This past month in our Where The Wild Books Are book club here at the Columbia Land Conservancy, we’ve been reading an incredible book about beavers. Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb is a dense, research-based telling of the story of these large and mysterious rodents—how and where beavers live, the history of the relationship between humans and beavers and all the controversies that have arisen as they interact, along with many tales of their extirpation and reintroduction across North America. It even includes a detailed description of how to distinguish the males from the females, a process that involves putting the beaver in a dark bag, pressing on its anal glands and smelling the vanilla-scented oils that squirt out (mouth closed is recommended).
The book, which could also be referred to as a love letter to beavers, argues that beavers, despite so many differing opinions across time and space, are a “keystone species” in the American environment—a species on whom so many other wild animals, plants, healthy waterways, and even humans depend. Keystone species are named after the middle piece that holds together a brick archway, which, if removed causes the arch to collapse. If you remove a keystone species from an ecosystem, the whole ecosystem, like the archway, collapses.
Goldfarb, backed by a lot of science and firsthand stories (and some incredible photographs!) argues that beavers not only alter an environment, they revitalize it, serving as a catalyst for incredible landscape transitions. Beavers, like humans, are amazing manipulators of the land—building dams and lodges out of sticks and logs that they chop down with their amazing incisors. They turn trickling streams into massive wetlands lined with cattails and willows where songbirds and ducks nest. They turn ankle-deep waterways or dry lowlands into deep pools beneficial for fish communities, frogs, lizards, and the many animals that then come to drink and hunt. Aquatic insects shelter in the nooks and crannies of the beavers’ stick structures and breed in the wetland waters, bringing in even more songbirds as well as bats, who flock there to feed. In Idaho, for example, research suggests that beaver presence supports up to forty “species of greatest conservation need,” and in states and areas where water and wetlands are sparse due to dry climates, this restoration tendency of beavers is essential. Beavers can also help mitigate the effects of climate change! Their complexes and wetlands sequester and store carbon as effectively as forests, thus reducing the effects of fossil fuels, and they and the plant-life their wetlands support counteract some of the worst pollution that ends up in the rivers and stream we live off of.
Historically, beavers were far more present than they are now, clogging most of the rivers and streams across the continent—creating what Goldfarb describes as a “magnificently ponded world”—prior to being trapped and killed for their pelts, and subsequently for being considered “pests” for their inclination to dam and flood areas where humans live and farm. Though beaver dams can sometimes be seen as a nuisance, their benefits are countless and their consideration and protection is hugely important. This book will convert you into a Beaver Believer! Or, at the very least, a beaver-conscientious person.
Join us for our next Where The Wild Books Are meeting on Tuesday March 31st, 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m at the CLC Chatham office, 49 Main Street. We’ll be reading Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray, a memoir set on a junkyard in south Georgia.