“I want you to imagine a landscape with its full complement of beavers.”
-Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. I might be biased, as Ben’s a friend, but Eager has me reading more playfully, more intently, and more–I’m sorry–eagerly than anything else in a long time.
It turns out beavers used to swim and build and look adorable all over North America, and it turns out they have a habit of changing things. The mountain streams I love, the ones I grew up with, are streams that have lost their beavers. They’re streams with clear, fasting moving water, and narrow beds cut down into the ground. As a boy, I stuck my feet in those streams, I swam in them, and bit by bit I decided that’s how mountain streams should be. I thought the clearness was cleanness.
If I could walk those same streams, back before the beavers were killed off for their pelts, I wouldn’t walk a laughing little ribbon. I’d wade and slip and stumble through a “sluggish, murky swamp, backed up several acres by a messy concatenation of woody dams.” Imagined Me doesn’t like the sound of that: it sounds messy, yucky, and it would certainly be hard. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten covered in muck and thought, “Oh, good.” (Which, come to think of it, is a problem, and something I should remedy). My favorite swimming holes–the ones I would tell you about, if you were looking–all have nice, clean sand bottoms, and bare rocks to sun on.
Then again, even as a boy, something bothered me about the High Sierra mountains. I could listen to the water, but not much else. I could wander across meadows to the thin stream, but even if I was lucky, the only other creature I’d find wandering was a marmot. (Or my dad, who’d call me a varmint, but that’s another matter). Ben writes, “In the intermountain West, wetlands, though they make up just 2 percent of total land area, support 80 percent of biodiversity.” There were other critters here. They miss their trees, their grasses, their places to live; they miss their year-round water. They miss their beavers. We miss them, too. I want to go on and on about all the ways beavers could help us–recharging groundwater, preventing floods, lessening damage from forest fires, and probably all sorts of other things I don’t even know yet–but Ben already did that. You should read his book.
My post, I think, is more about how Ben pushed me to reexamine one of my “shoulds.” We all have a lot of “shoulds”–conversations should sound this way, a bed should (or shouldn’t–it’s going to get messy again, right?) be made every morning, a work day should be this long, a stream should have clear water. It doesn’t always have to happen, but it should. Lots of these shoulds are buried deep, and lots of them are so quiet, so “obvious,” that it’s hard to see them. Some are useful, and help guide you; but if you’re me, then some of your shoulds are just plain wrong, and you need a Ben Goldfarb to come tell you about beavers and swamps.
Also, I need to go get covered in muck and think, “Oh, good.” I bet Ben would come along for that, too.