North American Beaver
When they first paddled onto your rivers, the interlopers, the newest invaders, the lean pale vertical ones, you couldn’t begin to suppose they were here to stay. I mean, for the love of God, what were they doing up here without their own fur? Yours was nothing you could reasonably share. You watched them arrive from the pond you designed to isolate your lodge, now handsomely steaming in the last snows of spring. If Rome was mythically raised by wolves, in a very real way, the nations of North America are the parricidal foster children of beavers. These first westering white men arrive as tens of millions of your kindred are minding the waterways of the continent. Then, from the first tip of a New World beaver hat on the streets of London, to the last heap of worthless pelts rotting outside a trading post on the Hudson Bay, the vagaries of European fashion will not only nearly annihilate you, but then incidentally save you from definitive extinction. Of course, you knew the old invaders—you knew the natives. These new arrivals were never mistaken for messengers with glad tidings. Before you dove into the safety of your waters, you sounded your customary alarm, and it startled the explorers like a musketfire.
It was the tail slap heard round the world.
All the same, you could be tempted to wonder: maybe they arrived to award you an honorary doctorate in environmental engineering? But they didn’t seem to appreciate your residential developments, your ponds and coppices and meadows, your river management, your waterworks, your aviaries and fish hatcheries, your hi-rise housing for the owls, woodpeckers and ducks. Later, they would exploit your forest clearings for their original homesteads, their first crops and pastures, never thinking to attribute those mysterious, sunlit idylls to anything but a grudging Providence. You were a real-estate mogul before there was real estate or moguls. No, they weren’t impressed by your prophetic wildlife and natural-resource management. All they saw from their portages was more godforsaken wilderness, a half-frozen middle of nowhere, pine after accursed pine between their bivouacs and that gilded mirage they would reach only after a stopover at Disneyland, the Northwest Passage to the Orient of spices and silk.
And so, warily submerged to your eyes, you watched them as they embarked, forcing apart one of your dams, then fighting their way upstream on their westward exploration. The lean pale vertical ones, and their unconquerable obsession with seeing everything, and finding a way to everywhere—who really cared if the Earth was flat or round? After merely this first encounter, it was no small relief to be rid of these insatiable creatures. In no time you forgot about them in the pleasure of selecting an aspen to gird over the next few nights. Then at first only their debris returned to your waters, eddying splinters of shattered canoes, that you and your mate were conscientious enough to recycle, as shingles for your lodge. But finally on one drizzling afternoon, as you rise from the riverbottom with a boulder clasped to your chest, to reinforce a dam, one of your kits delivers a tail slap, and—look: they reappear in the west, half-drowned, half-starved, feverish and exsanguinated, in fetid rags, with wild bloodshot eyes and patched-up arrow wounds. Crucially, they are laden with no treasures from the Ming Dynasty. Theirs was The Odyssey of a Homer who could imagine only conifers, bogs, marshes, irascible moose, invisible hateful heathen, maelstroms of biting flies—and backbreaking keelhauls, frantic bailing, and hallucinatory marathons of upstream paddling. In retrospect, at this moment of their dazed vulnerability, and even with nothing but your rodent’s incisors, you ought to have fought like an Iroquois. If only you had dived into your lodge before you’d earned from the explorers a second, more thoughtful look—
Beaver, if only you hadn't become their self-awarded consolation prize.
And so they came in their rough flotillas—you couldn’t build a dam high enough to keep them back—that invasive species to the Great Lakes we know as the voyageurs, the intrepid French trappers swathed in the reeking pelts they came to procure, since your European cousin they had trapped to virtual nonexistence: the Industrial Revolution, it appeared, demanded revolutionary industrial extermination. In time they shared their wave-tossed canoes with the first fearlessly nauseous Jesuit missionaries—because the new invaders came to conquer all the worlds, even the native’s Hereafter. Beaver, if only you could have trained yourself to count the decades of a rosary! But these new invaders, so unlike the old: impoverishingly, all of their gods were made in their own image. For better and worse, you didn’t have a heathen soul to save. No, for all of your natural wisdom and human ingenuity, you could never be anything but a furbearer.
