A walk in the woods
Despite there being no snow for cross country skiing, despite there being no sunshine for over a week now, despite all the disappointments of the season for someone who loves the way winter is supposed to be, I wasn't about to sit inside on New Year's Day. My year has begun well; instead of a common sparrow for my first year bird, I looked out the window to see the beautiful--and frustrated--Cooper's Hawk that has been hanging about. I say frustrated, because try as she might, she was unable to flush any sparrows from deep within their hiding spot. Life as a raptor isn't easy.
By mid-day, I'd had enough of the indoors, and my husband and I headed out for a New Year's Day hike. We went to one of the county parks situated along the Mississippi River, and went into the campground area, now abandoned. Along with watching no less than eleven Bald Eagles on the ice, we spotted movement scurrying right along the bank, then heading up the side of a tree snag. Looking closely, we could see it was an opossum. I'd come to think of them as nothing more than spooky looking rats encountered on the back roads at night, or more often, as roadkill during the day. As we stood and watched this little one, frozen in its place, we couldn't help think it looked more like a stuffed animal, and the plot of a Cherokee story often told at festivals came to mind.
Long ago, Possum had the most beautiful, full bushy tail--and he knew it. He made sure to remind everyone at the slightest provocation to take a look.
"Don't I have the most beautiful tail? The Creator smiled upon me when handing out tails."
Everyone agreed--and everyone silently grumbled and tired of Possum's ceaseless bragging, none more so than Rabbit. Rabbit was the messenger of all the animals, running about to tell them of a meeting of the Council. It was on such an occasion that Rabbit saw his opportunity.
"Possum, our chief Bear has asked that you sit right next to him at the Council meeting, and that you speak first, because you have such a beautiful tail.'
Possum smiled. "Well, I should speak first. No one has a more beautiful tail than I."
Rabbit smiled to himself. "Agreed. But your tail is a bit dirty, and we can't have that, can we?"
Possum looked behind himself. "You're right, it does look a bit snarled and dirty, doesn't it? I wouldn't want that. All the animals should be able to admire its beauty during the meeting."
Rabbit smiled to himself once more. "Possum, it just so happens that I have some special medicine that can be smeared onto your tail, making it thicker and more luxurious than ever, while making it clean and shiny. It also just so happens that I have some with me."
Possum could not believe his good luck! His tail would shine and draw the envy of all the animals at the Council. That was how it should be, he thought. Rabbit smeared his medicine onto Possum's tail, and it was so strong, it would dissolve every last hair. He then wrapped the tail with an old snakeskin, telling Possum it would keep the medicine right where it could do the best job, and to leave it there until just before the meeting.
The Council meeting was the next day. Possum took his place of honor next to Bear, waiting for just the right moment to speak. He watched as all the animals' eyes fell upon him, and he began to smile widely, holding his tail, still in the snakeskin. The moment was right.
"My friends," Possum said, a huge grin on his face,"I have been asked to speak first, because among all the Animals, my tail is the fullest and silkiest." Possum was unwrapping the snakeskin as he spoke, still with that smile on his face, full of pride at his good fortune. As the last bit of snakeskin fell away and he looked at his tail, he froze.
It was completely naked! It was ugly! All the animals were looking at him, and with that grin still frozen on his face, he fell over as if dead. He stayed that way, too embarrassed to move and face the ridicule of all the others. He didn't move until the meeting was over and all the others had long since returned to their homes.
To this very day---like our hike today---whenever Possum feels threatened, he freezes, that foolish grin still on his face. Because of his pride, he has the ugliest tail of all.
There are many versions of this story, but all of them emphasize the consequences of hubris. My retelling is based on a version found at the site "Felids and Friends," a Florida non-profit organization devoted to animal welfare. It has educational information and many activities suitable for teachers and naturalists.