A lesson on beavers well worth reading

Review: “Beaver Land,” by Leila Philip

“Beaver Land: How One Weird Rodent Made America,” by Leila Philip, purports to show how much this animal has impacted American history, plus how much potential the large and often endearing rodent can offer in mitigating some of today’s environmental challenges. Though the book is not specifically geared to the Adirondacks, most of the material shows relevance to our region.

The author immediately pre-empts the expected gasps from potential readers who only think about the last time beaver activity disrupted an area road. By the end of the book, she has one pondering the idea of having beaver dams and lodges seemingly everywhere to prevent drought, preserve water supplies and helping to combat pollution.

I learned that to many naturalists, beaver canals, by which they transport building materials and food, are as impressive as their dams and lodges. The springy ground of beaver meadows can store more water during floods, and release it in times of drought. Though low on the brain-to-body ratio, these animals nonetheless are exceeded only by humans in their ability to re-engineer their environment.

Stories are told from many viewpoints. Beginning with the animal’s centrality to Native American creation stories, Philip goes on to profile fur trappers, environmental scientists and a surprising number of innovative strategists around the country. But the nucleus remains her own observations of the pond near her Connecticut home where the discovery of beavers stimulated her quest for more information.

History is well interwoven with the text. She covers the North American fur trade, extinction then reintroduction of the beaver to the environment, and early dissemination of studies on this unique animal. All of this sets the stage for visits to Beaversprite, the beaver sanctuary developed by Dorothy Richards near New York’s Mohawk River, time with fur trappers and at pelt auctions, and tours of innovative environmental projects in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maryland. Readers will learn about pond levelers, beaver dam analogues and other concepts.

A variety of random but appealing associations are included. In the Pleistocene era, bear-sized beavers roamed North America. Back in the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, beaver pelts reigned as the gold standard of the time. The tails and also the castor glands (by which musky castoreum is extruded) have long been considered of special value.

There’s a wealth of interesting trivia, too–a beaver can fell a five-inch willow tree in six minutes; food is digested twice before excretion; the largest known beaver dam, in Alberta, measures 2,790 feet in length.

The author does have a proclivity for diverting into long asides, which, while interesting, don’t relate to the main narrative. For instance, she introduces information on Native American slave labor building stone fences on New England farmland. I also disagree with her depiction of Samuel de Champlain as an instigator of conflict between French and indigenous peoples. Be forewarned, Philip is quite enamored of the word “weird.” Along with using it in her subtitle, she brings it forth as a descriptor of climate change, lichens and more.

This book proved well worth reading. I learned a lot about beavers, and I came away especially impressed with the potential role of this creature in maintaining or even rebuilding some of our natural communities. As pointed out, they are potential allies in wilderness preservation, especially regarding watershed and riparian management. I can accept Enos Mills’ assertion that “a live beaver is more valuable to mankind than a dead one.”


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