The Living Legacy of the North American Beaver
By Tamia Nelson
Human progress often seems to proceed by fits and starts, with periods of growth and activity followed immediately by intervals of consolidation and stasis. The sixteenth century was one of the busy times. Jacques Cartier sailed to the New World, explored the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and founded New France. What followed, as the saying goes, is history.
Nor was that all. Back in Europe, the face of battle changed as gunners replaced archers. Castles, once all but impregnable strongholds, became mere ornaments of fashion and indicators of status. Professional soldiers took over from feudal levies. The word "mercenary" entered the English language.
There were changes away from the battlefield, as well. Spurred by the need for more accurate landfalls, navigators adopted a new instrument for determining latitude. Called the cross-staff, it replaced the quadrant and mariner's astrolabe, neither of which could be used with any confidence aboard a ship under way in a rough sea. Once they had the cross-staff, however, mariners schooled in the emerging discipline of scientific navigation could determine latitude at sea to a high degree of practical accuracy, under nearly all conditions. Exploration and commerce both benefitted thereby.
Perhaps most important of all, though, was a change that went almost unnoticed outside the libraries of Europe's universities: paper replaced parchment in books. Parchment was made from the skins of sheep and goats. These had to be washed, limed, dehaired, stretched, pared and dusted before they could be inked. Parchment was therefore costly. Paper was cheaper, and it lent itself to new methods of printing. Books soon became common items in well-to-do households. A revolution in information technology was in progress.
Before paper became commonplace, however, books were frequently recycled. The parchment sheets that made up the pages were scraped to remove earlier writing and then reused. Such leaves, once cleaned and ready for re-inking, are known as palimpsests. Even when written-over anew, they often bear faint traces of the earlier manuscript, reminders of what was sacrificed to make way for the new.
This is also true of the landscape that we North Americans know today. Much of "canoe country" (nearly all of Canada, in other words, along with the northern third of the United States) was given its present shape by the last Ice Age. Only 18,000 years ago, two massive conjoined ice sheets ground their way south to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, rounding off mountains and gouging out valleys as they went. When the glaciers then began to retreat, they left a newly-sculpted landscape behind them, a land stripped of its previous inhabitants and now ready to receive the impress of new lifea palimpsest landscape, in other words.
Among the animals which resettled the land abandoned by the retreating glaciers was a big rodent with a passion for the inner bark of poplar, beech, and alderthe animal that biologists know today as Castor canadensis, the North American beaver. While not among the largest of the creatures returning to the newly-opened landscape, the beaver left the biggest mark by far.*
There are now some 10 million beavers in the contiguous United States. Once there were 200 million, "living," in author Alice Outwater's words, "almost everywhere there was water, ... [even in] the deserts of northern Mexico." Beavers, she continues, "were scarce only in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana, where [their] dams and lodges were no match for voracious alligators."
Since beavers dam streams and rivers to create protective ponds around their lodgeseach of which houses three generations of a single family, typically numbering four to six membersand since on average each pond floods from eight to fifteen acres, beaver ponds may once have covered nearly one-quarter of the country's total land area. And what a place America must then have been! Beaver ponds and their associated wetlands teem with life. Clouds of tiny, one-celled algae. Red-spotted newts ("red efts"), frogs, and snapping turtles. Herons, grebes, ducks, minks, and muskrats. Even the standing dead trees, killed by the rising water, become home to cavity-nesting birds.
Indeed, beaver ponds are among the most productive of natural environments, and for that reason alone they're just about the best places to go if you're stalking really big trout. Robert Traver, in "Lost Atlantis," a classic essay from his 1960 book Trout Madness, writes of looking out over the beaver pond created by a "beautiful live dam, at least eight feet high," and feeling "like Magellan or somebody beholding a new continent[,] ... a beautiful expanse of mysterious deep water as far as the eye could see." Most back-country fisherman probably have some such memory tucked away, to bring out and savor on the days when nothing's biting, or when work or another obligation keeps them off the water.
