Living for Leisure: A Review of Possum Living

An 18-year-old Dolly Freed describes the philosophy of “possum living” as follows: “It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.” For five years in the late 1970’s, this teenager and her father lived off the land outside of Philadelphia, managing a small budget, eating from their garden and choosing to actively disengage from the commercial world surrounding them. Her 1978 manifesto, Possum Living, reflecting the back-to-the-land movement of that time, is now reissued.  Although she does not make an ideological case for a return to the land as others had proposed, her participation with homestead living nevertheless aligns herself with proponents of a sustainable movement. For this reason, Possum Living has new relevance and deserves a new audience.

Freed’s approach to possum living emphasizes ease and leisure. But advocates of our present food movement, who care about policy change to fight big agriculture, corporate monopoly of seed and crop production, genetically modified foods, CAFOs, and monocrop agriculture, may find in Freed’s work an authentic and usable model for personal lifestyle change. Freed recommends that her readers take responsibility for their individual actions: “If you cant go the whole route, at least go part way. If you can’t become a non-consumer, aim to be a mini-consumer.” Her intent of a life of leisure may be different from the mission of an eager food advocate of our time, but the result of a mindful existence equally affects the environment, land and our identity in comparable ways.

Freed’s authorial voice is feisty and impish—she is a girl whose witty and candid narration exposes the sprite naiveté of a child. Her chapter on nutrition begins with a recollection from “some years ago, when [she] was still a child,” and when her conscience often pesters her for “goofing off,” she simply ignores it. But more often than not, she authentically articulates the feasible possibility of returning to a life aligned with nature for the sake of ease—not for a spiritual, Waldenesque existence. Through humor and candor (“if your spouse gives you the fish-eye look when you mention rabbits in the cellar, forget it”), and directness (“kill your own meat—don’t hire someone to do it”), Freed skillfully presents a proposal for sustainable living.

Possum Living is a reflection complete with recipes, grocery lists, costs of living and personal testament. Her explorations are entirely applicable to the food movement of our time: don’t waste food, eat what’s in season, experiment with less popular food items, kill humanely, be an active producer, and become less of a mass-market consumer. She is mindful of yearly expenses, $268.80 spent on food and $101.24 on electricity, and she is learned on the topic of foraging for wild plants. Under the auspices of Euell Gibbons’ teachings, Freed demonstrates her own knowledge of edible weeds by praising yellow rocket and upland cress. She knows the tastes of cattail shoots and burdock stems and transplants wild ginger to her garden plot. Her active engagement with and curiosity about her chosen lifestyle shape this work into something more than a mere call for change. The Self is at the center of Freed’s work.

Her chapters range in topic from food, to heating, clothing, law, transportation and household chores. Three beliefs lie at the core of Freed’s teachings on eating simply, smartly and consciously: know your food philosophy, observe how nature works and engage cooperatively with it, and rely on reason and common sense to guide your decisions.  There is no attempt here to forge a romantic relationship with the land because her lifestyle is an active choice, not a privilege. Therefore, her food philosophy also depends on conviction and an educated opinion.

Many of Freed’s explanations for sustainable eating draw strength from the technicalities of active participation—how-to’s for building rabbit cages, lists for shopping, recipes and distilling manuals—and argue that others who wish to follow this lifestyle must be proactive as well. Gaining an education is important to Freed—“go to your library and read books on the subject,” “there are pamphlets at your local feed store” which explain hens’ laying cycles. Her ideas on consumption foreshadow current discussions centered on small-scale farming and livestock production: Kill your own meat. Don’t waste food. Don’t eat animals or fish that are being over-consumed. Experiment with foods less in demand. Choose action and engage with nature by learning its patterns and observable truths.

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So while Possum Living encourages readers to take control of their lifestyle choices, it also reminds us that there is a level of observation needed to understand nature’s inherent cycles. She also coaches curious dwellers to examine nature within the larger food system they are rejecting. “Rabbits are often sterile in September and October,” “Fish, do, however, feed in a cyclical manner,” “try to lean toward nonhybrid types [of seeds] so you can produce your own seeds for future use,” “when you go to the grocery store, don’t forget to go out back and look for discarded greens for your rabbits. Do it even if you don’t have rabbits.”

Choosing the “possum” path of ease and simplicity—a relationship with nature that conforms to leisure and harmony with it—equips us with practical, self-reliant skill sets. It is not a spiritual movement. Perhaps it is her rejection of nostalgia that makes her belief in sustainable living so convincing. It simply makes sense. She promises her reader that “if you just want to easy-up your life somewhat, why then, you’re talking my language. We’ll get that Protestant Work Ethic monkey off your back.”

A present-day reader must select what to take from this detailed account. Certain chapters are more effective for their humor than applicability, and certain recipes seem entirely out of reach for an urbanite dweller like myself. Still, envisioning Freed making her recipe for pickled snapper—“the feet are the best. You much them up and spit out the toe bones”—makes one hopeful that we, too, could embrace possum living, should we choose to take that chance.

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Stacey Slate is the former deputy managing editor of Civil Eats and community manager for the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA. She is currently helping to build edibleschoolyard.org, an online network to connect teachers, parents, and advocates of the edible education movement and to encourage them to share best practices and curriculum. Read more >

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