The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018, HC, 304 pp, $24.95
My personal interest in beavers was sparked by a PBS special. Of course I thought the beavers were cute, building their lodge, teaching and playing with their kits, but when I learned they actually provide wetlands and help sick streams and rivers revive, I was astonished. In my complete naivete I imagined beavers build dams, right? So doesn't that stop water? I was completely wrong, and in Ben Goldfarb's book, Eager, I was delightfully immersed in the beaver world, these plucky aquatic rodents who were once near extinction and their resilient comeback.
Ben Goldarb, an award winning environmental journalist and who has a master degree from Yale in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies writes Eager with humor, and an accessibility that is as entertaining as it is scientific. Eager is well researched and balanced by anecdotal evidence of the good that beavers can provide to the environment. Unfortunately mankind has had an adversarial relationship with beavers. Sometimes misguided, sometimes out of frustration where farmer's fields are flooded or culverts dammed. Of course the fur trade which decimated the beaver population could be called a bit more extreme than adversarial, but it also exemplifies how human-beaver relationships have constantly intertwined. Goldfarb writes "But I'd submit that the difference between our two species is one of magnitude, not of kind. For beavers, too, have permanently shaped the course of biology and geolog...We built our civilizations atop the sediment they left behind".
Goldfarb introduces us to many interesting characters in the beaver world, self-described "Beaver Believers", whose love for the rodent and their conservation spans from New England to Washington, California to Canada and across the pond to Scotland and England. Many of these characters, like Heidi Perryman, who created a nonprofit called Worth a Dam, form grass roots operations. They are ranchers, engineers, a Wal-Mart manager who's beaver population outside the parking lot was to be trapped (a euphemism for killed) who just decided that these rodents needed a little help, then fell in love. There are also of course wildlife ecologists and scientists that believe beavers are essential to the health of the environment. In fact beavers are a keystone species.
Goldfarb writes "In many corners of North America, it is harder to think of and animal that doesn't use beaver compounds than one that does. Aquatic insects shelter in the nooks and crannies of dams and lodges. Ducks nest in the grasses that spring up around pond fringes. Songbirds perch in the coppicing willows. Biologists have discovered that turtles and lizards are more abundant near beaver ponds in South Carolina; that beavers increase plant species...fish communities..." The list goes on. In fact the beaver helped revive the population of one of the rarest butterflies on earth, the Saint Francis satyr.
So why the animus between humans and beavers? It seems that we just haven't caught our psyche up with the science. The long held belief that the beaver are a nuisance animal destructive to our infrastructure, to our fields and farms remains firm. As much as Goldfarb writes about the benefits of the beaver to the ecosystem, he is realistic and frank about the human-beaver relationship. It is not a Pollyanna-esque treatise. Goldfarb is not judgmental of those who don't see the beaver through a loving lens. He presents this book with well-balanced science, opinion and history. When I was searching for more information on the beaver, I was glad to find this book. It is a great introduction to these fascinating aquatic rodents, and I'd recommend it to any reader who would like to learn more about the beaver, its history and relationship with the environment, and ultimately, us.