The furbearing coin of the realm. The wampum of the Hudson Bay. Soon anything of commercial value was valued by the metric of you. If you swam to a trading post to turn in your own pelt, you could have received in exchange for it two pounds of sugar, or one gallon of brandy, eight knives or twenty fishhooks, eight pairs of moose hooves, five pounds of goose feathers, the skin of one black bear, or the furs of a half-dozen raccoons. Accordingly, every warring exchange of musket shot and flaming arrows was in essence a Beaver War. And not only for your fur were you coveted—and fur only to grace the well-to-do; never to keep a poor Londoner warm—but for the prized castor extracted from your scent glands, an ingredient essential to perfuming our females—our beloved females, and their everlasting compulsion to conceal their smell of mortality: one masquerade of so very many for enticing the choicest sperm. Beaver, how like the fashion industry is the evolution of our evildoing! Barbarity is how it used to be done. Oh, the moral revulsion we feel for the savages, and their out-of-date abominations such as respectfully devouring the still-beating hearts of their captive foes! While we are proudly at the wheel of the latest model of Depravity, overtaking the unspeakable on the very same Road to Perdition.
The natives, the invaders of old: they were not unlike the bears—a leaner, shrewder, rather more malevolent bear. They culled a catchable few of your kind and made use of nearly everything—it was an unwilling but almost comprehensible sacrifice. In truth, there were days when you found yourself welcoming the high-stakes matching of wits with a lone Algonquian hunter, spear in hand, silently stalking your shores. But the implicit rules of the contest had changed—no, there were now no rules at all. The natives descended in ravenous swarms. They broke into all of your lodges. At all of your breathing holes they lurked with their spears. And then their procured steel traps were secreted at each of your vandalized dams. They were surely infected with yet another of the white man’s transmissible diseases, this one resembling rabies. They returned untiringly. They slaughtered one and all. And they departed with almost nothing but furs.
Furs they heaped in canoes, and plied to the trading posts rudely carved out along the St Lawrence and its tributaries, where they bartered with the pale minor deities, your pelts in exchange for the quasi-miraculous: brass pots, iron hatchets, firearms, firewater—things that made life easier, until they made it impossible. Beaver, how could they know they were racing you to what we wistfully portray as extinction? That soon the rivers would flow barren of both beavers and two-headed birchbark canoes? That they would all be driven west or exterminated, and in a pitiless conflation of homage and insult, only their mutilated names would still be attached to all they loved, honored and endured?
And so it no longer mattered if the hunter who envied your warmth was an Ottawa or a Norman, a Huron or an Anglo-Saxon; if he was at that moment a subject, however untrustworthy, of Louis XIV or King George or George Washington or Chief Pontiac—if the fur you rather naively deemed your own was the designated property of the Hudson Bay Company or the North West Company; if your lodge was an address in the realm of Huronia or New France or the provisional state of Michigan. When a stray cannonball shattered your placid river, it was no consolation that the tireless warring was implicitly over beavers—when you would be the spoils of any conceivable victor, and the enemy of your enemy was still so faithfully your enemy.
But there were guilt-stricken moments when you worried: maybe they came to save the trees? Maybe even the heavens? For surely there were nights when, as a centenarian poplar finally gave in to your diligently chipping incisors, as the arboreal Atlas wavered and tipped and dramatically crashed to the understory—as you dined on the juiciest leaves in tribute to a nights-long job well done: beaver, didn’t you sometimes fear that you were threatening the very sky? That in felling one towering tree too many, from the heavens would drift down a dreamlike blizzard of stars, and the moon would plummet and shatter irreparably—one tree too many, one valiant upholder of the firmament—and a beaver—you—would finally send it all crashing down? Yes, yes—but no, not at all: they assuredly weren’t here to save the trees. The earsplitting birth-cry of the inaugural sawmill made that resoundingly clear. And then in what seemed a single spring thaw there were mills screaming at every river bend, and logjams were paving the rivers. So many felled trees! It was the stuff you did in your very craziest dreams. You had to be humbled. Looking on from atop your freshest oozing stump, in your own little clear-cut of a few hundred feet, you could only be deeply impressed. And the toiling sawyers were garbed in your fur! Like protégés! But why did it seem more derisive than flattering? Oh, they were geniuses, without question. But the immoderation, the absence of any sense of measure. The taking and taking until nothing was left—no white pine on the horizon, no grayling in the rivers, no whitefish in the lakes, no elk in the forests. It was a tragedy of the commons elevated to the Shakespearean stage. They were geniuses, yes. But they were also indisputably mad.
