A Taste of Animism Alive and Well in Florida
Disclaimer: I typically wouldn’t start off an article with a disclaimer but when I was preparing to take a trip to the town discussed here a local woman gave me this warning “the town is almost completely white and the KKK has some serious pull there, please be careful and don’t spend to long after the sun goes down.” My partner and I only spent enough time in the town to take a picture of the monument and leave. I am unable to confirm or deny the safety of traveling to this town. This article is written purely out of information concerning local traditions. I encourage all readers to be wary of entering unfamiliar towns and exert caution when traveling.
In the heart of the Florida Panhandle there is a small town nicknamed the “Possum Capital of the World”. Wausau is a town of less than 400 people that celebrates the unassuming marsupial with a large granite monument and a yearly Possum Festival. The Possum Festival sees over 10,000 guests entering the small town including Florida politicians like Governor Rick Scott, and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam who is currently running for Governor.
The towns relationship with possums started during the depression era when possums became the towns only reliable source of food and fur. Wausau began celebrating the possum in the late 1960s with its “Fun Day” which would later be renamed “The Possum Festival”. My informant, who asked to remain unnamed, described the first time she went to the event as a young girl in the 70’s and gave a particularly stunning description of the Possum Queen.
The Possum Queen is one of the festivals mainstays and in order to be crowned you need to be over the age of 50 and have an award winning recipe that includes possum. The crowning also takes into account what outfit the queen wears during the crowning competition. The Queen from my informants first festival won because of a single accessory- a necklace of live baby possum hanging around her neck.
In 1982 Florida Legislature deemed the first Saturday in August the official “Possum Day” throughout the entire state of Florida. The town of Wausau erected a monument to possums on August 7th, 1982. The monument briefly details the history of possums and their tenacity stating
“Erected in grateful recognition of the role the North American Possum. A magnificent survivor of the marsupial family pre-dating the ages of the mastodon and the dinosaur, has played in furnishing both food and fur for the early settlers and their successors. Their presence here has provided a source of nutritious and flavorful food in normal times and has been important aid to human survival in times of distress and critical need”
The festival itself has become a celebration of not just possum, but also frivolity. Townsfolk embody every stereotype of the South and exaggerate it into absurdity. A quick google search turns up photos of women in gaudy clothes, wearing toy fake teeth, and bedazzled cowgirl hats. Men can be seen wearing dirty overalls, stay hats, and will often black out some of their teeth. Events include the Possum King and Queen, a parade, pageant, and possum swingin’.
Finding Animism in Unlikely Places
The relationship between the people of Wausau and the Possum may not mirror spiritual expectations of animism but the signs of it are there. A festival celebrating the indomitable spirit of an animal that allowed the town to survive and the place of the animal in the towns history. The modern iteration of the event also allows townsfolk to essentially use drag to exaggerate and reclaim stereotypes that many people hold about Southerners. Many northerners have scoffed at the things I’ve eaten or that other Southerners have eaten as apart of our culture. Eating unusual animals is immediately taken as an indication of being less intelligent and certainly less civilized than their northern and urban counterparts. The festival subverts that by embracing and reclaiming everything that has been used against them. They celebrate their own tenacity by acknowledging it within the animal that kept them alive.
Bringing the festival into the focus of this website how is a secular, absurdist, street festival indicative of animism? There’s no magic or religious trappings, which is what most people have come to associate with animism. Magical folks coming to the term want to find something ancient and sexy. This is why we often miss out on so many vestiges of animism left around us.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating, you cannot be a bioregional animist and only focus on one aspect of a bioregion. You can’t have your flower spirits without acknowledging the poisonous flowers. You can’t love the sea and admonish the swamp. You can’t embrace the Florida panther and make fun of the possum. Wausau survived because of the possum, and every year they celebrate it. That tastes more of animism than almost any magical event I’ve ever attended.
Photo taken by Aaron Oberon. All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.