For Beaver Believers, Salvation Lies in a Once-Reviled Rodent

December 7, 2018

Early on in Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, journalist Ben Goldfarb introduces us to a particular sect of animal enthusiasts-cum-environmentalists: Beaver Believers. “There is no single trait that unites Beaver Believers, besides, of course, the unshakable conviction that our salvation lies in a rodent,” he writes. They’re trained biologists and red state stockmen, “former hairdressers, physician’s assistants, chemists, and child psychologists.” But one thing Beaver Believers do seem to share is a certain unabashed fervor: an adherent we meet in Eager, Martinez resident Heidi Perryman, campaigns for the animal tirelessly on social media, maintains what Goldfarb describes as “the world’s largest collection of beaver-themed tchotchkes, knickknacks, and memorabilia” in her home, and founded and organizes the Martinez Beaver Festival every year. (At the 11th annual festival in June this year, Goldfarb himself appeared to promote the book.)

Remember, they are an exotic species in the Western United States, and are rapidly increasing their geographic range and range of habitats. Are they outcompeting or excluding native species in the process? How would we know? We have done almost nothing to monitor changes in the assemblage of mushroom species in areas before and and after the incursion of death caps.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

by Ben Goldfarb
340 pp, Chelsea Green, July 2018

Because the author, too, counts himself among the ranks of Believers, and he lays his cards on the table early. Within the first forty pages of the book, he calls beavers “seriously important critters,” “the animal that doubles as an ecosystem,” “ecological and hydrological Swiss Army knives,” and “agents of profound change.” Eager, then, is a sparkling work of evangelism, with beavers as the good news that will save our landscapes and ecosystems. “The saga of beavers isn’t just the tale of a charismatic mammal,” he writes. “It’s the story of modern civilization, in all its grandeur and folly.”

To ground us for a minute: yes, we’re talking about beavers here, those rotund, paddle-tailed, bucktoothed, dam-building icons of the North American wilderness. Cute, charismatic, and, it turns out, a little grotesque. Did you know, for instance, that beavers have unusually long intestines and a “spectacularly diverse microbiome,” and eat their poop “to extract every last iota of nutrition”? (Goldfarb relates these facts with all the pride of a doting parent.) You probably know about castoreum, a fragrant substance beavers mix with urine to mark their territory, which is often added to perfumes. But the animals’ anal glands give off a different smell, one that biologists use to sex beavers, though it apparently takes some practice. “If you smelled a hint of motor oil,” Goldfarb reports, having tried this alongside experts in Washington’s Methow Valley, “you were holding a male. A whiff of old cheese indicated a female.”

The wonders of biology aside, what really makes beavers miraculous is their ability to engineer landscapes. The animals can change their environments so fundamentally, in fact, that they’re practically a panacea for landscape ailments, as Goldfarb spends much of the book illustrating. Beavers dam rivers—a simple act that cascades outward thanks to the intricately interconnected nature of, well, nature. Damming rivers slows down their flow, which allows water to seep into the land. That, in turn, helps reduce floods, prevent erosion, and recharge aquifers (crucial for western states like California, where climate change threatens winter snowpacks that millions of people rely on for water). Beaver ponds serve as safe habitats for myriad other important or delicate creatures, from trumpeter swans to salmon of all kinds to the Saint Francis’ satyr, an endangered butterfly that exists only in North Carolina. And beaver dams help create wetlands, which filter out pollutants and collects nutrients from agricultural runoff that, if unchecked, causes dead zones in the ocean.

An illustration from the 1914 book The romance of the beaver; being the history of the beaver in the western hemisphere by Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is a promised land in Goldfarb’s Beaver Belief system. It’s the American landscape before European fur trappers swept through it in the 1600s and cleared it almost entirely of beavers by the 1840s, a scouring that had lasting impacts on the land’s ecology. (Beavers were also foundational to our nation’s history, Goldfarb notes. “More than timber, cod, or any other natural resource, beavers help explain just about every significant American geopolitical event between European arrival and the Civil War,” mainly because of the extremely lucrative fur trade.) “Picture, if you will, a healthy stream,” he writes in his introduction. That image of a “crystalline, fast-moving creek” we’ve imagined? “It’s a lovely picture, fit for an Orvis catalog. It’s also wrong.” America pre-fur trade teemed with beavers, according to accounts from the time, and the place was a lush, soggy paradise, “a matrix of ponds and swamps, marshes and wetlands, damp mountain meadows and tangled bottomlands.” Whereas our idealized image of a river is “an artifact of logging, grazing, trapping, and other land-use changes,” a vista with all its salubrious beavers stripped away. Returning to the promised land, then, starts with changing our expectations of what an healthy landscape looks like—a commonsense idea with fascinating implications.