Of course, even in areas where beavers haven't been trapped out or killed off, no beaver pond lasts forever. As you'd expect of an animal that weighs as much as a fair-sized dog and lives on such low-calorie food as green plants and the inner bark of trees, beavers eat a lot. Sooner or later, therefore, they eat themselves out of house and home and have to move on. And when they go, they leave their dams behind. Without daily maintenance, abandoned dams quickly fall into disrepair. While they can last a good long timewe've returned to derelict dams again and again for many years, only to find them still standingthe day comes at last when the dam goes out, often after a prolonged, wet spring, or a torrential summer thunderstorm.
When the dam goes, it leaves a fertile, open "beaver meadow" behind. Before long, the poplar, beech and aspen return. Once the forest is reestablished, the beaver, too, will be back.
The greatest gift of the beaver, however, is clean water. Beaver ponds are natural reservoirs and settling tanks. They both absorb flood waters during years of heavy rainfall and recharge aquifers during prolonged droughts. Before the sixteenth century, North America was blessed with tens of millions of such ponds.
But Jacques Cartier changed all that. On the 6th of July 1534, in his first encounter with the Micmac Indians near Paspebiac village on the north shore of Chaleur Bay, Cartier's men found themselves surrounded by native canoes. The meeting began badlythe frightened French fired on the Micmacbut it ended well. By the next day, in historian Samuel Eliot Morison's words, "a profitable traffic took place," with the Micmac "selling the very clothes off their backs" to sailors eager to buy. The clothes, of course, were furs. It was the start of "three centuries of friendship between French Canada and the Micmac." And it was the beginning of the end for the North American beaver. From that day forward, beavers were relentlessly sacrificed to European fashion. Acre by acre, the continent's beaver ponds and wetlands disappeared.
Once it began, the killing proceeded with astonishing speed. In New York, the Dutch began trading furs with the Iroquois in 1626. Thirty-eight years later, the British displaced the Dutch. By 1700, the British colonial governor reported that "the beaver trade [in New York] ... is sunk to little or nothing." Beavers survived only in the central Adirondacks, and even there they were subjected to relentless trapping pressure. By 1903, only one family group survived.
That could have been the end of this story, but in the same year the state legislature voted to spend $500 to return beavers to the Adirondacks. Though fewer than 50 were released, and although the trapping season was reopened in 1924, the restoration attempt succeeded, thanks in large measure to the efforts of a single remarkable individualDorothy Richards, whose Beaversprite Sanctuary provided a safe haven during the uncertain early years of the program. The beaver was back to stay.
Farwell and I were reminded of this when, a few years ago, we were wakened by the sound of loud gnawing just outside our bedroom window. Looking out, we could see nothingit was a moonless night, with low cloud obscuring the starsbut the gnawing continued, to be followed shortly thereafter by the thump of a falling tree. Soon we were hearing steady, rhythmic chewing coming from the water's edge.
We stayed up for several hours more, listening without seeing. It was obvious that a whole family were enjoying a meal. We could hear at least two distinct chewing rhythms. Occasionally, the high-pitched "contact call" of young beavers would pierce the stillness of the night, and once we heard the enthusiastic SLAP! of a yearling sentry.
In the morning, we found only a small stump where a poplar had once stood. The tree itself lay in the shore eddy, stripped of all its leaves and bark. Somewhere on the Flow, in a lodge or bank den, a family of beavers were slumbering happily. They'd had a meal at our expense, to be sure, but we didn't begrudge them the cost. For a few short hours we'd been given a tantalizing glimpse of another country, a page from a living past that, although rubbed out and overwritten long ago, still enduresa faint yet vital palimpsest of a lost America.
* Curiously, the beaver had a giant cousin, Castoroides ohioensis, who was as big as a black bear and who had an appetite to match. Confounding the American idea that bigger is always better, however, Castoroides didn't survive.
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