The historical lifetime of the beaver

Explaining our complex relationship with North America’s largest rodent.

 

With up to 23,000 hairs packed into each square centimeter of fur, it’s no wonder that beaver pelts make the finest felted hats. And it’s not surprising that pieces of wood gnawed by prehistoric beaver have been mistaken for human-made artifacts. But it does seem odd that medieval church authorities actually considered the beaver’s tail as a kind of fish that could be served as acceptable Lenten fare. And it’s equally strange to recall that in the 1940s, the state of Idaho relocated nuisance beavers by packing them into boxes, loading them onto planes and dropping them by parachute — yes, parachute — to beaver-less places, where they helped to prevent erosion by damming wild streams above farms.

Our relationship with North America’s largest rodent is so complex that we can no longer classify beavers as simply as Horace T. Martin did in Castorologia, an 1892 zoological monograph written when beavers hovered on the brink of extinction. Frances Backhouse — formerly a seabird and grizzly biologist, now a University of Victoria-based writer/teacher — takes a new look at this landscape-changing critter in her book, Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. The book was a finalist for the Lane Anderson award for the best Canadian science book of 2015.

Gentlemen in beaver top hats in Boise City, Idaho, c. 1866.
Kingsley Studio. CC via Wikipedia

In Backhouse’s book, “search” is an operative word. The evolutionary scope of her saga may be its greatest strength: She takes us from the beaver’s origins, 24 million years ago, to its relevance today, deftly putting the earth-changing feats of Castor canadensis on par with those of Homo sapiens. At one moment Backhouse is with paleobiologist Natalia Rybczynski at the Canadian Museum of Nature, pondering angled dental impressions in a petrified stick. At another she is bound for the “Beaver Capital of Canada” to ground-truth a Google Earth lead from Jean Thie, an Ottawa-based consultant who uses the latest geospatial technologies to study changes like permafrost melt and forest cover. And beaver dams. Indeed, “cruising virtually over the continent in search of beaver dams is his private obsession.”

Backhouse is a perceptive observer and listener, ever alert to the subtle ways the beaver’s story entwines with individual people. She has the knack of a documentary filmmaker, especially in her extended conversation with Ida Calmegane, an 88-year-old Tlingit for whose clan, the beaver — s’igèdí — is the crest animal.

In stories like Calmegane’s, we see that beavers literally helped name this continent; every American state (except Hawaii) and Canadian province bears at least one beaver toponym, more than 2,000 in all. So many that “you can’t swing a beaver on this continent — if you could even manage to heft one by its flat, scaly tail — without hitting one of its namesakes.” We rarely give thought to the roots of these names, yet Backhouse brings us to several in the course of her quest, upending assumptions at every turn. Take one of the many places named Beaver Lodge, for example — this one a cabin, on a remote lake in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park, where an eccentric Englishman named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney reinvented himself as the beaver trapper “Grey Owl” in the 1930s. Controversial self-promoting faux-Indian that he was, Grey Owl lived with two orphaned beavers named Jelly Roll and Rawhide, and his writings helped Canadians think of beavers as something more than a pelt.

This is not to say that Backhouse shuns beaver traps, or the tough economic, ethical and ecological questions that they spring. Knife in hand, she learns the art of skinning through Pete Wise’s “animal damage control” work in British Columbia’s Lower Fraser Valley; she joins Paddy Hall, a beaver fur grader, at the North American Fur Auction; she even meets with folks at the Smithbilt factory in Calgary, Alberta, where beavers are still made into hats. Backhouse avoids moral judgments; what she does offer is a wide assortment of reasons to value the beaver’s utterly unique lifestyle, while helping us understand how it has shaped — and still shapes — our own.

For last few centuries, we’ve regarded beavers as either nuisances or commodities. Now, we’re increasingly learning how they make our landscapes livable: not only by clearing a path for settled lands and farms, but by filtering, diversifying and storing the water on which we depend. Backhouse identifies beavers as “a classic keystone species — that is, the indispensable creator of ecosystems that support entire ecological communities; an unwitting faunal philanthropist.” As a Canadian, she surely has a particular affinity for her national animal, but the beavers’ watershed stewardship blurs political borders. In her final chapter, “Détente,” Backhouse shows that countries that once fought over fur are finding promising ways of beaver coexistence. And as we face climate change together, she suggests that partnerships between beavers and humans can help provide a cooler future, too.

Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver
Frances Backhouse
261 pages: $16.95.
ECW Press, 2015

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...