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Climate

A Walk in the Woods With My Brain on Fire: The End of Winter

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PLEASANT VALLEY, Mass.—A section of the Yokun Trail at the southern flank of the pond was flooded and closed because the beavers had been busy. Their dam building earlier in the winter had submerged a man-made footbridge. Word was that they had also built a new lodge for themselves. Its construction had taken them only three weeks. 

In years past the waters would have been frozen a foot thick, the woods buried in deep drifts of snow and the beavers would have been laying low. Not this year. They could still swim the ponds—the ice was thin and patchy—and the snow, persisting only on the shaded side of the valley, was so thin it disappeared under each footfall. 

It wasn’t just here in this wildlife sanctuary that the winter didn’t quite arrive, but in virtually all of North America—the late, heavy storms in the West notwithstanding. Scientists measured the store of cold air in the northern latitudes and found it to be smaller than ever before.  A hundred heat records from Wisconsin to Texas fell in the course of a single February day. Even the Great Lakes remained largely ice free. If we had wise elders, they might have called this The Year the Snows Stopped Coming, and everyone would have understood. 

Freshly gnawed tree

In the unseasonal warmth, the beavers spent less time in the dry rooms of their lodges. Given that the nights—when they are active—were longer in winter, they had more time to be industrious. 

In the light of day, you can see evidence of their carpentry—fresh shavings of wood they’ve left behind and the carving their incisors have accomplished. Look all around and you’ll quickly realize they know how to place their cuts, so the trees drop where they want them. It’s often into the water, aiding them in the work of building dams—what they like to do more than anything else.

To settled humans, beavers seem single-mindedly destructive and worthy of eradication. It’s fairer and more accurate to regard them as benevolent builders of public housing, displaced from their ancestral homes. They don’t pollute and destroy ecosystems like humans do, they enlarge and diversify them. They turn small streams into water parks where insects and reptiles, migrating birds and other creatures of the forest come to drink and feed. As their ponds fill up with silt, beavers move upstream to build new dams, and so in time create fertile meadows and aggrade entire valleys, enrich soils and hydrate the surrounding earth and the aquifers below.  

A tall tree felled by beavers.
A tall tree felled by beavers.
A beaver dam separates the waters of two ponds.
A beaver dam separates the waters of two ponds.

Beavers learned their work of generous landscape design over more than 30 million years, the evolutionary record says. They are well-schooled old hands. All tooth and tail wrapped in soft fur and glandular scent, they are fat, slow and easy prey. Only they’re also intelligent. They build their lodges with entrances underwater. No castle ever had a better moat.

Looping around their pond, I came upon their lodge. Actually, there were two in close proximity. They were almost five feet tall, conical, sturdy domes of packed mud and cut sticks, impervious to assault. They carried evidence of a self-awareness that took my breath away. 

I could hear the beavers at home. From inside came the rapid, repetitive sound of practiced gnawing on wood. It was approaching dusk, so perhaps they were having breakfast before the start of the night shift they all work. Soon enough one of them took to the water, the thin ice at the entrance suddenly undulating. The beaver surfaced about fifteen yards out, snout and fur-body in an easy glide atop the open water, tail submerged. Eventually the beaver swam over to a dam’s embankment and waddled out of the water. 

It was enormous! It looked to weigh seventy-five pounds—like a big dog or a small bear. No, it was a beaver. Likely one of the aging monogamous pair that anchor this colony. He or she—who can tell?—began gnawing the bark off a stick, paying me no mind, emanating serenity and belonging. I watched and listened for a long time, mouth agape. A beaver.

Sauntering toward the other lodge, I snapped a stick underfoot and heard a big splash. Damnation! I had spooked another beaver on the bank not ten feet away. He surfaced his snout at mid-pond out of a hole in the ice and regarded me with suspicion. He disappeared and surfaced, disappeared again and surfaced, and still finding me there despite the peek-a-boos, he plunged once more, gaining maximum leverage to smack his tail flat on the water, loud as a rifle shot. The sound reverberating across the valley gave warning: predator at large. 

