Agency in Land Management: One dead opossum and our responsibility for the land we tend to.

Land management can be messy work. My introduction to real land restoration was with Carleton College’s ongoing prairie and woodland restoration projects at its arboretum in southern Minnesota. My first day working at the arboretum my crew cut and cleared invasive buckthorn that had completely smothered the bottom story of a wooded area. We started in the morning with a nearly impenetrable wall of interlocking prickly branches and glossy green leaves. You could hardly see 10 feet let along walk into the wooded area. The thick buckthorn canopy, thirty feet above, blocked off almost all light from reaching the bare woodland floor. A basic understanding of woodland ecology was enough to see this was not a high-functioning tree stand.

Buckthorn dominated forest understory. Picture by Myles Bakke. From the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum website.

To thoroughly remove the buckthorn we cut down the 30-foot buckthorn “bushes,” stacked their pieces into piles, and then ripped up their roots with a bobcat. At the end of the day with the chainsaws and the bobcat turned off we stood back to admire our hard day’s work: giant mounds of mangled, twisting branches, trees not yet chopped up listing on their sides, deep gouges ripped into the ground, half-submerged roots protruding from the dirt at crazy angles. Everywhere soil that hadn’t seen direct summer sun for perhaps decades was baking under piercing sunlight. As we all stood with our satisfied hands on our hips I thought of a certain angry kid from my high school who wore the same silly shirt every day; across the front it read: “chaos, panic, disorder: my work is done here.”

I have always seen a kind of sin in the destruction of natural places by humans. The less damage we do to natural places the better for our souls. I can’t imagine any objective third party would ever judge us well for treading heavier than necessary on this Earth. I find a completely hands-off approach to natural areas, even severely degraded ones, to be perfectly defensible for any ardent environmentalist or conservationist, if only because our attempts to correct past wrongs are often clumsy at best. Natural process take care of themselves and tend to produce environments that are good for life. The outcome may not happen on a human time scale but it gets there and I suspect, even if it takes thousands of years, does so on its own with less fuss than humans could ever manage.

And yet, I am a devout enthusiast for land management. Wildness can exist with our own careful intervention in natural areas and land management, when practiced with love and humility, is a salve for our own souls. Tending for a natural area is like farming for the inner spirit. But it comes with great responsibility. Caring for land gives us an agency that brings responsibility. In clearing a vine-choked corner of my yard recently I brought this responsibility into pointed focus.

The vine was there when we moved in, a lurking disaster of previously negligent landscaping. At some point a medium-sized bush had grown in that back corner. Porcelain vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), a particularly nasty invasive species (selected in 2014 by Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council and the Environmental Resource Management Center at Northern Kentucky University as Kentucky’s least wanted plant) sprouted under the bush, grew up the sides and over the top, smothered it, and killed it. The bush remained underneath as dead skeletal support for the growing weight of the original vine and eventually its many progeny that sprouted up around it. By the time we took possession of the yard the corner was just a giant amorphous green blob, steadily encroaching away from the old bush into the mowed grass and the nearby fence.

I left the vine corner alone at first. I did so partly because there were plenty of other projects to get started with but also out of pity for whatever local wildlife was already around. Porcelain vine foliage provides little useful nourishment for our wild animals here in the eastern United States (though some animals do eat the berries), doesn’t provide dynamic structure, and spreads at an alarming rate, but in a neighborhood covered overwhelmingly by turf grass one vine mound is better than nothing. There was nowhere else nearby where shade loving beetles and centipedes could make homes in leaf litter and no doubt it was the best rabbit hiding spot available for blocks.

This past fall though, having established a few other natural gardens here and there, I’d had enough of that vine corner. The mound was ugly and it aggravated my sensibilities of what healthy natural land is supposed to look like, with a mix of species and a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors. Vegetation should be full, sure, and lush, but not an impenetrable thicket.

I started the removal process on a hot, early fall afternoon. Almost immediately upon yanking off the first handful of vine tendrils I smelled the sweet, pungent odor of animal decay. I froze with my hands still full of vegetation. There was a rattle as dry, dusty leaves shaken loose from their stems settled below. In the hole I’d made light streamed, just as it had that first day in Minnesota, onto long covered ground. A few more minutes of careful excavation revealed a young opossum. It was lying on its side in a shallow depression , head gently resting on a cheek with the pointy nose laying softly above the leaves. The short legs were spread out, but in a relaxed sort of way, with the thin toes tucked backwards and the long tail gently curled around a stick. It reminded me, as all four-legged mammals do to varying degrees, of my two cats.

While walking in my family’s back woods one night as a kid our dog chased an opossum up to a fence and the thing, instead of playing dead or scurrying away, slipped between two boards, turned around back through the fence, barred its teeth, hissed, and made a swipe at my dog’s nose. For years afterwards I was terrified of opossums. And then, at some point, my fear disappeared and I started loving them. They are unassuming, trundling little things. They seem to want out of the spotlight even more than other animals, which I respect. Plus opossums are cute. If you look close enough opossums have undeniable charisma. The little beady eyes, the long inquisitive nose. They’re cute from 40 feet away when they’re chunky little bodies waddle across the road in my car beams, and they’re cute when accidentally cornered and in a split second go from baring their teeth and hissing to lolling on their sides in fake death. I also like opossums because so many other people are repulsed by them. When I see one I see an animal just trying to take care of the babies, find enough food for tonight, and not be bothered. Besides, they’re hygienic animals, far cleaner than the more widely accepted raccoon.

