The Anomalist

Site Archive: The "A" Files
Moonlight in the Garden
 of Sacrificial Possums

A Column by Charles Miller

 When I moved from Texas to the Carolinas some years ago, I brought my garden with  me (in seed, for the most part); this included a broad range of vegetables, fruits,  flowers, bushes, vines and trees. My Carolina neighbors occasionally comment on the  colorful habanero and purira peppers, hyacinth and velvet bean, as well as the more  exotic night jasmine and acacia trees springing up beyond my patio. This is gratifying  to me in more ways than they know, for I wasted years down in West Texas trying to  maintain this very same garden, in extreme heat and with little humidity.

 While I found that a good many of the seeds simply would not germinate in these higher, cooler latitudes, I also discovered a peculiar growth pattern up here in the Carolinas.  This discovery came about following an inexplicable period of dormancy in my spring  garden of two years ago. One bright morning I arose to tend the garden and was surprised  to find an enormous surge in growth, seemingly overnight. The growth was most evident  in the climbing vines, which were a full 8" taller than they were the day before;  but all of the plants showed new leaves and buds. Indeed, every leafy thing was brimming  with vitality.

 At first I was puzzled, for there had been no remarkable change in temperature, humidity  or barometric pressure (yes, as a thoughtful amateur gardener, I keep meticulous  track of these factors). Furthermore, we were between the once-a-month feedings,  so I couldn't blame this bizarre growth on Peters or Scott's products. To all appearances,  sometime between dusk and dawn, a cosmic switch was thrown and my long-dormant flora  sprang to life with a vengeance. But my consternation gave way to satisfaction as  the accelerated growth continued for several days (until the next phase of dormancy).

 Since that time, I've watched closely this on-again/off-again growth pattern with  a mixture of fascination and increasing horror. Horror, I say, because there has  emerged another pattern, hinting at some very peculiar simultaneity: With each burst  in plant growth, there is a marked escalation in roadkills out on the rural highway  near our home.

 Several months passed before I made the connection; but, when I did, I felt like  the anthropologist who has just stumbled upon a lost tribe that still practices human  sacrifice. It was at once a terrible and irresistible discovery. Watching the cycle  unfold as it did, my wife and I found that, for a certain few days each month, there  were up to five times more roadkills than normal over a three-mile stretch of highway--to  the great misfortune of local rabbit, squirrel, raccoon and possum populations. And,  during "the sacrifice," as we whimsically christened the cycle, my garden  plants would go wild with new growth.

 As soon as we made this connection, I attempted to rationalize it. The answer was  the full moon, I told myself at first. During the full phase of the moon, many nocturnal  (and some diurnal) animals will forage much farther afield in the abundant moonlight,  and they will encounter busy roadways. This much is well documented. But do cultivated  plants grow faster or more robustly during the full moon? There's plenty of anecdotal  testimony--from farmers, cattle ranchers, midwives, and even cops and paramedics--to  the effect that the full moon "does something" beyond our ken, perhaps  invigorating living things in some phenomenal and poorly understood manner. We could  discuss such heretical material at length; however, for the purpose of this little  rant, we can dispense with the "full moon theory." As we have determined  over the last two years, "the sacrifice" occurs on its own timetable, and  it does not regularly coincide with any particular phase of the moon.

 Adjusting my approach from the metaphysical to the physical, I then considered the possibility that motor traffic and the associated carbon levels in the atmosphere  might account for both "the sacrifice" and plant growth phenomena. Not  exactly hard science, but this seemed more of a likelihood: That increased highway  traffic resulted in a higher death toll for roaming wildlife, and the carbon emissions  from increased traffic resulted in unnatural spurts of area plant growth. This fanciful  notion was dashed, as well, when the county began refurbishing a nearby two-lane  bridge: For a solid month, traffic was backed up for hours everyday out on our rural  highway, with hundreds of idling cars spewing their carbon compounds into the atmosphere  for all to partake. As you may have already guessed, there was no acceleration in  plant growth during this time, and no increase in roadkills. In fact, to our bemused  wonder, "the sacrifice" abated for the duration of the construction project.

What is this, then? What field dynamic is at work that promotes the growth  of vegetation, on the one hand, while luring furry little animals to their deaths  on the other? Or should we ask how one phenomenon precipitates the other? It has  occurred to me that the wildlife around here can, perhaps, "sense" when  the vegetation begins growing at an accelerated rate. Maybe the animals are somehow  relentlessly drawn to the new growth, to the extent of crossing busy thoroughfares  en masse. "Why did the opossum attempt to cross the road? Couldn't help himself--the  santalum acuminata on the other side was irresistible." (Santalum  Acuminata: the Quandong, aka Australian Peach, a parasitic tree happily leeching  sustenance from a large azalea in my garden.)

 But it's the other side of cause-and-effect that gets creepy: Perhaps the plants  are imbued with renewed vigor because of the animal deaths. On occasion I've  been called a pre-renaissance thinker, but I'm not so medieval that I believe sacrificing  a goat (or a dozen possums) will somehow enrich my crop. Not yet, anyway. However,  this is precisely where we run up against certain human traditions dating back nearly  to the dawn of recorded history.

 Somewhere far back in the dim corridors of time, humans got it into their heads that sacrificing animals (and/or each other) was a good idea for promoting fertility,  for enriching their farmland, or for appeasing their gods. Perhaps not so strangely,  sacrificial altars have played a pivotal role in many (if not most) cultures and  religions throughout human history. While far removed from one another by time and  distance, a great many cultures independently arrived at the decision to perform  sacrifices, presumably for the good of their communities.

 But how did this come to pass? Was there a kernel of fact, or an observation of natural phenomena, which led the ancients to conclude that the termination of one life (or  lives) instantaneously contributed to the overall vigor of the environment? And did  the ancients choose to trigger this natural phenomenon with ritual sacrifices of  their own? And is this natural phenomenon yet at work in our world today?

 I'm certainly not proposing scientific experimentation with sacrificial rites to  determine the exact nature of this phenomenon; in my own opinion, testing one set  of primitive rituals with another set of primitive rituals is a futile endeavor--like  testing the rules of chess by the rules of lacrosse. Rather, I suggest that we may  have witnessed here in the Carolina outback a natural phenomenon that is deserving  of more serious investigation. Whatever "it" is or what "it"  represents is a profound mystery--to me, anyway. Only my 20th Century skepticism prevents me from arriving at the same conclusions possibly drawn by the ancients.

Copyright 2000 by The Anomalist