How Beavers Shaped America, from Capitalism to Climate Change

How Beavers Shaped America, from Capitalism to Climate Change

Nonfiction

A Busy History

How beavers have shaped America, and not just its ecology

Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America
by Leila Philip
Twelve, 2022 ($30)

Beavers are having a moment, as you may have noticed. These hardworking engineers create woody dams that create ponds. This helps to filter out water pollution, sequester CO2, provide habitat for wildlife, and prevent drought. The Los Angeles Times recently called the beaver a “superhero,” and the New York Times has deemed them “furry weapons of climate resilience.” Wetlands with beavers are so good at fighting megafires that some researchers have urged the U.S. Forest Service to switch mammal mascots from Smokey Bear to Smokey Beaver.

In reality, western science is simply relearning what North America’s Indigenous peoples know for millennia. The Blackfeet adored beavers’ water-creating abilities so much that they forbade their killing. Some Algonquian tribes believe the Great Beaver is responsible for shaping the Connecticut River Valley. People love Beavers for their landscaping skills, but also because of their anatomical peculiarities, such as their scaly tails and burnt-orange teeth. “[T]here is an element of the sacred in the beaver, if only in its deep weirdness …” writes Leila Philip in her engaging new book, Beaverland. “Is it any wonder that beavers have ignited the imagination of humans on every continent where they are found ?”

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Philip reveals that humankind and castorkind are intimately acquainted. Medieval Europeans valued beavers’ fatty tail food as “forest cod”, while some Indigenous tribes made their teeth into dice and used the scapulae to dig. Castor sacs, the scent glands that beavers use to mark their territory, were highly prized. Aesop mistakenly thought they were testicles in one his fables. Romans believed that castoreum could cure constipation and gout. However, its culinary use has declined dramatically in recent years. Philip notes that beaver castoreum may have been used to make vanilla ice cream or vanilla pudding.

The most valuable beaver-based products were their pelts. Beaverland’s subtitle, How One Weird Rodent Made America, is no exaggeration. The industrial fur trade drove westward colonization and hurled tribes into centuries-long resource wars. It also lined the pockets John Jacob Astor’s pockets, How One Weird Rodent Made America. Astor was the first multimillionaire in the country, who turned pelts into a New York realty empire. The fur trade not only destroyed beaver ponds, but also degraded ecosystems. “Before 1600, all of the continent from west to east, save a few desert sections, had stretched out as one great Beaverland,” Philip writes–a lush, wet world whose waterways were “diffuse, messy, spread out, flexible at times, and most of all incredibly dynamic … hydrating everything like a great wand of moving water.”

Although Beaverland may never regain its former glory, the rodents have made remarkable recovery. Philip’s journey takes her to many important sites that are integral to their recovery, including the farmhouse in upstate New York, where Dorothy Richards used to keep colonies of semidomestic Beavers. They would sometimes eat the legs of mahogany dressers. She also visited a forest in New Hampshire, where scientists are studying the hydrology and rebuilding beaver meadows. These giant underground sponges can absorb large amounts of water and help to save watersheds from dry spells.

Philip spends much of his time with modern fur trappers. Pelts rarely fetch more than $20 these days, but some trappers still make a half-decent living killing beavers at the behest of agencies and landowners, who fret that expanding ponds will damage roads and private property. Philip is a skilled negotiator in these complex interactions. She respects trappers’ hard-won knowledge about beaver behavior, but is skeptical about whether lethal control is the best method to resolve conflicts. Although she could have rebutted the self-serving claim she needed trappers to stop beaver populations running wild, Philip does a great job. It’s better not to resort to traps. Instead, you can use “pond levelers”, which are pipe systems that drain impoundments partially, thereby balancing human and rodent needs.

Among the challenges of writing about beavers is that they’re seemingly linked to everything–the rise of capitalism, the transformation of American landscapes and the fight against climate change, to name a few enormous themes. Philip admits that “beavers” led him astray. We are treated to long digressions about coyote ecology and the history of New England’s stone walls, as well as a documentary about naked molerats.

