Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum, of the nearsighted, stumbling opossum, whose only defences are a hiss, a hideous scowl and a rank scent emitted in terror. Let us rejoice in the pink-nosed, pink-fingered opossum, her silvery pouch full of babies, each no bigger than a honeybee.
May your young thrive to ride upon your back. May they fatten and grow large and stumble off on their own to devour cockroaches and carrion and venomous snakes. May their snuffling root out all the ticks in our yards and all the snails in our flower beds. When they faint in the face of marauding dogs, we call back our baying hounds and wait for them to wake. We cheer when they rise and shake themselves. We send them with our blessings as they blunder back into the night.
Let peals of gratitude ring out for the glossy vulture, soarer of air currents, eater of gore. We gaze in wonder at your distant perfection, mistaking you for creatures we thoughtlessly love much more: for eagles or hawks or ospreys. Stolid in our heavy human bones, we follow you with our eyes, watching as you barely shift the angle of your wings to bank and glide, to circle and circle again.
Behold the rat snake gliding silently through the nighttime weeds. Behold the sleek skin, cool but not damp, and the clever darting tongue, sniffing out the contours of the world. Watch as she finds the crack under the toolshed door.
May we remember in your circling the cycle you complete. On the ground, something is suffering. Something is coming near to the end of its time among us, but its life is not ending. Its life can never end. You are turning its body into something beautiful: blood and feathers and hollow bones. Earthbound no longer, the dead are rising again in you, rising and rising, lifted on air.
In summer we consider the whine of the mosquito, the secrecy of the spider, the temper of the wasp — who among us could love you? Who could love even one of you, bearing your poisons and your pain into the heavy summertime air? We could. We could love you if we remind ourselves that no creature is made up only of poison, that no life is only a source of irritation or pain.
We could love the mosquitoes for feeding the chittering chimney swifts wheeling in the sunset, for feeding the tree swallows flying low over the lake at dusk. We could love the spider for spinning the silk that holds together the moss of the hummingbird’s nest, the silk that stretches as the baby birds grow. We could love the wasp for eating the caterpillars that eat the tomato plants. We could love you all if only we remembered the tree swallows and the hummingbirds, if only we remembered the taste of home-grown tomatoes still warm from the sun.
On endless summertime evenings, on cool and generous summertime evenings, let us speak kindly of the red bat, the homely little bat with the smushed face and the hairless infants clinging to her fur by teeth and thumb and feet. In daylight, she dangles one-footed from a tree branch, masquerading as a dead leaf. At nightfall she unfolds her canny wings and skitters to her work, sweeping through the skies, circling under the street lights, clearing the air of moths whose larvae eat our trees, sweeping up all the whining, stinging creatures we swat at in the dark.
Behold the rat snake gliding silently through the nighttime weeds. Behold the sleek skin, cool but not damp, and the clever darting tongue, sniffing out the contours of the world. Watch as she finds the crack under the toolshed door. Understand that she is finding too the tiny bald mice in the corner of a drawer full of painting rags — the tiny blind mice hidden in the soft remains of ancient bedsheets fallen to ruin.
Pity the young of the poor field mouse, born for just this purpose. Always there are mice — more mice than the world could ever hold if not for a system that includes this beautiful, sinewy creature, this silent celebration of muscle and grace, this serpent serving our uses but too often coming to a brutal end at the end of a hoe.
World, world, forgive our ignorance and our foolish fears. Absolve us of our anger and our error. In your boundless gift for renewal, disregard our undeserving. For no reason but the hope that one day we will know the beauty of unloved things, stoop to accept our unuttered thanks.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.