I know that among those who own property that features a creek or other such lowland, there is often little love for our national symbol, the beaver, but let’s pay due respect.
Here is a rodent—a mere rodent—that might waddle up to the rim of a flood plain, survey it gamely, and conclude that the plain would be a fine location for a large body of water, a pond maybe, or a lake, or perhaps a series of cascading wetlands. “And I’m just the one to do the job,” it thinks, entirely without irony. It’s an audacious vision. But then the little beast proceeds to take the steps necessary to realize its vision. In the dark. With nothing but bare hands and teeth. Not many humans are so ambitious.
It starts by chewing down a number of trees to make poles, which it drives into the creek bed as a frame for a dam. It might first redirect the flow of the creek somewhat to make the driving easier. Then it packs the poles with sticks, rocks, mud, and plant matter. It adapts the design of the dam to the speed and depth of the water. A slow stream will have a straighter dam, a fast stream a curved one for increased resilience. In especially wide and slow-moving waters, a beaver might build upwards of half a kilometre of dam. The beaver creates spillways in the dam to reduce erosion and damage during flooding seasons. As the reservoir fills with water the beaver gains access to more and larger trees that it can then float to wherever it pleases. Once it is filled to a depth of between one and two meters the beaver might then turn its attention to building a lodge in the middle of its watery domain.
The primary goal here, after all, is safety. Then food, preferably the inner bark of aspen, willow, or alder; leaves and aquatic plants will do in a pinch.
A beaver, with its webbed hind feet and paddle-y tail, is much more confident and agile in the water than it is on land. With a partially submerged home for which the only entrances are under water, it is fairly well protected until the winter when its many predators can access the lodge over ice. To mitigate this latter danger, the beaver will spend time each fall packing the exposed parts of its lodge with mud to both insulate and protect, leaving only a small area at the top of the lodge unparged for ventilation. The mud freezes into a solid mass, and it becomes prohibitive for any predators to spend the energy to rip through the walls to get at a meal that will likely have slipped away through its underwater tunnels in the meantime.
And what does this lonely beaver do with all the space it claims for itself? It finds a mate, usually the same one for life, and raises a family. It improves and renovates its home year after year, whether it needs to or not (which makes me wonder if my dad isn’t preparing to be a beaver in his next life), until the family has stripped the area of food, at which point they will all relocate to a new place and start over again. How very human.
And here’s the thing that you really do have to respect about the beaver: when some annoyed land owner tears down, excavates, dynamites a dam, the beaver faces down the nth consecutive demolition with stoic determination and rebuilds.
It ain’t perfect, the beaver, but it’s pretty spunky.
All I’m saying, in this sesquicentennialabritoriousificated season, is that we could do worse as Canadians than to wear the beaver as a symbol of our nature, and we could do worse than to consider what we might learn from the nature of the beaver.