This possum is perfect. This possum is also dead.
A succession of cars speeds by a stiff possum as Mary Mangum bends down for a closer look. "Just look at his teeth," Mangum says. "They're perfect."
This possum looks to have received a glancing blow and wound up on the side of this busy stretch of U.S. 15-501, halfway between Durham and Chapel Hill.
For Mangum's purposes, this possum is perfect: She will harvest its bones for her art.
But first Mangum believes she must free the possum's spirit. She pulls half a seashell from a purple Crown Royal bag slung around her shoulder, along with matches, a bird feather and some dried sage. The winds of passing cars extinguish each match's flame until Mangum finally ignites the sage. Its scent masks the smell of death as Mangum says a few silent prayers. Then she wraps its remains in three grocery bags, takes it home and buries it in her backyard.
To make room for this perfect possum, Mangum must dig up Jake, her old pet cat. several months dead. This is her least favorite part of the process. Insects and decay have stripped some flesh from his bones, but a bath of hydrogen peroxide will be necessary to clean the rest.
Jake will be crafted into an artifact, a memory more real than a photograph or a simple headstone.
"I think it's the same way for people who want to keep some of the ashes," says Mangum, 62, as she touches the skull of another cat, Whiskers. Whiskers was her first attempt at bone art; she tied his skull between the forks of a stick with red leather and colorful beads. It looks similar to a maraca.
"It was curiosity too. I wanted to see what he looked like without his clothes on," Mangum jokes.
In Mangum's cluttered studio, there are a few Ziploc bags with bones that have been loosely cataloged. Wire is wound around a small femur on the table. Nearby, there is a pair of cardinal wings, plus various coffee mugs filled with buttons, beads, teeth and acorn tops.
There are a few finished pieces, but most of Mangum's bone creations—many lost and scattered around her home—represent her impulse to honor what she believes is perfect. For her, the real purpose in collecting is the process of discovery and communing with nature.
Sitting on her back porch, Mangum rattles off the names of each bird singing outside, from Rhett the Finch to The Descending Dove. This is where she goes to find solace and friendship. Her spirituality, she says, is a blend of Native American teachings and Sufism—though mostly, it's a peace she has found on her own terms.
"Well, I didn't feel that important, no one had time for me," says Mangum, who grew up an only child in rural Durham County and now lives by herself. "I went outside and it was like Nature had time, it was just there. Anytime I wanted to go, there it was. Isn't that cool?"
Most people don't understand why she collects roadkill to make art of their bones. Mangum says she doesn't understand why trees are cut down for strip malls and subdivisions, flushing animals from their homes to be killed on busy roads. She considers the animals to be unique offerings from a natural world that still enchants her.
"If I talk to the trees and the birds enough and they know I care about them," Mangum says, pausing to gaze outside, "then I don't have to be worried about being alone or anything 'cause my friends are there. I kind of like that."