Beaverland by Leila Philip


It was a recommendation by James Fallows that took me to Beaverland: ¬†How One Weird Rodent Made America. I’m not so sure about that subtitle, but there were some great tidbits to be found here. The author describes beavers as a keystone species, a species that like that block in the center of a medieval archway is vital to the archway, is key to the survival of a biological community. They, like humans, have an inordinate impact on their environments, she says. I fear that listening to this audiobook did not give me a good understanding of the case for the importance of the beaver; perhaps I should have listened more carefully.

I do recognize that trapping them for the fur was hugely important when Europeans arrived on this continent. Philip tells the story of John Jacob Astor who arrived thinking he would make his way selling musical instruments, but became the first multi-millionaire on this continent thanks to the fur trade.

The great value of beaver pelts resulted in the decimation of the population in much of North America. In New York State by 1890 only one beaver colony in the state was known to exist. A repopulation effort began and in 1904 14 beavers were brought in from Yellowstone Park and by 30 years later the population was growing.

Here are some of my favorite tidbits:

The author describes a beaver dam in Canada so large that it is visible from space. Another dam has been in existence for at least 150 years.

The author says that species including the beaver have become surprisingly urban. She says coyote have been photographed riding mass transit in Portland, Oregon and walking onto Wrigley Field. The Urban Coyote Research Project in Chicago has “identified a generation of coyote that now teach their young to wait at traffic lights and avoid eating rats, saving the coyote from getting hit by cars and ingesting fatal doses of rat poison.”

The dams built by beaver slow down, widen, and clean a stream and of course there is great value in those results. And arranging for beavers to do that work is much less expensive than humans using equipment. The problem is that where beavers choose to slow down and widen a stream may be deemed inconvenient for nearby humans.

It was when adding this post to my blog that I realized I had previously read a book by Leila Philip. I first read The Road to Miyama in the pre-blog times and then again in 2018 when I wrote about it. I was taken with her book about pottery-making in Japan (twice!) but didn’t remember her name. That book was published in 1989; it is remarkable that more than 30 years after that writing book, she tromped all around New England learning about beavers, learned to skin them, and wrote a book about them. Impressive.

Leila Philip, Beaverland, Twelve, 2022, 336 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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