July 10, 2019 / 2 comments
Ben Goldfarb on how beavers can boost the collective imagination
One of the finest books I’ve read recently was ‘Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter’ by Ben Goldfarb. Ben is an American environmental journalist who has taken great interest in this remarkable creature and its ability to, as he put it when we spoke, “help tackle many of our ecological problems if we just get out of the way and let the rodent do the work”. I was fascinated to hear his thoughts as to how living in a world full of beavers might impact the human imagination, and how living in a world without them impoverishes it. I started by asking him if he might sum up the narrative of the book for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of reading it.
“We have this animal, the beaver, that was historically ubiquitous, incredibly abundant across North America and Europe, and profoundly responsible for shaping our landscapes. Beavers build dams, they create these ponds and wetlands, and those ponds and wetlands would have historically made our landscapes extraordinarily green and lush and full of biodiversity. When we killed hundreds of millions of beavers in North America and Europe we destroyed our landscapes in ways that we’re just now recognising. All of those beaver dams broken, those ponds and wetlands drained, and these beautiful lush gardens that beavers had created, essentially turned to desert in many places.
We’re just now starting to recognise how dramatic a shift that was from this beaver-dominated landscape to a beaver-absent landscape. What Eager is about is the ways in which bringing these animals back, as has been done in many places and is still an on-going process in other places like the UK, can help us address all kinds of ecological problems. Of course in the American west where I live drought is a huge issue. Our landscape is getting hotter and drier as the climate changes, and beavers, it turns out, create thousands of little reservoirs that help us keep water on the landscape.
In the UK where flooding is a big issue, beavers slow down those big surges of rainfall and mitigate flooding. They create these fantastic pockets of life for fish and amphibians and water fowl and song birds and bats. They are a really incredible keystone species and ecosystem engineers and the book is about how, by bringing these animals back, we can create a landscape that’s both new, and old.
New to us, but really quite timeless because beavers of course have been modifying our landscape for millions of years. How do we get back to that point where beavers were this dominant landscape scale influencer? That’s the big question at the heart of the book.
How did you develop this interest? What sparked this curiosity about beavers? What’s your journey into this subject?
I’d always liked beavers. I am fortunate to be from the U.S., a country that has many millions of beavers, unlike the UK, and I grew up hiking and fishing and camping. I was certainly around beavers and always had a baseline appreciation for what they do and how cool they are. But I didn’t recognise them as these landscape scale forces of change and transformation until I guess 2014.
I was a working journalist, living in Seattle, looking for things to write about and stumbled on this advertisement for a beaver workshop and had no idea what happened at a beaver workshop, but just knew that I had to be part of it. I went to this thing and met this guy named Kent Woodruff who’s a beaver biologist in central Washington state. Kent to me is a great testament to the power of imagination because he really had the vision in some ways of what a fully beavered landscape could look like and function like, and he was the one who expressed that vision at this workshop.
He was the one who got my own imagination really fired up about how wonderful these animals are and how important they are to healing landscapes in the American west. It was really this guy Kent who just got me very excited about beavers. Not only as cool fun adorable rodents, but as our continent’s most important historical architects.
How do you see the link between the human imagination and the diversity of the natural world? René Dubos, the microbiologist, used to say “if we lived on the moon, our imagination would be as barren as the moon”. When we lose beavers from the world around us, what do we lose? And how does that contracting of diversity impact our imagination do you think?
That’s a really wonderful question. A lot of what I did in the book was read old trappers’ and explorers’ accounts of what North America looked like before we trapped out hundreds of millions of beavers. They describe this landscape that’s just mind-blowingly wet and complex and green and lush in places that today are corn or soy monocultures.
There are explorer’s accounts of crossing the state of Indiana and not finding a dry place to camp for 100 miles because beavers had so thoroughly impounded water all over the mid-West. Today that same area is strip malls and corn fields essentially. When we lose beavers we lose the ability to imagine what a natural diverse, complex, biodiversity filled landscape looks like. It’s like the classic ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ issue, where because the land is degraded when you inherit it, you can’t remember what it once looked like, and you accept your own diminished present as natural and normal. I think that’s what’s happened to us.