That fully beavered North American landscape also happened to be extremely inconvenient for white settlers and explorers, including Lewis and Clark, to slosh through. That hints at another of Goldfarb’s major themes: the fraught relationship between humans and beavers he’d like us to completely revamp. Nowadays, we mainly regard beavers as destructive pests, “a hated enemy to all those who seek to control nature.” These feelings aren’t completely baseless: beavers chew through cables, block up culverts, flood property. But the root of our beaver antipathy, Goldfarb suggests, is that we humans feel threatened by the beaver’s ethos of ecological change. We prefer order, even in our nature. “Beavers, meanwhile, create apparent chaos.” But that chaos—the dead tree stumps, the murky sludge—actually provides complexity to a landscape. Or as Goldfarb puts it, koan-like: “Destruction is the preface to renewal; a force of death also breathes life.”

The key, according to Goldfarb, is to embrace beavers’ inherent wildness and learn to coexist with them; only then can we gain “the full benefits of their transformative powers.” It’s an interesting thought, this one about our resistance to another powerful ecosystem engineer, one that illuminates our deep-seated human supremacy in opposition to these creatures who “serve as four-legged proof that humans do not always know best.” Accepting beavers, as Goldfarb notes, means fundamentally rejiggering the way we think about landscape restoration and wild animals in general—“an act of profound humility.”

Eager, then, also comes across as savvy pro-beaver PR: its aim is partly to rehabilitate beavers’ image by increasing their “cultural carrying capacity,” the number of animals people are willing to tolerate, and thus pave the way to universal beaver flourishing. It helps that the book is written so winningly. Each chapter, set in a different part of the country (and one even in the UK), features detailed first-person reportage—Goldfarb doesn’t shy away from splashing through beaver ponds across the nation—plenty of local charm, and a host of colorful characters who are simultaneously dead serious about their work reintroducing beavers to their particular landscape. One naturalist, Brock Dolman, is “a certified salmon fanatic, a man so committed to preserving California’s dwindling runs that he once attended a county meeting in a home-sewn coho costume and angrily spawned orange pom-poms across the desk of a conservation-averse commissioner.”

But oddly, Goldfarb seems of two minds about how exactly to bring about the castorid Second Coming. At another point in the book he writes, “the only reason we struggle to tolerate beavers is that we’re so bad at preventing them from drowning our roads and property. The better we get at averting conflicts, the more beavers society can tolerate—and the more fully we can reap their rewards.” And there do exist practical ways to ease tensions between beavers and humans: beaver relocation efforts throughout the country move animals who are making themselves nuisances in one location to other areas where they can work their ecological magic, rather than simply killing them off. On infrastructure we want to keep from meddlesome beaver paws, we can install flow devices, structures that drain beaver dams while preventing the animals from plugging the leak. 

But the crux of the issue for me is: how complicated is it to change the way we feel about beavers? Is it a simple matter of engineering our way out of human-beaver conflicts, as Goldfarb suggests? Or does it involve deeper revision of our own society’s attitudes towards nature, to become able to cede control more gracefully, and accept sometimes significant tradeoffs for broader ecological benefit, as Goldfarb also suggests?

Because reintroducing beavers seems to be a deeply thorny business, with disagreement among stakeholders at practically every turn: cattle farmers who don’t want their trees felled or their fields flooded, wildlife managers who don’t think flow devices work (the burden of proof is too high, proponents argue), fish conservation groups convinced that beavers and salmon can’t coexist (“Decades of grist from the anti-beaver rumor mill had congealed into unchallenged truisms,” Goldfarb writes about the claim. “Even scientists, it turns out, can be awfully unscientific”), Scottish environmentalists who want to reintroduce beavers but disagree fiercely over how to go about doing it.

So when Goldfarb writes, in the book’s closing paragraphs, that “the only obstacle to returning to the Castorocene is that old hang-up, our cultural carrying capacity—forbearance toward an animal that defies our will,” it strikes me as oddly cavalier. Goldfarb’s own reporting shows us that even when all parties recognize the importance of beavers, actually getting them on the land and restoring ecosystems can be riddled with complications, as any ecological endeavor is. And “that old hang-up,” our limited tolerance for wild animals and the uncontrollability of nature, is rooted deep in the way we humans have historically understood ourselves and made sense of the world around us. I suspect it won’t be dislodged anytime soon.

About the Author

Chelsea Leu is a freelance writer and critic, and a graduate student in criticism at New York University.