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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nature's Balance

Air Date: Week of

A possum feeds on fresh road kill, causing commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate to ponder the meaning of violence and the cycles of nature.


CURWOOD: During a recent late night drive on a desolate country road, commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate encountered a gory, haunting scene. The efficiency of nature, he found, doesn't always come with a pretty picture.

MONTGOMERY-FATE: Late tonight, just before arriving at our farm in southwest Michigan, my headlights caught a furry animal with large triangular ears and a long tail crawling on top of some other animal. I hit the brakes and whirred backward until I could train my beams on the bloody pointed mouth of a possum feeding on fresh road kill, a large raccoon.

A cold snap had ended abruptly. In the past 24 hours the temperature climbed from 25 to 56 degrees. Possums and raccoons don't hibernate; they are "winter sleepers," meaning that after holing up in some tree trunk during the recent cold weather, these animals were lured from lethargy by the heat wave and by their stomachs. I parked six feet away from the possum with my lights still on and my window down. Ravenously hungry, he ignored me.

He peeled three long strips of fur back over the raccoon's rib cage like he was shucking an ear of corn, then plunged his face into the opening, under the roof of bones and into the steaming organs. The immense sparkling bowl of the night sky seemed to magnify rather than absorb the sound of the possum's munching and eerie breathing.

At that moment, I felt as if I was watching an appalling act of violence, rather than the cycle of creation. Which was it?

The best definition I've ever found for the word violence is in an essay by the philosopher John Modschiedler. "Violence is a ripping apart," he writes, "it is the end product of not thinking of things in relationship. It is a scattering. Scattering is the opposite of community. Violence is an assault on community, on belongingness, on relationship."

Given this definition, the possum's disposing of the raccoon by using it to sustain itself no longer seemed gruesome or violent. Rather it was an act of restoration, of restoring the balance of the natural community.

How odd that the creatures most adept at tipping the balance of nature live not by instinct, but reason. Given their unparalleled intellect, only humans can conceive of their "role" in nature, a role increasingly viewed as material opportunity rather than moral responsibility. How strange that our greatest challenge in the 21st century may be to act less like humans and more like animals, to become less violent, to consider the quiet wisdom of a possum.

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and is the author of his memoir "Steady and Trembling," to be published this fall.

Just ahead: From heartbreak to heartwarming—how one woman found the secret to saving orphaned, baby elephants. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Fontanelle "29th & Going" Fontanelle (Kranky)]



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