Beavers originated on this continent during the late Eocene among the order of creatures that had evolved the ability to burrow. In the great laboratory of the natural world, they evolved over the next ten million years to become semi-aquatic, and presumably that’s when they taught themselves to build their lodges. (Another twenty million years or so would pass before Earth would see the first homo sapiens, late coming usurpers.) Two species from the beaver’s ancient family tree remain extant, one inhabiting Eurasia and the other, the North American beaver, Castor canadensis—slapping the water in front of me.

Beaver pond
Beaver pond

He had every right. His ancestors had long ago come to rule North America. From what today is Canada’s tundra down to Mexico’s northern deserts, they thrived for eons, everywhere transforming the landscape at geologic scale. Easily 60 million beavers were living here—some say as many as 400 million!—by the time Europeans first arrived to lay claim to the soil, though peopled by Indigenous nations, and to export its bounty. 

That included the beaver. By 1620, 10,000 beavers a year were being taken to supply the fur trade in Connecticut and Massachusetts alone. By 1630, 80,000 beavers a year were being taken from the Hudson Valley and western New York. Their pelts were prized in Europe for making into hats; their glands, too, for the perfume trade. The demand would not abate for centuries. To keep it fed, trappers swept the forests of beaver clear to the west coast, until, by 1900, beavers were almost extinct in North America after an unfathomably long presence. Just like that.

I was a predator at large indeed. The slap on the water was also a slap in the face.

Tree felled by beavers
Tree felled by beavers

Beaver pelts and other furs held an early and central place in the barter economy that sustained the British, French and Dutch colonies, struggling to survive at the edges of an Indigenous continent. Native peoples were quick to satisfy the European appetite because they could trade for a technology they coveted: firearms. The technology would prove to be as devastating as diseases like smallpox that arrived with the colonists, too.

The Haudenosaunee—the Iroquois nations—were the first to heavily arm themselves with guns, powder and shot obtained from the Dutch settlers of New Netherland. For a single weapon they were willing to offer as many as twenty beaver pelts, which when sold for cash in Europe returned the colonists a tenfold profit. The handsome gain let them overlook the danger of selling weapons to potential enemies;  the Iroquois delivered as many pelts as they could. Armed with superior weaponry they soon gained supremacy over rival native nations. 

The furs-for-firearms trade was a financial win-win. Beavers were the losers, but the bloody underside of the transaction came to stain all involved. The military success of the Iroquois ignited an arms race among native peoples that spread across the continent for the next two hundred years. Their cultures would be irrevocably transformed, as the frontier character of the American experiment simultaneously took shape around the gun. 

The North American beaver was an early victim of an extractive process that would come to reach every corner of the globe. It twinned ruthless environmental destruction with warring in the name of free trade and prosperity—a process that continues today. Castor canadensis has bounced back from near extinction. They say 6 to 12 million individuals are now leading monogamous, home-building lives again. A handful of them are here. 

Yokun Brook
Yokun Brook

I returned to the wildlife sanctuary after a week filled with ample rain and even warmer temperatures. All the snow was now gone and the pond waters were completely ice free. It was the end of a winter that never came—a winter that one day may stop coming at all. The sunlit forest was flitting with birdsong. Honking vees of geese headed north. A colorful male mallard skimmed an impressive water landing and coolly paddled over toward a mottled-brown female. Spring was arriving ahead of schedule. 

By the ponds I spied a small beaver in the shallows. He was a juvenile, a year or two old, not yet forced out of his natal colony. With small gentle steps I worked my way toward the water’s edge for an audience.

He was squatting in the water and working his teeth on a submerged stick. There was nothing else in the world that needed his attention, except maybe the approach of a predator. He tolerated my encroaching presence and let me raise my camera to squeeze off a few frames. We breathed the same air for a while like this, and though he was new to the planet, his was the elder, primordial presence. 

He turned and glided away, slapped his tail on the water and disappeared among the rushes.

A juvenile beaver
A juvenile beaver

Further Reading

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, by Ben Goldfarb

Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, by David J. Silverman

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen

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