Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Pilgrims' Beavers


I'm reading a book right now that claims that no one would ever have heard of my Mayflower Pilgrim forebears if it weren't for all the beaver they got. Without all the money they earned from slaughtering most of the beavers and sending their carcasses back to England, their venture would have foundered, and here we'd be with no Thanksgiving. No Thanksgiving, and probably no beaver either, because someone else would have gotten them instead. Beaver pelts were amazingly valuable. They made the very best hats. The English were all about the hats.

I imagined the beaver hat would look a little like the Davy Crockett raccoon hat, only with a flat flap hanging behind like a French Foreign Legion dude, but actually one has to go to a certain amount of trouble to make a good beaver hat.  You don't use the outside guard hairs at all, but the vast interior belly fuzz can be felted into the most durable, softest material ever. If you ever felt beaver, you'll have to agree. Once you've felted your beaver, you can shape it any way you want, and then all that's missing is the satin or silk ribbons and sashes and plumes from, preferably, a fancy bird on the verge of extinction. According to the book I'm reading, England was going through about 23,000 hats a year during the time of the Pilgrims, and each one required two beavers. They'd have used their own beavers, but they'd finished them all off by that time, and they were nearly extinct in Europe, too. All of which made dead American beavers even more valuable.

Naturally, we were scraping the bottom of the beaver barrel in no time, but we still got cash and Thanksgiving out of it, so it wasn't all bad. Unfortunately, beavers have a rather outsized effect on the landscape--not as much as we do, but still. It's a really big deal. They create a series of dams and build lodges that bunches of them share. The dams create a vibrant wetland environment that many other currently dwindling species rely on. And they slow down the water's inevitable rush to the ocean, purify it, deepen the water table, and protect against both drought and flood in ways the Army Corps of Engineers and Concrete can only dream about. Beavers are just about as important a species for keeping everything running smoothly as you can get. We've let them rebound a bit, here and there, where we don't have anything else going on.

Someone with a hankerin' for gold once took ten Canadian beavers to Tierra del Fuego with an eye to a commercial fur venture. It didn't pan out, so he let his beavers go, and they got busy, as is their reputation, and eventually numbered 100,000. Sadly, the tropical forests were destroyed, and no one got any wetlands out of it, either, because tropical forests don't work that way. Oops!

I hear the cod fishery in the Gulf of Maine has tanked also. Presumably it was reported to be in trouble 150 years ago when everyone had gotten all the cod they could snag with hooks and lines, and there were calls for some kind of conservation program, but then the fishermen came up with equipment that could haul up the deeper layers of fish, and the panic was off. Eventually they came up with ships that could basically comb the whole ocean, and you could peel all the cod out of the nets and shake out the other living debris and life was good for the fishermen for a while, but now they have to shut everything down, because the cod is gone.

It may not be too early to conclude that we do not, as a group, make the wisest choices when we focus solely on what we can stash in our pockets for a while. It might make more sense to step back and get a wider view. But we're more inclined to chew on the landscape without building a lodge.

44 comments:

  1. While I have eaten a few beavers in my day I bear them no ill will. They are quite plentiful around here mostly because living in swamps makes them hard to get to. Last year they built a dam in the creek that runs next to the house. I wouldn't have minded that, but they chewed down my favorite yellow birch.
    I thought it would be fun to introduce seals to Lake Superior, but I am sure there would be some disaster down the road. Screwing around with Mother Nature, including her beaver, can have some disastrous consequences and I don't want to be the one to piss her off.

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    1. Well you wouldn't be the first one to piss her off. We have spare sea lion pups here beaching themselves because they're starving because Mommy has to go too far away to find food, because the ocean isn't the right temperature anymore, or something. Ain't we a wonder!

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  2. Sorry, I couldn't get past Jono's first sentence.

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    1. Still working on that one, are you.

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    2. Maybe I should have been more specific.

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    3. I think we may have quite enough information already, thank you.

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  3. Beavers had (made) a small pond below our house in northern Idaho, and on a summer evening, we even went down to swim with them, and there was no tail slapping or panic.

    Nor did we make hats of any of them, so maybe we were considered relatively harmless.

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    1. I was just in a big beaver pond yesterday but did not see any. However, we did find out they make great underwater trenches like a little highway system, and you could be up to your knees one moment and up past your waders the next. Fun!

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  4. I no longer where wool hats in deference to the dwindling mammoth population.

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    1. The mammoth hats never really took off anyway. The tuskulature was too heavy to wear.

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  5. Sigh. And then we have the hide to complain about hat hair. Some milliners join my 'evil' list. My very long evil list.

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    1. I'm not sure how many beavers are being trapped these days for hat material. Mostly we're getting rid of them because we have better plans for their landscape. Walmarts and stuff.

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  6. It seems like scientists always end up trying to clean up the problems caused by people trying to make money. Over and over again. I wonder if that will ever change. If I were a scientist I'd be getting even more upset than I already am.

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    1. You know, there didn't even used to BE money?

