Beavers were indigenous to the prairie
before the settlers came. A keystone species—
their presence affects the habitat
and therefore, the lives of many species—
they have lived on the planet for 10 million years.
(Long before mammoths, beavers were 7 feet long!)
Once there was a continental United States,
there were, at one time,
two hundred
million
beavers.
Alice Outwater writes in her wonderful book,
Water. A Natural History:

…their dams {made} meadows out of forests, their wetlands slowly capturing silt. The result of the beaver’s engineering was a remarkably uniform buildup of organic material {topsoil} in the valleys, a checkerboard of meadows through the woodlands, and a great deal of edge, that fruitful zone where natural communities meet… Where beavers build dams the wetlands spread out behind them, providing home and food for dozens of species, from migrating ducks to moose, from fish to frogs to great blue herons.

On the prairie, before settlement,
the beavers, prairie dogs and bison
helped create a healthy, symbiotic ecosystem.
These were the prairie’s hydrologists.
Outwater writes about the beaver’s contribution:

Water detained in the wetlands behind a beaver dam is more likely to percolate down to the groundwater, raising the water table and creating springs and freshets throughout the watershed. A land with hundreds of millions of beavers is truly rich land, and the wetland associated with beaver dams made the New World’s water plentiful and clear as the dew.

Beavers do more to shape their landscape
than any other mammals—
except for human beings.
With humans’ settlement of the prairie—
and the western European appetite for beaver-skin top hats—
beavers were hunted until their numbers declined
from 200 million to 10 million.
Prairie dogs and bison populations were also hunted,
their numbers drastically diminished,
which critically changed the prairie ecosystem
up to this very day.

Unlike the prairie dog and the bison,
beavers returned to this part of the prairie,
to this part of the prairie we call “our farm.”
And they continue to do what they do:
build.
(Outwater writes that beavers make wonderful pets,
and that even living indoors with people,
they still continue to build—cutting down the legs
of tables and chairs and building
little dams between the furniture.)

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Beaver dam on Doe Creek, and wetland

For twenty years,
beavers had maintained a beautiful dam
on Doe Creek
in a place that didn’t disturb
our father’s farming operation. When we returned
a few years ago, we thrilled
at their presence—
and the sublimely beautiful wetlands that pooled
behind their large dam.
Their presence was more interruptive
at the Big Pond our father built following World War II.
It became the site of our family’s new home,
in the 1960’s. When beavers began cutting down
the trees around the pond,
our father invited trappers
to get rid of them.
For the last several years,
beavers have kept away from the Big Pond.
Until about three years ago,
the beavers continued to live on Doe Creek.
But as the current drought deepened
and Doe Creek dried up, beavers had to leave.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADried wetland

Several months ago,
we saw evidence of their presence
again at the Big Pond. Young trees
along the north side of the pond
had been freshly chewed down.

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DSCN2715Evidence of beavers on Big Pond

Frank saw beavers swimming
on the east side of the pond.
Over the months,
more trees have been cut down
and when the beavers began blocking the culverts
that allow water to flow into the pond,
Ann knew they had to be stopped.
Had the drought ended
and the water in Doe Creek flowed again,
we could have moved the beavers to that
old lodge.
But there seemed little choice:
the Big Pond’s ecosystem is already threatened
by the drought.
Ann has gone to great lengths
to ensure its survival the last three years,
after it dried up completely for five months.
Still critically shallow,
the pond—and life in and around the pond—
needs every drop of water
that falls, or flows, into it.
A few weeks ago,
Ann contacted the department of agriculture
and made plans for the trapping
of the beavers.

About 10 years ago, Ann’s son Ben
planted a Willow tree beside the big pond.
It had grown into a beautiful, 12-foot tree,
which we all cherished. One day, Ann noticed
the beavers had been gnawing on it. And
overnight,
it was down.
We discover
that both male and female beavers
secrete a musky oil that was a popular medicine
in the Middle Ages—
said to cure, among other ailments,
headaches.
Castoreum is high in salicylic acid—
the basic ingredient in aspirin.
The beaver ingests this substance by dining—
wouldn’t you know it—
on Willow bark. This week,
Ben has been visiting from Colorado. And this week,
Ben saw three beavers floating
in the Big Pond. Trappers have confirmed five
dead beavers; predict more.
The Willow,
the beavers,
that headache—
all gone.
Like so many interfaces now
between humans
and other parts of the natural world,
here is great irony.

I’m learning to live
in irony, paradox,
anxiety.
I’m learning to wrestle
with limits.
I’m learning to swing wide
the heart and mind
to outrageous possibility…
I wish these beavers—all beavers—
could live
where they won’t be inconvenienced
by humans.
I wish we humans could use our capacity
for creativity
to learn from the beavers,
with respect and reverence
for these incredible engineers
and spend some time
figuring out how to live together.
A symbiotic relationship
would be wise: for one thing,
the prairie could use some wetlands,
some recharging pools
about now.

In ecology,
there is a term for “the edge effect”—
a transition between two diverse communities.
A beaver-engineered wetland,
for instance,
is an edge.
This is called an ecotone.
Outwater writes that an ecotone is unique in that
it “contains organisms native to each overlapping community
as well as organisms characteristic
solely of the ecotone itself.”
The edge effect, then,
results in an increased variety and density
at community junctions.
Probably, it’s not only the edgy
communities here on the prairie
who could learn from the ecotone
between the beaver
and the human being.
I hope we human beings
live long enough
to learn how to live
with the beaver,
with diversity of all kinds.
I don’t think
we have the beaver’s 10 million years
to figure it out.