“Possum Living” author steps out of the shadows

April 4, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Dolly Freed emerges from the shadows
Image Removed

Umbra’s Book Club chooses Possum Living as its first selection

Umbra, Grist
For our inaugural Ask Umbra’s Book Club selection, I give you truly an oldie but a goodie, Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money, originally published in 1978—difficult to find for many years—and rereleased by Tin House Books in January 2010 with a foreword by David Gates and an afterword from the now 30-year-older author.

Read more about the book and pseudonymous author Dolly Freed below. And then, get reading! We’ll begin our Possum Living chat Tuesday, April 6.

Book synopsis from Possum Living website:

In the late ‘70s, at the age of 18, and with a seventh-grade education, Dolly Freed wrote Possum Living about the five years she and her father lived off the land on a half-acre lot outside of Philadelphia. Known for its plucky narration and no-nonsense practical advice on how to live frugally while keeping up a middle class facade, at the time of its original publication, Possum Living became an instant classic.

About the author from Possum Living website:

Following her success as an author, Dolly Freed grew up to become a NASA aerospace engineer. She aced the SATs with an education she received from the public library and put herself through college. She’s been an environmental educator, business owner, and college professor. She now lives in Texas with her husband and two children.

(3 March 2010)

Rediscovering a ‘Classic of American Cantankerousness

Dwight Garner, The Reading Life, New York Times
Books and blogs about hunkering down – about consuming less stuff, cultivating frugality, growing your own, even dropping off the grid entirely – have multiplied since the financial crisis began. It’s a boom time for back-to-basics pundits.

The most compulsively readable new book about stripping your life down to its raw essentials, though, may well be an old and forgotten one: Dolly Freed’s “Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money.” First published in 1978, when its author was all of 19, the book documents the five years Ms. Freed and her father lived off the land, on only about $1,500 annually, on their half-acre lot outside of Philadelphia. The book’s been reissued this month by Tin House Books, with a smart introduction by the novelist David Gates, and it’s a happy discovery.

… Ms. Freed has nothing but scorn for what she terms this whole “Holding Down a Job concept.” She and her father (she calls him “the Old Fool”) no longer need to spend money on vacations, she writes, because “our whole life is just one big vacation.”

Ms. Freed dispenses hard-earned advice as she skims along. There’s information in “Possum Living” about raising and slaughtering your own rabbits in the basement (“a .22 bullet costs only 2 cents”), about intelligent dumpster diving for animal food, about life without a car, and about making your own moonshine, gin and dandelion wine. (About one wine recipe she writes, in a line Robert Parker should steal: “An insipid wine, but foolproof.”)

… “Possum Living” made some news when it was issued in the late 1970s. The author and her father (their names are pseudonyms, because some of the advice in the book skirts the law) were profiled in The New York Times, and she appeared on “The Merv Griffin Show.” They were also the subject of a short documentary film, also called “Possum Living,” made by Nancy Schreiber. You can find it below, thanks to the magic of YouTube.

… Reading this strange, engaging hymn to the laid-back life now, in 2010, one message comes through loud and clear. As the 18-year-old sage Dolly Freed wrote: “I refuse to spend the first 60 years of my life worrying about the last 20.”
(8 January 2010)

Possum Living Documentary

Possum Living Part 2 of 3

Possum Living Part 3 of 3

The complete video is also at Vimeo

Finding Dolly Freed

Paige Williams
By noon, Dolly Freed has composted peppers, studied a tadpole under an old Russian field microscope, sniffed and tasted a new supply of homegrown garlic, discussed Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, demonstrated how to turn an ordinary pressure cooker into a moonshine still, looked up “rose-breasted grosbeak” in Peterson Field Guides, and harvested cherry tomatoes from her garden. Now, as she slices green peppers and onions for lunch, dropping the scraps into a ceramic compost jar on her kitchen counter, she says, “We should go dewberry picking. Dewberries are the Texas version of blackberries. They’re wild. They grow just behind the fence out there.

… Her neighbors might assume there’s no naturing amid the strip malls and cul-de-sacs and fast-food pit stops of suburban Houston, either, but Dolly knows otherwise. She long ago made a wildlife sanctuary out of her once-barren backyard. She commandeered a neighbor’s mosquito-magnet swimming pool and turned it into a home for goldfish and minnows. After summer rains, she nets out the minnows and transfers them to stagnant puddles, where the minnows eat mosquito larvae. The swimming pool’s owner didn’t love the idea of the minnows being deployed as a link in the food chain only to die when the puddles dried up, but he allowed it; he said no, though, when Dolly wanted to raise catfish, for eating.

Dolly gardens on a patch of lawn at the end of her paved driveway, and on half of the driveway itself, where she built raised beds. There she tends eggplant, arugula, soybeans, Swiss chard, snap peas, asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, peppers, and, this time of year, winter greens. The summertime driveway is a forest of gangly tomato stalks, which stand in enormous plastic pots that Dolly hauled from neighbors’ landscaping projects and re-used.

Friends and neighbors who have seen Dolly coax food from concrete ask her to teach them how to do the same, and Dolly does

… Most of the Texans who seek Dolly out for nature training or advice have no idea whom they’re talking to. They know her by her real name, not as “Dolly Freed,” author of Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money, a book that in the late 1970s made Dolly one of the most famous teenagers in America.

She wrote the book at age eighteen, drawing her ideas about self-sustenance and thrift from the semirural life she and her father, Frank, lived outside of Philadelphia.

