THE DOG notices it first.
Perched atop a tall fence that separates our backyard from a neighbor’s, the creature is stuffed-toy charming – with a white face, pink nose, black ears and pinpoint eyes. But it’s also shockingly repulsive, with a long, filthy tail that suggests a new breed of super rat that’s escaped from a mad scientist.
The dog growls, but the creature gives her no excuse to either defend or attack. It just sits there, staring with those tiny black eyes, patiently, as if waiting for me to do what humans do: take her photo with my cell phone.
Our first question, of course, is this a sign of what might happen next in the novel coronavirus crisis?
The second question reflects how far removed most of us are from nature: what is this creature?
My wife and I turn to humankind’s greatest information storehouse, Wikipedia, the online (and free) encyclopedia, which confirms our best guess: the visitor is an opossum.
We can save you the milliseconds (which aren’t to be wasted during a pandemic) it will take you to look up the answer to the question we all ask next, but are too embarrassed to say out loud:
An opossum is a mammal, which means it’s like us in some ways, but in other ways, is unlike us, since it’s a marsupial, a group that includes wombats, wallabies and kangaroos, whose mothers carry their newborns around in a pouch.
Wikipedia is less helpful when it comes to another question humans always ask about their fellow inhabitants of earth: is it, “good” or “bad” for us.
“Their unspecialized biology, flexible diet, and reproductive habits,” Wikipedia says, “make them successful colonizers and survivors in diverse locations and conditions.”
Okay, opossums are adaptable. That’s good for them. But, again, what about us – do we want one in our backyard?
As it turns out, for those of us who live in areas prone to tick-borne Lyme Disease, Wikipedia says that just one opossum can wolf down as many as 5,000 ticks in a single year, an obvious benefit for both people and our dogs.
So, Ms. or Mr. O, welcome to our fence!
THE LARGER ISSUE is whether the opossum’s arrival is a positive or negative sign for a world imperiled by covid-19.
It is a measure of how the pandemic has unhinged most of us that I would even be looking to an opossum to give us some sort of signal about what’s to come, as if the animal’s role is not just to keep us tick free, but also to serve as a pandemic prophet. cc
But it must be here for a reason, and these days everything revolves around the mysteries of covid-19.
How long will the virus continue its global killing spree? Do cloth masks really help us from infecting other people? How long before a vaccine makes us really safe? Are doorknobs dangerous? Will we lose patience with each other? It’s said, for example, that the young, who if they catch it, often suffer minor bouts of covid-19; but that the elderly are more prone to frightening, perhaps fatal, episodes. Will the young turn on the old so they can go back to work? Will the old hold the young hostage from their jobs indefinitely?
It’s still unclear to many of us whether paper or plastic is the preferred grocery bag; whether someone coming as close as 5.5-feet to us is more lethal than someone at the official distance of 6 feet. Why is it okay to be in a group of five people but not 8? And what about the Second Wave? Or the Second Great Depression?
Probably too much to ask a Dr. Tony Fauci, (now on self-quarantine) much less an opossum, who no doubt would prefer to be anywhere but in the public spotlight.
THE TRUTH is that we are pleased that he or she simply has showed up.
After weeks of isolation at our home in Newport, R.I. having a visitor – any visitor, even one with a pink nose and an ugly tail – is a welcome presence.
But when I look at the photographic evidence later, I realize that “our” opossum is literally “on the fence” when it comes to which yard he is visiting, ours or the neighbor’s.
Maybe that’s the point. It nice to have a visitor in the neighborhood, so that whose backyard it’s in doesn’t didn’t matter.
However the covid-19 pandemic plays will depend not only on what happens in just our backyard or the one next door, but how we respond to it as a community, as a state, a nation, a community of nations.
How will our scientists, economists, politicians, bus drivers, nurses, garbage crews, farmers, daycare experts, dentists, canvassing clerks, checkout clerks, comedians, roofers, truck drivers, pizza chefs, teachers, programmers, park rangers, EMTs, Pfcs, PhDs, ASEs, LCSWs, janitors, astronauts and dog trainers figure out how to put our world back together again?
Most of all, how each of us treat one another?
THE NEXT DAY, we look at the corner fencepost, and there’s nothing there. The opossum is gone.
Same thing the next day.
A week passes, and the fencepost remains strangely and sadly vacant.
Still, we look every day.