We were looking for signs of spring. The big rains have melted much of the snow from the valley bottoms, and the hills in the rainshadow are beginning to show a tinge of green. Sagebrush buttercup buds are held tight in the saturated lithosol, not yet ready to burst out into silky yellow dots. As we made our way up the Taneum Creek road, I looked out into the recently flooded swampy places for emerging skunk cabbage. Nope, still too early. Even though the cottonwood buds swell, and the alder catkins dangle from leafless twigs, it’s still too early for wildflowers and bluebirds.
But we were happily distracted by wondering how the system of beaver dams had been affected by the flooding. Water was still backed up and pooled around the maze of natural and constructed structures in the creek. It seemed like the dams and logjams had spread and slowed the rushing water. The large beaverlodge was plastered with fresh mud and tracks crisscrossed the area around it. The beavers, it appears, are thriving.
Like most of my generation, I grew up watching more television than I am prepared to admit. I got out of the habit in the early 1980s and have never returned to regular viewing. But those years of programs and commercials from the 60s and 70s shaped my world view. I am still surprised by the power of the memories that arise unbidden in my awareness. For example, upon seeing the beaverlodge and dams, the voice of the narrator from Disney nature documentaries intones: “Beavers, nature’s engineers!”
Are they? I wondered. Are they really nature’s engineers? Our culture is a lot more subtle these days about the anthropomorphism we project onto animals. During the heyday of Disney films, it was shameless. Of course we understand animals by giving them human characteristics. Of course beavers are admirable because they are so industrious. Except when their industriousness collides with humans. Beavers used to be routinely trapped and their dams and lodges destroyed because their altering of riparian habitat inconvenienced how humans desired to alter the habitat. (This was never shown on TV.) Over the past twenty years or so, beavers have come to be seen as valuable again because they can restore riparian areas that have been degraded by human activity. A creek with beavers has more suitable places for fish to live and breed. Streamside vegetation flourishes and migratory songbirds have places to nest. Beavers’ work makes the stream more complex and winding. Silt is caught in woody structures, keeping the water clear and cool. Beavers are a keystone species, influencing a particular environment so that it benefits many other species.
Does this make them engineers? For sure they are large for rodents, and have adapted to aquatic life. Like all rodents, their teeth never stop growing so they are compelled to gnaw. Or their teeth keep growing because they gnaw so much. Beavers gnaw wood and feed on the inner bark of small branches. Perhaps in the course of all this gnawing and piling up of woody debris, some long-ago beaver saw the benefit of using that stuff to alter the behavior of water. If an activity provides some benefit, creatures are likely to keep doing it. So beavers found their niche in the world, and are coming back from persecution. You can call them engineers if you like, but I am ready to stop giving human attributes to animals. In a way, it’s a false distinction because humans are also animals. Beavers do what they do. How they make their living is entirely fascinating.
Now if I can only get get that narrator’s voice out of my head (his name was Rex Allen). He told the story of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and many others, in a folksy tone. Even as a kid I knew those stories were made up and simplified. Looking back, I think what a disservice it was to make animals so cute and entertaining. It gives us the wrong idea about their lives and their place in the world. We in the Anthropocene epoch are witnessing an extinction event. It’s not entertainment. The world is diminished when animals and habitats disappear because of human ignorance and greed. This is a hard thing to bear, but I think we are all better off if we allow the world and all living things to be as mysterious and interconnected as they are. We might realize our own place in that interconnectedness and take better care of it.
I am beginning to believe that the words we use to describe the world really matter. Language is inadequate to accurately express everything about our experience, but it’s about all we have besides art and mathematics. This is probably me thinking too much, but I want to use words that are as honest and true as possible. Words that describe things and relationships in a direct clear way, that reveal the actual value of things and relationships to the sustenance of life. Words that avoid filters and screens and projections. Words that are not chosen to lie, manipulate, or devalue.
This is a lot of reflecting brought on by looking for skunk cabbage and finding beaverworks. Perhaps like rodents, I need something to gnaw on so that my mental teeth don’t grow too long. While I am busy thinking too much and chewing on the thicket of life, snow continues to melt, creeks continue to run, spring continues to advance. And it is good.