We’ve forgotten what a healthy stream is meant to look like. Reintroducing beavers is a form of sparking our own imaginations. Catalysing our awareness of what a historic ecosystem would have functioned like in North America 10,000 years ago.
Do you think that in the same way that it could be argued that our declining imagination led to the eradication of the beaver?
It’s a good question. Certainly our lack of imagination is hindering us today from bringing these animals back in a big way. To me that’s because we’ve inherited these very clean linear dry landscapes in which water is channelized and constrained within its banks, and we’re incapable of imagining a landscape where beavers push that water onto the flood plains, and fell trees everywhere, and basically turn the well-kempt, orderly countryside into this sprawling complex of chaotic wetlands.
We just can’t conceive of the landscape looking that way, so in many quarters we resist the reintroduction of this animal that would create these landscapes that we find to our flawed human eyes abnormal or unhealthy. Today our inability to imagine historic landscapes is certainly hampering the return of beavers, if that makes sense.
I read something recently where you were talking about the impact of the beavers in C.S.Lewis’ Narnia books on the public perception of the beaver?
Yeah, so in Narnia, Mr and Mrs Beaver, who are these very kindly, loving characters, they are wonderful in most respects, but they eat fish in Narnia, which is just biologically inaccurate, right? Beavers are totally herbivorous. I think that was probably a mistake made by Lewis because nobody had seen a beaver in Britain for 300 years or whatever at the time that he was writing, so nobody knew anything about them.
This notion that beavers were pescatarians got enshrined in culture and actually when beaver reintroduction was first proposed in the UK it was angling groups who were primarily opposed to the return of beavers because they believed, partly misled by Lewis, that the beavers were going to eat all the fish. That’s an interesting example of the ways in which this funny little biological inaccuracy becomes this cultural meme that basically inhibits proper wildlife policy.
It was funny, I gave a talk at the Hay festival when I was there a few weeks ago and I had the temerity to mention the whole C.S. Lewis thing, and I guess a reporter from the Daily Mail was there. The next day there was this tabloid headline, “American environmentalist drags beloved children’s author over the coals”, or whatever the heck it was. Then we saw the book sales spiked after that, so any publicity is good publicity is good I guess!
Being slagged off by the Daily Mail is definitely a badge of honour for anybody.
Right. You know you’ve made it!
Through the work you’re doing and through wider shifts in culture, are we seeing the beaver emerging as a cornerstone for a new story of the future, do you think?
Yeah, absolutely. When I was in the UK earlier this month I was astounded by how rapidly beavers have become central to rewilding. When I recorded the chapter about UK reintroduction, in 2017, even just two years ago when I was there it felt like beaver reintroduction was part of the lunatic fringe of the environmental movement there.
Two years later it’s remarkably mainstream, pardon the pun. It’s just remarkable how many environmental groups and how many rewilding organisations and TV presenters and journalists are talking about it now. The reason for that is here’s this animal that is capable of supporting all kinds of other life. If the goal is to rewild the landscape, to bring back all of these creatures that have been lost or that we’re at risk of losing, then it makes perfect sense that you would start with the animal that can support all of the other creatures.
There’s this famous trial, the Devon Beaver project. When they returned the beavers there, the number of clumps of frogspawn and of frog eggs increased more than fifty-fold. There were all of these species of bats that they hadn’t seen there that showed up to eat the aquatic insects. The water beetle diversity increased dramatically. It was just this amazing testament to the power – and that was just two beavers at that site, creating this haven for all kinds of other life.
If you’re trying to bring back biodiversity to the British Isles, it makes perfect sense that you would start with the creature that supports biodiversity. What’s kind of cool is that are a good gateway drug into other reintroductions. They were the first extinct mammal to be reintroduced to Britain, and you know, for all of the wonderful things they do, they are kind of a headache, right? They cut down trees and they flood people’s fields and they undermine flood defences and so on.
