When we imagine streams in North America, “chances are we envision water rippling over stones as it follows a groove.”
While an accurate description, it is also a sign of an unhealthy riverine system.
For that is a stream without beavers.
Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America (2022) by Leila Philip is a fascinating look at the one animal, besides humans, that has an inordinate impact on their environment. “Only beavers and humans dramatically alter the landscape to create the environment they need (or want).” Philip came to her fascination with the weird rodent that scientists dub “ecosystem engineers” when she discovered a group of beavers in a pond near her home in Connecticut. Day after day she would visit the pond with her dog and observe them as they worked tirelessly to shape the environment that they wanted. When they disappeared, she was crushed by the loss and became determined to find out more about these creatures. We are all the richer for her exploration.
Philip is a delightful storyteller, blending history and science in a way that brings both to life. She quickly makes it clear how important beavers are to a healthy environment. Wetlands are “a soup of life,” and water from beaver-altered streams and wetlands “has been measured to contain fifteen times more plankton and other microbial life than wetlands without beavers.” All kinds of animals visit beaver ponds, building a rich tapestry of biodiversity.
Under Philip’s guidance we learn how John Jacob Astor, arriving as a young immigrant from Germany with the clothes on his back and little else, bought and sold beaver pelt to satisfy Europe’s craving for beaver hats, building a monopoly in the fur trade and becoming America’s first multimillionaire in the process. One of the more delightfully titled books in the growing genre of pro-beaver literature of which Beaverland is only the most recent example is aptly named Once They Were Hats.
Philip takes us on the trapline of a local New England animal trapper and then to fur sales in the U.S. and Canada to help understand the perspective of those who still legally trap, skin, and sell beaver skins. She then moves into explorations of the lives and eccentricities of earlier writers obsessed with nature’s engineers, none more so than Dorothy Richards — the “Beaver Lady” — who established a sanctuary around her home in Little Falls, New York, named Beaversprite. Richards is best known for allowing beavers to live in her house, up to 14 at one time, and being photographed with one of her favorites at a dining room table set with tablecloth and china. But Richards and others kept the story and hope of beavers alive in a time when they were generally seen as nuisances to be exterminated.
It is the chapters with scientists and conservationists that turn Beaverland from mere interesting story to a serious call to consider the opportunity offered by the animal’s role in helping rebuild our broken environment. She tells us that before colonization there were somewhere between 60 million and 400 million beavers in North America. The forests were still being shaped by beavers and the continent was known as Beaverland. Now the estimates are around 6 million in existence in the U.S. and Canada. She shows how beavers exhibit geospatial understanding that allows them to build efficiently and effectively to achieve their purpose, which is to create large, complex water environments where many species can thrive.
Rivers are the hydraulic system that keeps everything on earth alive, and the systems beavers build work with the natural desire of streams of water to shift and change. Which is why if you see water rippling off stones as it trips down a groove, you can know that beavers are not around. Waterways engineered by beavers include ponds, meadows (with water just below the surface), dams (lots of dams), canals between ponds, and so much more. Oh, and engineers in Milwaukee found that beavers can create water storage at least 100 times cheaper than an engineering project. The head of Ecotone, Inc. is quoted by Philip as saying that a project they built for more than $1 million could have been built by beavers for zero dollars…if the client had allowed them to use their preferred approach.
Philip is in the pro-beaver camp but she also covers a number of issues from those who continue to see the animals primarily as a nuisance that cause flooding and cut down trees (very efficiently it turns out) to those who believe in some utopian vision of nature where dams don’t exist. And she quotes scientists, conservationists, and engineers who believe almost all the problems that those who push back against the reintroduction of beavers can — and have, in fact — been solved…except for that one problem of large engineering and wetland restoration contractors losing very lucrative contracts.
In the chapter entitled Thinking Like a Watershed, Philip quotes Scott McGill, founder of the visionary environmental restoration company Ecotone whose work is primarily focused on the massive Chesapeake Bay watershed. Proud to be known as the “beaver whisperer,” McGill thinks it is a tragedy that beavers “are part of our history, but not part of our culture.” As Philip shows in this terrific work, we need to work quickly to right that wrong, while we still have time.
More to come…
This Weekly Reader features Beaverland, which joins a series of mind-expanding and life-enriching books I’ve read over the past few years to help me understand more of the effects of climate change, the deep damage that has come from man’s impact on the earth, and some of the nature-based historical solutions that exist. Books such as
- Merlin Sheldrake’s magical first book, Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures;
- Peter Wohllenben‘s controversial The Hidden Life of Trees;
- Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World; and
- The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell.