rubber. They will out-survive us all. That is why they grin. I’m sure of it.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Do you ever wonder, when you come upon a dead possum in the road, how many other bought the farm during the night (in the whole of the US?) I do….lol

  2. Your possums are a lot prettier than the ones down here in S. Florida. The ones here are positively ugly!! Must be the cold temperatures – the ones down here don’t have that much hair – they are beyond ugly.

  3. Yeah, well Dog-geek, you’re probably the only one to know I wasn’t trying to spell some other word than “tharned.” We use it a lot around here. My wife gets that way almost daily, but it is the work schedule and my committee meeting schedule and her unanswered email list that freezes her in her tracks. Know what I mean?