A Paean to Nature’s Engineers

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter By Ben Goldfarb, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018

These days, my bicycle commute parallels a stream cascading from snow-tipped 10,000-foot mountains in Utah. I often stop where the stone-bottomed rapids widen to form an extraordinary pond centered by the aspen-wood topping of a tightly packed beaver lodge.

I’ve spotted juvenile moose, white-tailed deer, long-necked sandhill cranes, silver-sparkled trout fry, and probably every jacked-up songbird targeting this flyway. And all those wild bees feasting on the pink tutu petals of water-fed bitterroots. Yes, life gravitates to water. But not once had I ever seen, or thought much about, the beaver family baring its teeth, creating this pond, and living life’s rewards in harmony with its surroundings.

That changed after reading Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. This “Beavers for Dummies” book, whose power lies in knowledge and wonder, was written for people like me. Nothing moves me more profoundly than the extent of my ignorance.

book cover

A good book is about truth, and Goldfarb, who holds a graduate degree in environmental management from Yale, is clearly a truth-seeker. But he is no mere academic. Throughout this read he’s in the armpits of scientists and citizens eager to restore the North American beaver, Castor canadensis, to its native landscape. He writes with textbook fidelity and storybook clarity.

Ever since the world was the world, beavers have been a keystone species in many parts of it — an animal so crucial that if it were removed the local ecosystem would tumble. And in the North American historical narrative, beavers are a powerful symbol. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time before trappers arrived here in the 1600’s when beavers operated as the continent’s chief water engineers and dam builders, crucial architects of the wild lands that covered the New World.

During the beaver-fur craze in the nineteenth century, beaver pelts kept legions of French trappers portaging westward throughout the interior of North America. The English Hudson’s Bay Company was quick to follow. “Beaver furs were the wind in the sails of the Mayflower,” Goldfarb writes. “The bible and beaver (pelts) were the mainstays of colonists.”

By the mid-1800s, trappers had picked most North American rivers clean. In 1843, John James Audubon traveled 2,200 miles on the Missouri and saw not a single beaver. When farmers and ranchers settled the land, beavers morphed from valuable pelt sources to troublesome pests.

Eager chronicles the consequences of losing these tireless ecosystem engineers — without beavers, streams eroded, wetlands dried up, and ecosystems were altered so profoundly that it has changed our understanding of what a healthy landscape looks like in much of North America. (Hint: It used to be much swampier.)

The good news is that beavers are making a comeback — not just by the numbers, but also in popular perception. Goldfarb’s book introduces us to a modern-day, born-again coalition of “Beaver Believers” applying place-based knowledge to understand the role beavers play in a healthy ecosystem.

From Alberta to the Scottish Highlands, Believers are convincing governments and landowners of the role beavers play in resisting drought, controlling floods and wildfires, and limiting the extinction of species. How? By converting narrow, swift-running streams into braided channels of ponds teeming with life. “Beavers are environmental Swiss Army knives,” Goldfarb writes. “Ark-like in their ability to support other forms of life.”

In Eager, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics, and enlightened state governments take action. Washington State, for example, declared they “want these rivers dancing across their flood plains again.” In 2012 it passed the “Beaver Bill,” a beaver rewilding program affirming beavers’ “significant role in maintaining the health of water sheds.” Other states are following suit.

Now, when I stop beside the beaver pond, I get a sense that I am part of something bigger than myself.

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