And that madness, not unlike a fat-loving toxin, seemed to accumulate in the strangest of your legacy: the mad hatters—the hatmakers stricken with what became known as mad hatter’s disease. These were the milliners who in chemically extracting the coveted underfur from your hides, to fabricate the felt beaver hat that was all the rage in Europe, incrementally poisoned themselves with mercury, and became legendary on the streets of London for their involuntary trembling and florid psychoses. Lewis Carroll’s Hatter is an endearing memento to this human catastrophe; less charming to posterity, though likely a more accurate picture of the hatters’ fates, are the lunatics raving in Goya’s black dungeons. You of course knew nothing of this strange vengeance. But beaver, no one gets away with anything. Escaping punishment for our crimes is a delusion of our finitude, of our confinement in flesh and blood. Hell was only no longer beneath us when it received a worthy promotion to the face of the Earth, where it punishes us even more ingeniously, undistracted by the illusion of time, and randomly, with no concern for proportion or responsibility, making our wickedness on Earth, for anyone with a conscience, even that much more wicked and intolerable.
The trappers, once they began ensnaring only each other, they ventured further westward, plundering the virgin wilds of its furs, and extending “the fur desert,” the wilderness of the naked and the dead, depleted of beaver and otter and martin and lynx, of fox and wolf and panther and bear, where a last few jittery squirrels clung for their lives in the treetops. It was how the West was lost before it was delusively thought to be won. And more furs were cheaper furs; each new pillaged oasis incited a fur-glut that sent prices plummeting; the trappers were chasing the sunset in a bipolar pursuit of feast and famine. Then seemingly all at once there was only famine. The suction from across the Atlantic had ceased. The vacuum that abhorred so much of nature was nowhere to be felt. The Beaver Wars entered the annals of the wars to disgrace all wars. Even with the recent perfection of the steel trap, the fur trade was waning to its musty, flea-bitten close. Ever-fewer pelts were loaded at the eastern ports; ever-more cotton and tobacco sailed from our shores; when the ships returned, their cargo was African slaves to bend in the fields. With no foreign market for furs, the incurably freedom-loving natives were no longer exploitable, and were much more profitably eliminated. The birth of two nations was midwived on the graves of more than we will ever know.
It would take a fashion-mystic to truly understand the demise of the beaver trade, from that first infectious moment when a European dandy realized he wouldn’t be caught dead under a beaver hat, to the Wellington and the Paris Beau joining the henna and the powdered peruke on the hat-rack in the vestibule of Oblivion. It was like a celebratory toss of beaver hats that no one bothered to retrieve: suddenly the silk hat was the craze. Yes, beaver: silk. Was ever an irony as cruel. On the veritable cusp of extinction, you were saved by the elusive Cathay after all. By the silkworm that arose at your antipode, spinning its immaculate cocoon of silk, and by, of all living things, a tree, the mulberry, upon whose leaves the silkworm exclusively dines.
By then, your natural history is almost your history without you. The wetlands of Michigan were entirely devoid of any signs of your industry. Maybe the last souls on your trail were a few famished natives, dispossessed of everything but their hunger, and some lingering crazed white trapper, gibbering toothlessly, who hadn’t decently bathed in a year, hoping against hope that something in his traps could earn him a few sips of rum. That was now unlikely: the pelt of a beaver came to be looked upon as loathsomely as a human scalp. You were that rarity among rarities, beaver, in that you were not only incredibly scarce, you were also perfectly worthless.
