Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tooth and tree

“Lifting a brush, a burin, a pen, or a stylus
is like releasing a bite or lifting a claw.”
--Gary Snyder

ONE DAY a couple of weeks ago, I was walking on the path along the creek. Something unusual caught my eye through the grasses and wild saplings gathered along the bank. 

A beaver had quite recently gnawed down a tree! In fact, it had dispatched another tree, too, a stone's throw away. 

I repeat: a beaver.

I do not live in a rural area, mind. This was in the city, albeit in a semi-natural setting (to be specific, just east of where Minnehaha Creek flows out of Lake Hiawatha, on its way to Minnehaha Falls and then the Mississippi).

I reiterate: A beaver!

Did the beavers somehow travel to here up from the river? Did they swim across from Lake Minnetonka west of the city, through the Chain of Lakes?

I knelt by one of the fallen trees and examined the pattern of neat incisor marks ringing the stump, then rummaged through the fresh wood chips piled beneath. They were still damp with sap and felt almost waxy, like puddled candle that's cooled and cracked into pieces.

I was as excited as a child by this discovery. It felt like a gift. Not just to me, but to all human persons fortunate enough to encounter such a wonder on their urban walk; this particular wonder. It felt also like an honor that our domesticated, tamed-down wild spaces would be found an acceptable home by a family of beavers.

Almost like we were chosen, right? We. Were chosen. (Editorial note: Fervor: — n 1. great intensity of feeling or belief; ardor; zeal.)

The felled tree reached out into the creek. I scanned the vicinity for beavers or beaver houses. (As it turns out, they are crepuscular, only active at dawn and dusk, so they were likely napping as I admired their handiwork.)

From a website on beavers: "They cut the trees by standing on their hind legs, using their tails for balance."

I was standing on the spot where a beaver stood!

But, because I have no faith that the Park Board or the DNR, once they find out, will share my glowing excitement about a family of beavers making their home here, I was also worried about their fate. Native wildlife (and nature itself) in the U.S. is generally seen as a nuisance, a problem to be gotten rid of or fixed (or simply a thing, i.e. a "resource" to be harvested or hunted or exploited)...god knows we wouldn't want any actual wildlife bigger than a squirrel in our "natural" spaces.

(A tragically destructive, persistent and entrenched philosophy inherited from our European forbears, the history of which I am currently reading about in Kissed by a Fox--a highly recommended book I found out about via Terri Windling's wonderful Myth & Moor blog, here.)

Two separate passersby saw me worshiping at the altar of the beaver, and we all struck up a conversation. Both had worries of a different sort--that the beavers could be a problem, if they kept on chewing down trees along the creek.

"I don't mind if it chewed down a tree that was dead, but if they kill trees then that can't go on," said one. "It will build a dam, and then it will flood." (For the record, neither tree had been dead before the beaver came along.)

The other guy mentioned seeing all kinds wildlife on the Superior Hiking Trail, 250 miles to the north, but seemed fairly detached about the outcome for this wildlife--as if the beaver's days were numbered, but it couldn't be helped.

"But how amazing that we have that wildlife living here!" I said. After all, how can you beat beavers as a city amenity? Do you have beavers in your city? No, I didn't think so.

But they did not seem to share my wonder. Maybe they were keeping it inside. Or maybe they couldn't let themselves feel it, because then they'd have to feel sadness at its loss....

The thought that this is the beaver's home, too--in fact, that the beavers were here first--and that humans can find ways to coexist with other animals even in a city--just did not seem to surface. They clearly thought that a beaver's place is...somewhere else. Somewhere not here.

For my part, I am cheering on those industrious beavers. I would pay more taxes if that's what it took to get the city/state to protect wildlife rather than kill it because they find it inconvenient. I sign petitions and send emails by the dozen about issues like these. But in this case, I'm crossing my fingers that somehow, the presence of city beavers will stay off their radar.

If nervous NIMBY residents create a fuss, though, I hope the wild ones are relocated to another creek far away, one where they can be their amazing, beaver-like selves, safe from unfriendly people and appreciated by the friendly ones. So that human persons can keep coming upon beaver persons unexpectedly, and marveling at their doings, and feeling the wonder of them. I truly believe that people need that as much as the beavers do.

Beaver information on photo captions from this site.


  1. beavers! how exciting!
    and how sad regarding the disruption of the natural world and the unfortunate attitude behind it, that we somehow "own" it all and can do what we please. I've done some research into the origins of this, which I find to be both infuriating and fascinating.
    I will have to pick up "Kissed by a Fox" for "I don't mind if it killed a tree that was already dead"-- honestly! So people *can* harvest (live) wood for furniture, tools, homes, and people *can* build dams to the detriment of the natural world surrounding said dam, but a beaver mustn't be allowed to do its natural duty of surviving. As though a beaver needs our permission?! To live?
    Such strength you have, Carmine. I might've exploded.
    My prayer is the beavers remain safe, wherever they may find themselves.

    1. I was trying to say, you do realize that this is an ecosystem, not an arboretum--? Not that they were ill-intentioned...they just hadn't that connection to individual creatures that might lead them to welcome their presence, rather than see them as intruders, I guess.

  2. Thank you for sharing this experience so eloquently and with so much wonder, Carmine! I would have been down there on my hands and knees with you, worshipping too. I am known to do so with gray fox scats containing vole bones, which is not quite as charming a thing! A beaver! What a blessing, a sign of such ecosystem health. I wish we had them here still (in the Bay Area... well, there's one family, in Martinez, and the fight over whether or not to eradicate them was horrid:

    Ridiculous human people, your account here makes me so angry it's not worth writing about. : ) It makes me sad and scared to my core, actually. Anyhow, blessings on the beavers. I am sure they could sense your gratitude toward them too, and were happy that you had seen them for who they really are. xo, S

    1. I love reading about your tracking experiences and animal encounters, Sylvia. One of many reverberating insights from Kissed by a Fox: "Modern society, [Daniel Wildcat] says, needs to learn from the First People, who saw air, land, and water as relatives. 'You don't treat your relatives like resources.'" Amen.


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