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  7. There was an area down the road from where I grew up that had lots of beavers. We would ride our bikes there, but never saw a beaver, just their houses in the water.
    Then Budweiser built a plant. So we have beer, but no more beaver. Progress, right?

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    1. Budweiser isn't an improvement on anything at all. That's a plain fact.

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    2. Oh, shoot. They are lodges, not houses. Geeze.
      Thanks Roxie.

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    3. Well, shoot, they're houses too. Or compounds?

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  8. The University of Maine at Farmington's mascot is a beaver. They sell t-shirts that read: Everyone loves a healthy beaver.

    I know I do
    the Ol'Buzzard

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    1. I'll just bet you do. That's our Oregon State mascot too, and also the dear departed AAA baseball team the Beavers, whose beaver mascot was called Round Tripper.

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  9. "Once you've felted your beaver"?? Oh, Murr.

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  10. Walking around the wetlands adjacent to the Sellwood bridge, I saw many, many trees that had clearly been gnawed down. I would cheer, "Go Beavers" but I wonder if it might not have been Nutria. Do Nutria form lodges?

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    1. Nope. Just burrows. And burros just lie down wherever they are.

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  11. I'm imagining the Honorable Lodge of the Local Nutria, with secret handshakes and funny hats and elaborate rituals to promote members from one status to the next.

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  12. As a group, we humans do make an uncomfortable number of mistakes when there are dollars to be made.

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  13. Lucky for us, our bellies make horrible hats.... too bad, though, for so many other species in the world. Well said, Murr.

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    1. Wait a minute. Has anybody TRIED making a human belly hat?

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    2. I would imagine them tending towards flabby and greasy, unless, of course, you used those bellies of guys with six pack abs. W-a-i-t a minute, haven't I seen 6-pack hats?

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    3. I was visualizing something like those big super-floppy knitted berets that the dreadlocked dudes wear. I think you could make one of those out of a good size belly. And hey, if anyone could do it, you could. Don't tell me who the donor belly is.

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  14. We live along the Mississippi. We regularly have beaver families build their homes in a little stream that is in between the main channel and a small island in the river. While I support their right to build homes and feed their families, I very much wish that they could find their own trees to cut for them, rather than using the ones we have bought and planted and tended for several years. Peaceful co-existence is all I ask for. If you have any suggestions as to how to talk to the beaver, let me know!

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    1. Man, I'm sympathetic, but I have to say whenever I run into that kind of situation I usually mourn and then adjust my own expectations. I'm just about to quit trying to grow roses, for instance. Sounds like you're in a beautiful spot.

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  15. When we lived in Sandpoint, Idaho (NE of town about 11 miles) a beaver family set up shop at the base of the hill just east of us on the Lower Pack River. They busily kept the aspens at bay, and seemed to enjoy themselves, even though the Lower Pack River was generously named, it was just a stream, really. Gotta love those Canadians, the Queen on one side of their nickel, a beaver on the other...

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    1. I never thought of that! I knew the beaver was on one side, but just the thought of the Queen being that close, just on the other side of the door...

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  16. We live in very close proximity to a beaver pond; it is a source of wonder, and my husband and I often walk around it's edges just taking in the scenery, flora and fauna. In addition to the beavers (who are a bit skittish, but can be spotted swimming sometimes), it is home to great blue herons, kingfishers, an osprey, mud turtles, snapping turtles, bull frogs, dragonflies, red-wings, various ducks, and Canada geese who raise their babies in the grassy bits out there in the middle and come honking furiously if you stray too close. (The honking makes no impression whatsoever on the snapping turtles, who love a snack of fresh gosling---it ain't ALL pretty.) And those are just the species I remember and can rattle off the top of my head. One summer we spotted two bald eagles perched in the evergreens along the edge of the swamp several times, but we think they were just dining out...no evidence of a nest and we haven't seen them since. Luckily for us, there is already a Wal-Mart in the nasty commercial zone a few miles off in the distance, and we just aren't on anybody's radar for development. At. the. moment.

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    1. Hang on to that! Guard it with your life! Paradise, and right next door. Around here we're getting more and more infill development (we have a growth boundary around the city), which is just what should happen, and maybe the sprawly places will start to come around to that way of living eventually. Although probably not as long as gas is so inexcusably cheap...

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  17. Damn. I'd edit that erratic apostrophe out if I could. Shoulda used the preview feature.

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    1. I skipped right over it because I knew you didn't mean it.

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  18. Have you ever walked down a narrow canyon alongside a stream at night, sans flashlight? Have you ever watched the moon reflect all shimmery-glimmery upward from the water, through aspen trees where the creek widened a just a bit, just down the dark trail from you? Have you ever stood there trying to determine the source of that unholy wavering light and had a beaver smack the water with her tail right behind you? Have you ever jumped so high and run so fast? Have you then startled up a pile of mountain sheep bedded down for the night, scaring them into a dead run up the talus slope, sending scree and snorts down at you from above?
    Yeah. That was fun. Damn beaver.

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    1. Somewhere there is a passel of owls still snorting themselves over this scene. Thank you.

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    2. A passel of owls and now all of us! Thanks from me, too.

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