P is for Possum: Love Letters from the Old Forest

Review by Nancy Brannon

From her regular hikes in the Old Forest at Overton Park in Memphis, Tenn., Martha Kelly has published a collection of her art work reflecting some of the flora and fauna she observes in the forest. She has taken the “alphabet” approach to illustrate her “love letters” (pun intended) from the forest.

We do know that “technically the word is ‘opossum,’ but ‘possum’ is the familiar term in these parts,” Kelly writes in her introduction. Mid-South Horse Review publisher Tommy joked that O’Possum is the term for the Irish immigrant marsupial. Kelly refers readers to fiddle tunes about the possum, such “Possum On a Rail.”

At the end of the book Kelly describes Overton Park as Memphis’ version of New York’s Central Park. It was designed in 1901 by George Kessler, who originally intended it as pure green space, forest, and meadows. But Memphis began growing around it and, of course, developing it with a zoo, art museum, fire station, maintenance facility, and other areas covered with asphalt. Still, 143 acres of forest remain, but only 126 are protected, with 17 acres slated in the zoo expansion zone.

Kelly takes regular walks through the forest with her Great Dane Mr. Darcy, (letter D) where in years past her grandmother rode horses on the bridle trail.

You might think this is a children’s alphabet-learning book, but the beautiful illustrations appeal to – and educate – adults alike, making us familiar with the plants and animals that live in the forest.

For B, Kelly writes: “the Barred Owl says ‘Who cooks for you?’” We have a resident Barred Owl at our farm. One day, sitting on our patio, I looked up and there was the Barred Owl on a branch overhead looking down at me. We’ve also had a Barn Owl living in our hay barn, and we often hear great horned owls asking “who, who-who, who? who?”

For C, Kelly paints beautiful Cardinals, a Celandine poppy, and an Eastern Bluebird on an Elderberry branch with an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly for C and E.

For the letter F, Fireflies light up the evening, along with Fungi and a Fox.

Kelly illustreates G with grapevines, a Gray Catbird and Geraniums.

For H, Kelly writes about Hawks that soar high above the forest. Hydrangea blooms, and Hearts A-Bustin (Euonymus americanus) is a native shrub that some folks call a strawberry bush.

For I, the Indigo Bunting is a favorite bright blue bird. Did you know that Inland Sea Oats grow here?

Jack in the Pulpit and Jacob’s Ladder are the “religious” plants for letter J.

At our farm, husband Tommy delights at watching the aerobatics of the Mississippi Kite as he is bush hogging or cutting hay. Do you know what Katy did?

For M, the Luna Moth is lovely; Mayapples bloom from March to April with fruit from May to June. The Mourning Dove is a bird of peace.

The Northern Parula is a beautiful small warbler, mainly teal colored with yellow on the breast, and it lives here all summer. The White breasted Nuthatch lives here all year. And don’t forget the massive Oaks – mainstays of the Old Forest.

For P, who’s for pickin’ up Pawpaws? Put ‘em in your pocket. Watch out for the hairy vines and three leaves of Poison Ivy or you’ll be itchin’. What do you ask the Question Mark butterfly?

We now come to Possum, with opposable thumbs on its back feet for climbing.

I am a fern lover, so did you know that Resurrection Fern (letter R) revives from brown to green after every rain? Watch for rabbits and look for hearts on the Sycamore tree bark.

Letter T is represented by a favorite bird that I love to watch: he Tufted Titmouse. The Tulip Poplar is another giant of the forest. Look for the beautiful purple booms on the Trillium – named for three leaves and three petals – in early spring.

The Understory in a forest is important habitat and includes everything that grows between the tree canopy and the forest floor.

For letter V, did you know there were so many types of Vireos? And Virginia Creeper is not to be confused with Poison Ivy – it has five leaves and poison ivy has three.

Kelly paints Woodpeckers in several sizes and varieties; most often seen are the Downy and Hairy. Kelly paints one of my favorite spring plants, Woodland Phlox, which beautifies the land with its purple blooms.

For letter Y, there’s the Yellow Warbler, and Yellow Sorrel has leaves like clover, only bigger. My mother-in-law planted some of this perennial in my (her) garden.

Kelly finishes the book with two gorgeous butterflies: the Zabulon Skipper and the Zebra Swallowtail.

Find out more about Martha Kelly’s art at: www.marthakellyart.com

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