When some overweened child of Rousseau, gazing mistily over a marshland, finally felt innocent enough to wonder, “Where are all the beavers?” it was like explaining to a sincerely puzzled Stalin the absence of a comrade invited to dine at his dacha. In this whole sordid history, maybe nothing quite appalls like the pitying nostalgia that came percolating into the hearts of your exterminators. You were saved by the flip of a coin, and then on the head of that coin, the Canadian nickel, your likeness was fondly engraved. You were reintroduced into the already dwindling wetlands of Michigan; the trapping of beavers was prohibited by law; back in your long-neglected haunts, you appeared to have forgotten what couldn’t possibly have been forgiven—at least you immediately consulted your blueprints: there was so much work to be done. So many rivers and streams with overgrown egos to tame. So many thirsting floodplains to blanket in wildflowers. And the groves of willow and aspen beckoned in the breezes to be thinned. And how few of your native foes had survived; the lodge you fortified could as well have been marked by the sign of the angel. Just as in Eden, your principal aggravation was the sound of water trickling past one of your leaking dams. The owls watched your labors appreciatively by moonlight. The turtles, sunning on your treefalls like coined indolence, followed your developments by day. Even the moose arrived on your shores to confirm, however dourly, your rumored return from exile. At the formal opening of your first pond, the spring frogs trilled and the minnows leapt with silvery delight, and the ruling kingfisher, who had always thought of you as his architect, bolted chattering over the water, issuing his royal proclamation of joy.
By all appearances the torturing and slaughtering is over. By all appearances: because it now goes on discretely behind locked fences and doors, on wastelands of mire and concrete, in the industrial cattle feedlots, the factory hog and chicken farms, and the freezing Gehennas where these animals are slain, chopped up and packaged—it can make the means of your own annihilation seem almost benevolent. Exploited land, exploited labor, exploited lives, and for the procurement of food that is making us sick, and even shortening our lifespans. The fast-food drive-thru is the last link in this enslaving chain of abominations. Beaver, don’t let us fool ourselves: we haven’t learned a thing.
I’m kayaking on the lake when you make a rare daytime appearance on the water. Spying my distant approach, you immediately swim for the far wild shore, looking like nothing so much as the head of a breast-stroking river god with divinely thick black hair. I can’t help but conjecture that you, beaver, fathered the river god too. The dread I inspire. For once, I well understand the dread I inspire, the curse that had even followed Noah to fresh shores when he arrived with his complacent menagerie: no flood however high could have diluted that dread to insignificance: wherever Noah landed, there would be no second Eden. In the vicinity of your shoreline lodge, you deliver that report that can never be quite anticipated, that can steal away the breath before it brings appreciative laughter: the sharp violent slap of your flattened tail on the water. But you don’t then plunge for the underwater entrance of your lodge. No, you remain treading on the lake surface, remotely watching my approach. Your slap seemed less an alarm that a summons for a face-to-face encounter at a safe and respectful distance. As if to discover how much I remember, how much I know. That it was you who had dammed up that millstream in town, and filled the neighborhood basements with two feet of water. And you who washed out that county road last summer, forcing us all to detour for miles for days. And that ornamental cherry tree gracing the lawn of that trophy home, that one autumn morning was simply not there? You too cannot tell a lie. You chopped it down and hauled it away, adding its lumber to one of your food piles on the lake bottom. And maybe you are not unaware of that passenger train that derailed some years ago, when a dam of some of your Vermont co-conspirators opportunely gave way, with the resultant flashflood washing out an overpass: the train-wreck’s human fatalities narrowed the running score between us to some 20,000,000 to 5. It seems you want me to know, before you dive into your lodge, that you’re going to be around, nagging that encumbrance we know as the human conscience, making it a part of your nightly industry to learn how much we’re willing to take. Yes, you’ll be around. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Like the furies that maddened Orestes. Like a Cathar in France or a Jew in Germany.
Like a beaver in North America.
I am especially indebted to Dietland Muller-Schwarze and Lixing Sun for their comprehensive The Beaver: Natural History of a Wetlands Engineer. Cornell University Press, 2003.