You've heard no doubt of "The Land of Cotton." Well, I come from "The Land of 'Possum." It wasn't always that way in Lincoln County, Ontario. I was fourteen years old (although I didn't know it at the time,) when classmate Bollard Kluk came to school reporting that he had seen one of these improbable marsupials. No one believed him at the time, in fact, most of us thought he had simply seen a pale rat. (Bollard was blind in one eye, so naturally everything he saw looked twice as big.)
Nonetheless, it was no more than a couple of years later and they were showing up everywhere, town & country. Now, a 'possum is a very stupid animal. It has the most teeth of any mammal, but a brain about the size of a tomato seed. It is so stupid, that even with all those pointy teeth, it can't be induced to bite. Believe me, I've tested this theory. (I know, that's stupid too, but in my defense, may I offer the spectacle of the Lion Tamer.) It gets so worked up not knowing how to use its teeth, that instead of biting you, it just passes-out. It is so stupid, it doesn't cross the road, it walks right down the middle. (I've actually seen it walking down the on-ramp of a busy four-lane.) It is so stupid, that even with perfectly good countryside available to it on all sides, it is just as likely to choose to live in the city. (Couldn't resist that one.) It is so stupid, that when I take it into the elevator to visit my father, it doesn't know how to use the buttons. It is so stupid, it left a perfectly decent climate like Virginia to come to Canada.
Which brings me to my point. Stupid as the 'possum is, when he arrives here in Canada, he sets up his livelihood such that he has the choice of whether or not to get up and go to work on any given winter day. Right about now, with the mercury dropping to the -40 range, i'm thinking about this. You see, I have set myself up such that even if it were hailing anvils, if it kept up, sooner than later i'd have to venture out in it. What bothers me is this: am I therefore Dumber'n a 'Possum?
What is with that damn Arctic, anyway? Why can't it just stay put? What business does it have, how little manners does it possess, that it see nothing amiss about to sliding right on down here into the middle latitudes? It's ridiculous. And being a man, and not a 'possum, I have been spending a fair bit of time out in this frigid insubordination. The perversity of livestock is such that it is when the conditions are the worst that they most require your assistance.
How do our livestock compare to 'possums? The chickens don't come out much in this, and their egg-production drops precipitously. (Last week we were up to over 50 eggs a day, pretty good for mid-winter, now we're down to a dozen.) The pigs lay like sardines in a tin, nestled in a deep bed of straw. We've built a low ceiling, or pig-lid, over their bed in the corner of a calf-shed, about as high as their backs, and layered also with straw on top. This sort of thing greatly decreases the radiation of body heat into the upper reaches. This is why deer - and smart woodsmen - locate their cold weather camps beneath overhanging evergreens. The pigs, near-naked as they are, so almost human, so like my Uncle Adrian in the U.K., don't seem to suffer given these basic living conditions. The yaks are built for this. They get a little more serious about food, but being from high latitude Mongolia and other nasty places much like ours, they're still pretty mellow. Not so the horses - mellow that is. They get tough with each other when it's cold. In fact, you could tell how serious-cold it was just by watching their behavior at feeding time. When the Arctic, the lousy, filthy Arctic, the kick-you-when-you're down Arctic, the sneaky, conniving, double-crossing...
When the Arctic slides down off its proper polar perch, the horses get serious about food, and the hierarchies are strictly enforced with bites and charges and flying hooves. Beyond this, though, I think they are even tougher than the yaks. While on occasion we have had a yak suffer from frost-bitten ear tips, none of the horses has ever had this issue. The milk-cow, on the other hand, is a wimp. She stays inside her stall in the barn throughout this transgression of the you-know-which part of the globe, and she wears her insulated jacket to boot. Cows are smarter than chickens, but not by much, so of all the large animals they adapt the best to confinement.
There are no 'possums here. Anyway, who cares - I go out to feed the animals in the gloaming. It's a balmy -26. I am glad and impressed that the automatic waterer remains in operation. (The heated pump from the well is not.) I siphon some into a bucket to top off the chicken's water now put right inside their henhouses - they don't drink enough in this weather otherwise. All the chickens are in, save three Isa Browns. This is the variety that has been engineered to lay brown eggs in the battery barns. They are 'possum of the chicken world. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with their eggs, once the Isa is removed from the indecent conditions and food regimens of the big barns, but there is definitely something wrong with the chickens. They are the first to die under harsh conditions like these - or any conditions - they just don't hold up as well as the heritage breeds. They also seem to be instinctually challenged. In the summer, they linger about into the dusk, long after all the other breeds have gone safely to bed, risking the fangs of predators that the others understand, oblivious. And now, on this frigid night, here are three of these idiots, roosting on the ground outside. I go back to the house, and bring out an old copy of "Wild Animals of North America." I open it up to the 'possum section, and show them a particularly un-flattering illustration. I give them a good long look. I get no response. Disgusted, I pick each one up and put them in the warmth of the hen-house, with the responsible poultry.
It is now full-dark, clear, and the temperature is dropping fast. Heading back to the house, I reflect as I always do, how amazing it is that no matter how cold it is, once you are out doing your thing in it for awhile, you cease to mind it anymore. It's actually quite refreshing. I am not so dumb as I am, after-all.
And one thing I didn't point out about 'possums is that when winter comes and they grow their coat out, they are actually quite beautiful.
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