It’s only right that a book on beavers sometimes spills over its banks. After all, Beavers are among Animalia’s most rebellious members. They cause rivers to overflow, create braided streams, and ingeniously destroy our precious infrastructure. It is long past due that we embrace their chaos again.

Near Beaverland’s end, Philip travels to Maryland, where a stream restorationist named Scott McGill collaborates with beavers to capture pollutants that would otherwise flow into Chesapeake Bay. McGill nods to a beaver-made stormwater management pond. “To build that kind of water retention, it would cost one to two millions dollars,” McGill said. It was built by rodents for free, of course. –Ben Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is a journalist and author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, winner of the 2019 PEN/ E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

Fiction

Drumbeats of Climate Chaos

Building tension but lacking empathy

Expect Me Tomorrow
by Christopher Priest
Mobius, 2022 ($26. 99)

Acclaimed science-fiction writer Christopher Priest has a long history of creating high-concept thrillers, including The Separation, The Islanders and the World Fantasy Award-winning The Prestige. His ambitious new epic, Expect Me Tomorrow, foretells our climate future by following three interconnected lives that span both generations and continents. There’s glaciologist Adler Beck, who struggles to study the shifts in Earth’s climate amid increasingly debilitating seizurelike events in the late 1800s; a petty thief known as John Smith, who was arrested in 1877 for defrauding women; and former police profiler Charles Ramsey, who has an experimental chip implanted in his brain in the year 2050.

Priest has mastered the art of adapting his writing style to suit the topic. For example, Beck’s sections have the sensibility, linguistic creativity, and tension of a Charles Dickens novel. Ramsey’s sections, however, display the paranoia, tension, and terror of a scifi thriller. These diverse narrative threads are woven together to create a compelling mystery about the characters’ shared history and the ever-present (and growing) danger of a changing world.

Although the imminent ecological disaster is a constant drumbeat throughout the novel it often seems strangely distant from the characters’ lives. The only way readers learn about future water crises, refugee crises, and worsening storm cell conditions is through passing conversations and news reports. They rarely experience climate change in their lives beyond a delay due to rail lines warping in heat. This disconnect raises questions about the purpose and meaning of eco-fiction in modern times. Is it merely to prove the existence of the world’s most urgent problem or does the genre have to show empathy for those who will be most affected by this disaster? The novel certainly informs–Priest offers pages of scientific explanations of glaciology and the Year Without a Summer in 1816–but it doesn’t develop an emotional core.

Without attention to the true human cost of the events Priest portrays, Expect Me Tomorrow too often finds itself in danger of using climate change merely as a plot hook–despite how compelling it is to read. –Michael Welch

In Brief

How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
by Sabrina Imbler
Little, Brown, 2022 ($27)

Journalist Sabrina Imbler’s latest book mixes memoir and marine biology in a tender and lucid look at her life through the deep sea. The essays’ fascinating descriptions of the lives of aquatic animals serve as portals to Imbler’s land life. The yeti crab’s vibrant, but fleeting seafloor communities, and the purple octopus’s maternal sacrifice are not forced metaphors. They serve as starting points for an visceral exploration into Imbler’s family and sexuality. These graceful cross-species analyses illuminate the joys and responsibilities we have as “creatures with a complex brain.”–Dana Dunham

Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body
by Rebecca Whiteley
University of Chicago Press, 2022 ($49)

In this fascinating porthole into English pregnancy culture in the 16th to 18th centuries, cherubic representations of fetuses in transparent wombs greet bewildered readers who, like me, had never heard of “birth figures” before encountering medical historian Rebecca Whiteley’s book–part anthropological analysis, part scientific critique. These formulaic illustrations were found in midwife manuals. Whiteley says they were inaccurate representations of anatomy and made baffling assumptions regarding female autonomy. By recasting birth figures as evolving feminist iconography, Whiteley places these artifacts in the context of contemporary debates over reproductive rights.–Maddie Bender

Recommended books from the December 2022 edition.

This article was originally published with the title “Reviews” in Scientific American 327, 6, 74 (December 2022)

doi: 10. 1038/scientificamerican1222-74

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