… 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

… The lessons aren’t for everyone, since most people aren’t planning to shoot a turtle in the head and turn it into soup. The larger charm of Possum Living is its timeless sensibility and voice—on the page (and in person, for that matter) Dolly Freed is like a cross between E.B. White and Dorothy Parker, but bearing rabbit sausage and homemade gin. “There’s an abandoned orchard in our neighborhood and we get peaches, pears, cherries, and apples there, free,” she wrote. “None of the neighbors bother with them—they apparently don’t consider food to be food unless it’s bought and paid for in a licensed grocery store.” 1

It isn’t often that readers encounter a recipe for fishballs in the same book that mentions Diogenes, Napoleon, Darwin, Wagner, Demosthenes, sixth-century Constantinople, and Ecclesiastes, but Dolly wrote as economically as she dressed rabbits for braising, wasting nothing. She dropped in the occasional Dollyism: “Quality candles practically sell themselves,” and “Math is a pretty good opiate to dull the pain of a Northeast winter.”
(6 January 2010)

Mother Earth radio interview
Mother Earth News Radio
Hosts Andrea Ridout and Dan, the Solar Man, Lepinski welcome a guest who can teach us all how to live like possums.

Dolly Freed, author of Possum Living

In October 1978, with a seventh-grade education, 19-year-old Dolly Freed published Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money, about the five years she and her father lived off the land on a half-acre lot outside Philadelphia. Possum Living inspired a nation living in an economic crisis, much as we are today. Now, more than 30 years later, the book has been reissued and is sweeping the nation once again.
(30 January 2010)
First 23 minutes of the broadcast is devoted to the Freed interview. -BA

Possum Living blog

Dolly Freed
Some sample posts:

Possum Skills (Feb 24, 2010)
I just watched a show where the narrator was trying to demonstrate people’s complete dependency on technology. “If civilization fell,” he asked in a dramatic and scary voice, “do know how to raise your own food? Could you even tell the difference between a cucumber seed and corn seed?” I had to smiled, because, yes, I do and, yes, I can. You, too, can smile when you hear such scary things if you have a few possum skills. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Know how to grow vegetables. Gardening has to be learned, but, hey, it’s not rocket science, and I ought to know. If you are really new, start with something easy, say, basil or lettuce in a pot, and get a soil-moisture meter. (Staff at a nursery will be glad to get you started.) Once you are ready to do more, look up organic gardening for your area or join a community garden. If you end up hating gardening, well then, you’ll know. But if you like it, you will experience the joy of making your own food magically appear from the ground.

2. Find cheap or free things to do for entertainment and to relieve stress. We like to go to a park, volunteer, exercise, check out free activities, join social groups, play with our pets, visit museums, have friends over, play games, or do any of a hundred other inexpensive things.

3. Give up any notion of status related to possessions. If it’s workable, clean, and in good repair, it doesn’t have to be as good as your neighbors’ or friends’. I try to remember that my luxury is being in control of my time and money.

4. Know how to forage, find, or scavenge. Go wild berry picking, learn how to fish, forage for nuts, join a mushroom-hunting group, research and eat invasive species, read a survival manual, or get a field guide to edible weeds. I’m not sure how much this would really help if civilization fell, but just knowing what food sources are around you is satisfying and fun.

Dolly on Possum Living (Feb 9, 2010)
… It’s been decades since I lived the full possum life, but its principles have given me tremendous confidence. I went to college with only a 7th grade education and lot of reading in the library, become a NASA engineer, switched to environmental education, was a college professor, and started my own business.

Ironically, I now see the same fears and problems occurring that prompted me to write the book in the first place returning—a staggering recession, worries about job markets, and concerns about natural resources.

And as I’ve gotten older, I find myself turning more and more to my possum ways, verifying that even if you can’t go the full possum, so to speak, being part possum can be comforting and prudent.

Live Freed or die

Amy Kellner, Viceland
Q: It seems like your dad was quite the firecracker. I wonder—the tone that comes through in the book is so incredibly confident for an 18-year-old girl—do you think you got that from him?

A: Yeah, I do. My dad was probably the smartest person I’ve ever known. He always had an independent streak and he saw society almost as a facade. After he married my mom, he had a nine-to-five job and he hated it for the same reasons I hated school: being in a building all the time, doing the same thing all the time. So when my mom opened the candle shop, he quit to help her. Then they got divorced. My mom left with my brother, and I stayed with my dad. We lived in a run-down house that we bought in foreclosure. We had been gardening and raising chicken and rabbits for a long time already, so it was just a case of “Well, we could just keep doing this!”

Q: It sounds like you were a very mature teenager. Most teenagers want to run around with their friends and smoke cigarettes or something. Did you have that sort of desire?

A: Because I was given a mature position so early, I ended up rebelling kind of late—I would say in my 20s. And my rebellion was becoming more normal. In other words, I went to college, I got a job, I got a car. It’s hard to rebel when you’ve got your own still! You’ve got to go the other way to rebel.

Q: So was it in your 20s that you stopped possum living?

A: Yeah, what happened is that after the book sold, the first thing we did was go out and buy a phone because we had to be able to talk with the publisher and the publicist. That was a big upgrade for us. Then I wanted to get a car. But once you’ve got a car, you’ve got to pay for it. So I got a job as a minor feature reporter for the local paper. See, one thing about possum living is that it’s really not that hard, and once you’ve mastered it, it’s not as if you can become more “possum-er.” So I think I was ready to take on new challenges, to see what else I could do, and to take part in a bigger world.

Q: What was the reaction to the book like?

A: Very positive. The only thing people were upset about was the part about eating dogs. It’s not like I was advocating going out and eating dogs every day, but suppose you had a nasty, vicious dog and you had to kill it, you might as well go ahead and eat it.
(24 February 2010)

Tags: Building Community, Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior, Food, Women