September 02, 2011

Possum Living, NASA, and Naturing.

Back cover of 1980 paperback edition
Possum Living: How to Live Well without a Job and with Almost No Money was published in 1978, an autobiographical  how-to book about a teenage girl and her father living ultra-cheaply in eastern Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia.
The economy was as dismal as the one we’re in now, but Dolly and Frank were quite happy to have no jobs—they rejected the “money economy,” choosing instead to make their own way and avoid the “gracious living” and acquisition-based one-upmanship that seemed to make so many other Americans miserable. “We have and get the good things of life so easily it seems silly to go to some boring, meaningless, frustrating job to get the money to buy them,” Dolly wrote, “yet almost everyone does. ‘Earning their way in life,’ they call it. ‘Slavery,’ I call it.” She and Frank referred to their existence as “possum living” because “possums can live anywhere.”
Possum Living contains twenty chapters with titles such as “We Quit the Rat Race,” “Health and Medicine,” and “Meat.” It includes instructions for mending clothes, pickling vegetables, and buying bargain homes in what Dolly called “sheriff sales” and everyone now calls foreclosure, plus recipes for the kind of food she and her father cooked and ate, like creamed catfish, rocket pickle, and dandelion wine. “We aren’t living this way for ideological reasons, as people sometimes suppose,” she wrote of the home she called Snug Harbor. “We aren’t a couple of Thoreaus mooning about on Walden Pond here. … We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.”
But Possum Living has an edge to it, which comes out in lines like "Daddy has shot fish with a pistol." Unconsciously, you always expect to turn the page and read, "Our neighbor died, so Daddy and I decided to try eating him."  Frank—Daddy—was not only an urban survivalist, but also a mean drunk when he had enough home-made wine in him and something of a law unto himself.
When developers started building houses nearby, those houses mysteriously burned. Barking dogs disappeared. When the derelict hotel across the road burned to the ground, everyone (wrongly) assumed vagrants. “If someone’s playing loud music at the creek behind the house, you or I would go ask them to turn it down,” says [his ex-wife] Marie. “Frank would go cut their tires. It was just Frank’s nature.” 
Sometimes you wonder if Possum Living sort of shaded off into Winter's Bone. Is is just coincidence that the 17-year-old protagonist of Winter's Bone has the surname of Dolly?

After her one-shot book success, Dolly Freed dropped off the survivalist/homesteading radar. Despite her sketchy formal schooling, she was effectively self-home-schooled, and she attended  Drexel University, getting A's in fluid mechanics, physics, and calculus. She ended up an aerospace engineer for NASA (as is her husband)—and also an environmental educator, still "naturing."

Frank died in a car wreck, estranged from his daughter, in and out of jail and halfway houses.  Ironically, before dropping out, he too had worked in the space program, as an electronics technician for a NASA contractor.

(Thanks to Roberta X for the link.)

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

"When the derelict hotel across the road burned to the ground, everyone (wrongly) assumed vagrants.

Hmmm- sounds just a little like a story someone told me not too long ago about an eccentric relative...