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Waiting With Beaver

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Waiting with beaver is not exactly like leaving it to beaver, but pretty close.  From the human perspective the beaver is the most industrious of our mammalian relatives.  Beaver, we like to say, are nature’s little engineers.  We appreciate their knack for building things.  They are always busy, we think, and without doubt they are capable of prodigious effort when necessary.

Some years ago I returned from a three day trip into the hills to find that a fifteen foot long section of a large beaver dam above my house had broken loose, and swung open like a door.  The dam was four feet high, and the opening that suddenly appeared when it was breached allowed the pond behind it to drain within minutes.  The resultant flood left its imprint for several hundred yards below the pond.  I was sorry I missed it.  It must have been a sight to see.

IMGP0022It was impossible to tell what the beaver had been doing when all of this happened.  Maybe they had been snuggly ensconced in their lodge where they remained, perhaps puzzled and dumbfounded as the water poured out of the pond.  They would have been like people who ride out small earthquakes in their homes, wondering what the hell is going on as the floor ripples underfoot and dishes begin to rattle.  It’s possible, too, that they had been out swimming around, and I had visions of them hanging for dear life onto trees and bushes as the torrent swept past.

What if one of them had just dropped a big aspen into the pond when the dam flopped open, I wondered.  “Goddam,” he might have thought, “Look at what I just did.  Boy, is Dad gonna be mad.”  I envisioned Dad limping back upstream covered with mud and twigs, little wisps of smoke curling from his ears.  Then again, maybe the whole bunch of them went downstream like kayakers on a summer day, enjoying the thrill of life lived on the edge.  “Dude, was the outrageous, or whaaattt?”

There is a series of five dams and ponds stretching along a couple of hundred yards of the creek that runs behind my home.  Assuming that no beaver had been killed in the initial surge of water, the loss of one pond would not bother them much, I thought.  I wondered if they would bother to rebuild the upper pond at all.  They did, but it took them a little over two weeks to complete the task.  How much faster the reconstruction might have been accomplished if they had not had the luxury of the four remaining ponds, I do not know.

I have seen them repair what seemed to me rather substantial damage in one or two nights, yet I have never seen them in a hurry.  Despite their inclination to smack their tails and dive whenever they sense potential danger they never seem to remain excited for long.  Frequently they will dive in a flurry only to resurface fifteen seconds later, and continue to swim serenely about as if no danger had ever existed.  Their vision, at least above water, is not acute, and they rely primarily on the senses of smell and sound.  Yet even these highly developed faculties of perception seem frequently to ruled by a kind of placidity that is beyond the bounds of my imagination.  A beaver is nothing if not calm.  They appear to spend most of their time hanging around, and waiting.  For what, I have never discovered.

Over the years, I have spent countless hours watching beaver, and observing the results of their endeavors.  It is much easier to see the outcome of their efforts than it is to watch them in action.  Except for an hour or so at dawn or dusk they do the bulk of whatever it is they do in the dark.  It is far easier to figure out what they have up to by observing what they have left behind.  They are cooperative about this, too.  They leave one hell of mess, and they never clean up.

Humans admire the beaver for its industry, but the two species have more in common than their predisposition for certain types of work.  Both are messy.  Nature field guides usually include a section for each individual species entitled SIGN”.  These features provide hints about how to know when certain critters have been around by noticing certain signs like tracks or scat.  This seems superfluous when dealing with either beaver or humans.  Just look for the mess.  You’ll know they’ve been around.  Be careful not to trip on something they’ve left behind.

For me, watching beaver is a pretty useless thing to do.  They do the same things over and over.  Sometimes they just swim around.  They dive only to reappear, and swim around some more.  They might chew on some willow bark, or cut down a small aspen, lug it into the water, and take it their lodge.  Too, they might simply leave it floating in the middle of the pond.  They might come back to chew on it a bit, but it may remain floating in the pond for days.  They will pick up a stick that has been lying in the mud for a week, swim with it to the dam, and push it into a hole somewhere.  Or they may just leave it drifting about at the edge of the dam.

Frequently during the summer they wander along the bank grazing on green grass and forbs.  Often they will crawl over a dam, wander down to another pond, and proceed to do the same things there they had been doing in the pond they just left.  At times they make soft mewing sounds among themselves, but mostly they are quiet, sometimes feeding together in a group, but most often wandering about by themselves.  Wandering about seems to be what they do best.  They seem always to be waiting for something to happen, but it rarely does.  When a dam gives way it must seem to a beaver a marvelous occurrence.  Aha, they say, something to do.

Watching any wild animal is apt to be unproductive for any number of reasons, and no matter how dedicated one may be the simple fact remains that it is impossible to tell what any animal might be doing when humans are not watching.  Maybe Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy has something to do with this.  That principle, which has to do with physical properties, says essentially that you cannot know both a particle’s velocity and position.  You can figure out the velocity, but then the position is blurred.  When you determine the position the velocity appears skewed.  The very act of observing seems distort the observations.

Maybe that is what’s going on when I watch the beaver.  Watching them makes them behave differently.  They never seem to be acting oddly, but then I don’t know what they act like when I am not around.  Are they just messing with me?  Do they say to themselves, “He’ll be gone by dark, so just hang and be cool.  We’ll go to work when he leaves.”?  That doesn’t seem likely, but I can’t be sure.  Though I have tried to teach myself not to make judgements about what I see in the wild, it is impossible not to do so.  Other animals are as we see them.  If we think they are cute, then cute they are.  If, like the moose, they appear ugly and ungainly from our point of view, then so they.  A beaver, we think, is busy, but it doesn’t look like it to me.

There is no way to tell precisely what a beaver is up to.  A beaver is always, it seems to me, up to exactly what it is doing at the moment.  To me it seems that they spend a lot time waiting.  Beavers keep busy, but not necessarily in the way humans may think they keep busy.

There is little in their behavior that appears to be frantic.  If a hole appears in a dam they fix it, but in their own good time.  They plug away at it, and eventually the work is completed.  While the work is in progress they continue with all of the activities that consume them when there is not a project to be completed.  They are, it looks like, just as busy as they need to be, and no more.

Perhaps, like humans, beaver are seething cauldrons of emotion.  If so, they do not let it show.  I have never seen them do a single thing that reminded me much of my own species.  Any group of men would have consumed more time in a series of meetings about how to fix the broken dam above my house than the beaver took to do it.  To me, it looks like the beaver has got religion.  They seemed blessed with a kind of grace for which I can only yearn.  In the meantime, when I wait with beaver I leave it to beaver.

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