I spent a while thinking about what to do with the body before me. I had resolved to clear the vine pile and wasn’t going to wait for an animal that was no longer with us. At the same time, I have a thing against moving wild animals that have died of natural causes. Living in the wild is a hard life. It’s always seemed to me the upside is that a wild animal is born, lives, and dies on its own terms. I never like seeing dead animals but I try not to shed many tears for dead wild ones. I acknowledge the debt I and all the rest of the living owe to the dead, and remind myself how much respect is owed something that lived on its own terms. Moving a body, even one that the life has gone out of, seems an unnecessary disrespect.

In the end I found a good stout stick and drove that into the ground above the opossum’s head. If there was one thing in abundance below the vine tangle it was dead leaves. I gathered up a couple armfuls and mounded them gently over the body. The insects could still get to it. Air and oxygen would flow mostly unhindered to the body. Natural decomposition could carry on.

It took me just one evening to clear the entire mess of vines. As I anticipated what was left was a gaping hole. No doubt hundreds of insects were either ripped unceremoniously from their homes or were heading back from foraging, as I headed inside my house, to find their own dwelling obliterated. For all I know a family of mice had in an instant become homeless for the winter. The next evening a rabbit, startled by a car coming down the alley, might have dashed for familiar cover under the vine tangle only to find bare, exposed, terrifying ground.

The still, cold body of the opossum, unmoving beneath a light cover of dried leaves, stood for all these things. I had cleared the area for good reason, I don’t regret it, and am confident that I will bring useful plants back and create a diverse, shareable, nourishing space within a few years. But I also bore the burden of having disturbed something sacred. In the outdoors I find a real community. I go into the woods or into a flower garden and there I am surrounded by organisms struggling with staying alive and getting through their days. I feel comradery in the mechanical drone of solitary wasps, the quiet impassiveness of trees, and in mammals and sometimes birds, behind whose eyes I see a churning brain slowly working me over.

On my first day of habitat restoration work back at the Carleton Arboretum, when we all stood around and admired the extent of our one day of destruction I laughed thinking about the angry kid with his angsty shirts. I also asked myself the question, “What the hell did we just do?” No, it hadn’t been an idyllic grove of woodland, but it was a quiet corner of vegetation nonetheless. Deer may have struggled to pass through the close buckthorn branches and found no nourishment in its glossy, foreign leaves, but surely plenty of small animals found shelter in the dense cover from which they ventured out into the existing prairie.

Our restoration, I knew from the beginning, would benefit animals marginalized in our new agricultural world, animals that demand open, uninterrupted grasslands and the edible leaves only those native grasses and forbs provided, not to mention the hundreds of species of plants themselves, pushed out by the plow, suburban sprawl, and now the over-bearing buckthorn. The animals whose habitat we destroyed in the buckthorn grove were pushed aside to make habitat for animals that had precious little left in the world. That understanding is at the heart of habitat restoration and was something I understood, on a basic intellectual level, as a child. It’s a weighty understanding to act on though when standing before ripped, shredded, exposed, suddenly sun-covered ground.

Before my first year at the arboretum was through I had no doubts about our work. We were creating something truly wonderful. Over four years the growing prairie unfolded before me. Here was a forgotten ecosystem, and a gorgeous one. I spent countless hours walking through the low, wet portions of the prairie with the towering big bluestems and standing on the tallest sandy hill watching the sun go down as red winged blackbirds sang and flocks of birds wheeled overhead. My sophomore year a state-endangered henslow sparrow was confirmed nesting in the arboretum. My junior year I saw a short-eared owl myself, and a wood turtle. When old prairie plantings needed less and less intensive maintenance I looked on them as would a proud father on growing children.

Carleton College prairie restoration. Taken by Chris Erickson.

I passed through my college town last summer and found time to walk out to the top of the prairie. Walking up the hill was like going back in time and going home. It was a hot summer day. A few birds were about and a lazy midday breeze ruffled my sweaty shirt. I was only on top of that hill for ten minutes but such a sense of rightness came over me. There is endless good in land that is served honestly, enthusiastically and humbly.

Back home in my current backyard in Louisville, on a walk a few weeks ago to envision future planting plans, I nearly tripped over the small stick I’d placed in front of the now worn-down leaf pile. I’d forgotten all about the opossum. I crouched down over where it lay. It came back to me in a second, the gentle way its head rested on the leaves, its feet and small toes stretched limply away from the body, the gentle curl of the tail. In all likelihood that opossum, suffering from some ailment, instinctively understanding the approach of death, crawled under the heavy, cool, protective shelter of an old, ugly, non-native porcelain vine, wriggled itself into a small hole, and died. Through what was left of the leaves I studied the curvature of its still connected skeleton.

We can choose to be hands-off with land. With some land we always should, exercising as much restraint and distance as we can possibly muster. But as humans we inevitably spread our reach. When we take guardianship of land, whether by building on it, or mowing it, or removing “invasive” species from it, or extracting precious metals from it, or planting flowers on it, it seems to me this small opossum and its resting place is what’s at stake.

A hundred or so years ago in this spot a few miles from and a few hundred feet above the south shore of the Ohio River a great forest stood. Towering oaks maybe, or hickories, shaded all manner of wildlife that called northern Kentucky home. This small corner of land has seen the trees cut, crops grown, turf laid down, an alley constructed nearby, and recently a chain-link fence erected. A few years ago a vigorous species of vine grew over a bush and killed it, then an opossum died underneath. From my crouch I stood up but kept looking down. The clearing was covered in the stems of porcelain vines that had continued trying to sprout through the fall, and those stems were chopped, ripped, and mangled where I’d run the mower over them. Between the stubby stems of vines and the protruding jawbone of an opossum was the exposed bare ground, waiting.

Opossum jawbone. Taken by Chris Erickson.