It takes some doing to live with them and in some ways the policies and stakeholder engagement and the approach to reintroduction, that beaver reintroduction is potentially going to inform the reintroduction of other creatures like Lynx and some day maybe wolves in the Scottish highlands. If you can learn to live with one kind of meddlesome animal that you’re returning, maybe that same framework can be applied to other meddlesome animals. I like the idea of beaver as this rewilding trial in some ways that could help guide future species’ reintroductions.
One of the things that I really got from the book was that, yes, we are forcing the natural world into a corner, but actually when you take that pressure off, it bounces back really rapidly. For me that’s one of the things that I hold onto as a hopeful thing in terms of climate change. That actually, if there was a concerted push around rewilding and reintroduction, and so on, that actually things could move very quickly. And the stuff that you read about how soils are able to lock up carbon and those systems lock up carbon – obviously balancing it with food production – but that rewilding has the potential to move really fast, it kind of felt like. Am I clutching on to straws or is there something in that, do you think?
No, no, I completely agree. Beavers are the ones I always go to. In 1900 there were something like 1000 beavers in all of Europe, and now there are, I think, one and a half million, right? In barely more than a century, the population increased by whatever power of 10 that is. If you just stay out of the way of a lot of these processes, and let them happen unhindered, they can happen really quickly.
To me, what unites my book with Isabella Tree’s book ‘Wilding’ is really the power of animals to transform landscapes, right? We tend to view geology as separate from biology. That the earth itself is this thing that exists apart, or divorced from, the ecosystems that are layered on top of it in some ways. Who could imagine that animals are capable of affecting something as vast as the growth of a mountain range?
But the more we understand about the bio-geomorpohology of this planet, the ways in which animals influence the physical landscape, the more we understand just how important those connections are, and that’s what Isabella’s book is about. Returning grazers to the landscape, to clear the forests essentially, and create this kind of dynamic patchy ecosystem rather than one that’s just a solid carpet of trees essentially. That’s what beavers do of course. They fill in valleys at a vast scale. They literally change the course of rivers.
I just saw this great study about salmon. When salmon go up to spawn, they use their tails to basically dig out these nests where they deposit their eggs, right? And historically the amount of gravel that was mobilised and flushed downstream by salmon was just – I forget the numbers, but just mind-blowingly vast. Salmon were literally changing the contours of these head water mountainous streams in which they were spawning.
Recognising how animals influence the physical landscape – they’re not just these fun things that we like to look at through binoculars, they’re actually, like us, really important agents of change to the physical world. That’s a really important thing that Isabella’s book sets out very nicely. Those are the processes I’d love to see rapidly restored. A landscape that’s mediated in some ways by non-human species.
You mentioned about the extraordinary landscapes with all the ponds and the water, what they do with trees and all that. I wonder if, for people who haven’t seen that, could you describe what that’s like? If you were to visit a place where beavers have been for hundreds of years, and left undisturbed, what is that landscape like to visit, and to walk through, and to experience? Can you give people a picture of that?
Yeah, definitely. It’s funny just a few weeks ago I went to Voyageurs National Park which is in northern Minnesota, right on the U.S. Canadian border, and that’s a place where beavers have basically been left undisturbed for a couple of hundred of years. That’s probably the closest place you can find, certainly in the United States, maybe in the world, to what a landscape would have looked like historically before we destroyed these animals.
It’s just mind-blowing. Some of the dams they’ve built are hundreds of feet long. Just these massive edifices that just go on like football fields. Some of them are 10 or 12 feet high. You can walk over the top of them. They’re so deeply embedded in the landscape that they’ve been grassed over by vegetation. They’ve been worked on by so many successive generations of beavers that they’ve actually become part of the physical world. Then the ponds and wetlands that they create are also just mind-blowingly vast. It’s just hard to believe that a little family of rodents could create this wetland that’s a hundred acres.
