I recently read a book-length ode to the beaver, and as is typical with such works I was in some passages caught up in the author’s adoration and in others a bit fatigued by his fandom.
Mostly it was the former.
This isn’t just a book-length account, but an actual book.
And a fine one.
Indeed I don’t recall enjoying more any book about wildlife biology and natural history that I’ve come across in the past few years.
The author is Ben Goldfarb and the title of his book, published in 2018, is “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.”
Goldbarb traveled widely, although mainly west of the Rockies, to meet a variety of people — cattle ranchers, wildlife biologists and college professors among them — who share an interest in the ability of beavers, with their trademark dams and resulting ponds, to restore streams degraded during decades when beavers were absent but grazing, both by livestock and by wild animals such as elk, was rampant.
He describes these aficionados of the dentally endowed rodents as Beaver Believers, and this they certainly are.
Among those Goldfarb interviewed is Suzanne Fouty of Baker City. Fouty, a retired hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service, touted not only the rejuvenative effects of beavers but also of wolves.
Goldfarb writes at length about studies showing that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990s — the carnivores have, of course, since spread into Oregon — helped willows and other streamside trees proliferate by keeping elk skittish enough that they don’t congregate in those lush riparian zones and gobble the fledgling trees.
It’s a story that has received considerable publicity.
Goldfarb himself notes how familiar he is with the idea that wolves have been a savior for Yellowstone’s long-suffering streams.
Yet he quotes a biologist who contends the only problem with this ubiquitous narrative is a simple but considerable one.
“It’s not true,” the biologist says.
Goldfarb isn’t comfortable with such a unequivocal statement, however.
He writes about other studies that have produced evidence that the problem in Yellowstone is not so much the absence of wolves but of beavers — that the former alone can’t transform ailing streams to healthy ones without the aid of tail-flapping furbearers.
(Which is not to say that wolves and beavers are cooperators; indeed, Goldfarb notes that wolves value beavers not for their engineering skill but for the flavor of their meat.)
In extolling the virtues of beavers, Fouty told Goldfarb many of the same things she told me when I interviewed her for a story late in 2011.
Fouty, who was working for the Forest Service then, outlined a project intended to reintroduce beavers to the North Fork of the Burnt River and a few of its tributaries.
The basic idea is straightforward, and the results, borne out by thousands of examples as Goldfarb points out, are irrefutable.
Beavers, if allowed to construct their dams, can ease, if not altogether eliminate, the boom-bust cycle of spring flood and summer drought so common to streams in Eastern Oregon and across much of the arid inland West.
Besides their potential to keep smaller streams from going dry — obviously a benefit for fish and other aquatic species but also potentially a boon for downstream farmers and ranchers — beavers’ constructions can also contribute to higher water tables and to lower water temperatures.
It doesn’t seem to me an exaggeration to describe beavers’ capabilities as miraculous.
And yet, by the time I reached the halfway point of Goldfarb’s book I became just slightly annoyed.
Not enough to stop reading, to be sure — the story was compelling, and Goldfarb’s prose a pleasure, from start to finish.
But his constant extolling of the beaver’s virtues began to strike me as a bit of overselling. The thesis was just too pat — that the slaughter of America’s beavers in the 18th and 19th centuries, though absolutely lamentable, transformed idyllic places into wastelands, and that merely restoring their populations can cure so much of what ails our parched and eroded lands.
I don’t mean to suggest that Goldfarb ignores the potentially problematic effects of beavers — the flooded fields and clogged culverts and submerged paths.
But it seemed to me that the author’s confidence that relatively simple, if not always cheap, solutions exist for every beaver-caused problem minimizes the reality that the world into which he — and I — hope beavers will once again thrive is quite a different place than it was when fur companies were decimating the populations.
I understand that some people think of that bygone era as not only different but better. Yet even if you consider as scars the roads and cultivated fields and homes and parking lots that replaced beaver ponds, it is not realistic to act as though these things are unimportant.
While reading Goldfarb’s enthusiastic endorsements of the beaver’s varied abilities to rectify the mess humans have made of things I was reminded of the rapturous way proponents talk or write about whatever it is that they are passionate about.
There is of course nothing wrong with passion. Indeed it is often an admirable quality, one that encourages so many of us to do good work in the world.
But I am ever suspicious of the mixture of hyperbole and simplicity that sometimes accompanies passion. Which is to say I’m skeptical of anyone who boasts of all but universal solutions to vexing and complex problems — which, after all, is what very many problems are.
To cite but two examples, I think it is beyond dispute that marijuana has valuable medicinal properties and should be easily available to people who benefit from it, and I feel that government agencies should strive to reduce the danger of wildfire through the combination of cutting trees in overcrowded forests and lighting prescribed fires.
But I don’t believe either is a perfect panacea.
Marijuana is no more a miracle cure for everything from chronic pain to cancer than logging is the solution to wildfire danger exacerbated by climate change.
Goldfarb’s book, to be clear, is nothing like the exaggerated claims about pot, logging and a host of other topics you can scarcely avoid if you venture into the maze of information (and misinformation) that exists online.
And although I both appreciate and largely share his excitement about what beavers can do for mankind, I believe I would have enjoyed his book even a bit more if was a trifle less breathless in its affinity for the wondrous rodents.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.