It’s this full sensory experience, because you’re smelling the decomposition of all the vegetation that’s settled out or has been killed by the rising water, and it’s also all the amazing new growth that’s being facilitated by these rising water tables. All of these wetlands, some of them are just cacophonous with multiple species of frogs and songbirds and waterfowl. They’re just these beautiful places.
But again they don’t really match our conception of what the land should look like, right? One of the things that you always see around beaver ponds is lots of dead and downed trees. Trees that the beavers have cut down themselves, or trees that have been killed by the rising water tables as the land turns boggier and boggier, and we have this very adverse relationship with tree death in some ways, right? We see a dead tree as a sign of forest disease, or lack of health. But those dead trees are unbelievably important for all kinds of life and they’re great perches, or rafters, for bald eagles.
You always see bald eagles perched on dead trees in beaver ponds. They’re great habitat for woodpeckers and all kinds of water fowl. That’s another case of our lack of imagination in some ways. We see those dead trees and assume they’re unnatural in a way and that beavers have killed the forest, what a disaster. But in fact those trees turn out to be vital again. We have to reconfigure our brains in some ways or re-hardwire ourselves to conceive of dead trees as crucial landscape features rather than signs of sickness.
What impact have you seen the book have? Presumably you wrote it with the motivation that you wanted this to lead to a collective reappraisal of the beaver? Has it had impacts that you didn’t anticipate when you wrote it?
Yeah. I’ve been so thrilled by the impacts that it’s had. It may be your experience as a writer as well, one of the frustrating things sometimes is you never know who reads your work and how it changes the world. Oftentimes as a magazine journalist, you feel you spend weeks working on an article, and then you put it out there and it’s like adding your little snowflake to this blizzard of content that’s appearing all the time. It has its little 12 hours of being tweeted and then it’s just subsumed by the next wave of stuff.
One of the wonderful things about writing a book is that it’s the antidote to that in that it’s this physical, tangible artefact that lives on people’s shelves for years and also carries a certain authoritative weight maybe that an article doesn’t carry. So anyway all of that is just preface to say that it’s been really hard to see who’s read it, and who’s acted upon it.
At one talk I gave in Utah a rancher told me later that he’d bought the book, he’d read it, he’d stopped killed the beavers on his property and then he bought copies for all of his ranching neighbours and implored them to stop killing their beavers. That was pretty cool. I’ve heard about transportation departments accessing it and using it to guide beaver policy when beavers flood roads and clog up road culverts and using the book as motivation to move from a lethal strategy – we’re just going to kill all those beavers when they cause conflicts – to a non-lethal strategy where we’re trying to co-exist with them.
I’ve heard from lots of private landowners basically contacting me and saying, “Hey, you know, we’ve got beavers near our house. The city or the town wants to kill them. We want to save them. How do I fight that?” I’m able to provide them resources that have led to the protection of some of these beaver colonies. I’ve been incredibly pleased by the response.
Writing is such an abstract intangible pursuit in some ways, so it’s really wonderful to know that the book I created has actually changed the physical world. There are beaver colonies alive today doing their thing because of the book, and they’ve created who knows how many acres of wetlands. The world looks a little bit different today, hopefully in better ways, than it did before the book existed. That’s a really amazing feeling and one that I think, it’s a unique experience for me.
If you had been elected at the last election in America and you were President Goldfarb, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?
That’s such an interesting question. Certainly one I’ve never been asked before! It’s probably not a very original answer but I feel like one of the things that most ails our society is what Richard Louv has called ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. We’re just so disconnected from the natural world. We’re such an indoor society. We’re so attached to our screens, myself included.
On the other hand this is something that you’ve written and thought about as well, just the ways in which technology has infiltrated our lives – in some wonderful ways, but in other ways prevented us from accessing the things that really matter. A big part of the reason that we’re incapable of imagining a new kind of relationship with nature is because we have no relationship with nature in a lot of ways. To me, being in a beaver pond and wetland complex, or an old growth forest, or a healthy intact desert ecosystem, or scuba diving on a coral reef, those are the experiences that really catalyse imagination insofar as they make you think about what our world once looked like, and how it could look again.
Part of my imaginative platform as President Goldfarb would be creating some kind of national programme or policy that got people – especially children – into the outdoors on a much more regular basis. Obviously there are programmes like that, but they’re chronically underfunded and under-participated in and just not nearly as comprehensive as they could be.
In the 1930s we had the civilian conservation corps, right? This new deal programme to get out in nature and fix trails, and stop soil erosion, and plant trees, and do all of this stuff. I’d love to see something like that again. Some kind of programme that connected young people with nature and created a system in which participating in ecological restoration was viewed as a profound form of public service on a par with serving in the military.
Those are my two prescriptions. Some kind of programme for getting kids outdoors, and then some kind of programme that essentially creates jobs in the restoration economy to help us heal this country and help us imagine what a fully restored suite of American biodiversity could look like.
So that when people say, “What do you do?” and you say, “I create habitats for beavers”, they would say, “Thank you for your service.”
Right, exactly. I would love to hear that. I don’t know if you saw, there’s this great – this will be right up your alley, I’m sure you’ve seen it, the little animated video that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did? It’s beautiful. The star of that little video as you may recall has an AmeriCorps position as a wetlands restorationist in Louisiana I think. So AOC shares that vision. She probably had it first. But it’s an old idea, right, that we need to make new again. So I was just pleased to see wetlands restoration as one of the planks in her imaginative vision for the future. That was really cool.
My last question builds on that imaginative vision of the future. I wonder, if we were to see over the next 30 years say, a widespread reintroduction of beavers, a concerted effort to rewilding, what might it be like in 30 years? What might it feel like to live in a world where that rewilding was 25, 30 years in, was very visible, was very much talked about and a highly regarded aspect of what was going on in the world? I wonder if you could take us inside; in your mind when you see this stuff rolled out at scale, what would it feel like to be in the time when that was going on?
That’s a great question. I think that it would feel a lot like being at the Devon Beaver trial, or some of these sites in Voyageurs. Certainly our aquatic ecosystems would look and feel much different than they do today, right?
We’ve normalised the idea of a healthy stream as a straight single thread one that winds through this kind of pastoral sheep and cattle field. Certainly our landscapes would feel much different and look much different. We’d be reintroducing these multithreaded channels and complex pond and wetland habitats, and dead wood all over the landscape.
So from a simple, physical, geomorphological hydrological standpoint, it would look and feel much different. More deeply, I think the thing that would feel different is just our relationship with nature and with ecological restoration. And this is something I try to really get my head round in the book, is the notion that most of the work that we’ve done… I mean, historically, we’ve attempted to subjugate and dominate nature, right? We’ve cut down the forests, and caught the fish, and ploughed the fields, and razed the mountains for mining. And although we’ve become more conscious in some ways I think about that extractive relationship, even our attempts at restoring the damage we’ve done, or correct the damage we’ve done, still adhere to that same paradigm of domination, right?
Like the way that we do stream restoration in most of the world is basically by taking some giant heavy machinery and using bulldozers and back loaders and front loaders to basically gouge out these new channels to say that, “Yes, we screwed this landscape up but now we know how to fix it and we’re going to make it right.”
Restoring beavers both requires and reinforces this more collaborative mind-set where we say, “You know what, actually we are not ‘as gods’. In fact, these animals know what this landscape should look like, and they’ll fix it for us if we just get out of the way and let the rodent do the work, essentially.” Through this relationship with this animal, where we’re sort of equal partners in some ways, and our job is not to dominate them but to facilitate them.
That’s the kind of challenging imaginative terrain, is getting to this point where we view beavers as our partners rather than our subject or adversaries. And that’s what Isabella Tree is talking about in her book as well, right? Viewing wild animals as partners in ecological restoration. When I think about what the beaver-filled world looks like 30 years from now, yes it looks physically different, but it also looks psychologically different in some ways in that we’ve figured out how to work with these animals rather than at cross purposes.