Even their fans will have to admit that beavers aren't exactly the most charismatic of critters. They aren't inquisitive or adaptable, like raccoons. They aren't chatty and quarrelsome, like squirrels. They aren't patient and friendly, like porcupines. They aren't tolerant and affectionate, like skunks. And they aren't awe-inspiringly terrifying, like bears.
They're the world's second-largest rodent – second to the capybara (although they don't share the capybara's benign serenity) – and they have an enormous world-wide range. Their round bodies and flat naked tails make them appealing to children, but usually only until the children get to know them, at which point the appeal quickly wears thin. Beavers are all business; they are about their business from about the age of four weeks old. They have no elaborate courtship rituals. They don't come nosing around your campsite out of random curiosity. When they encounter a human in the wild, the loud tail-slap they make on the water's surface isn't so much “Run and hide!” as it is “Dammit, will you stop interrupting me?”
It isn't much to inspire deep-seated affection, but there are exceptions to every rule, and environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb is perhaps the world's foremost exception when it comes to beavers. His entirely captivating new book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why It Matters, is surely the most passionate, most detailed, and most readable love-note these dour furry little workaholics will ever get.
The subject of all this enthusiasm is Castor canadensis, the North American beaver, which managed to survive extermination-level hunting for decades during the American beaver-fur craze and has now rebounded considerably, probably to the range of roughly 15 million in the United States alone.
Although Goldfarb cautions against excessive optimism when it comes to beaver conservation, the animals have enjoyed not only a rebound in numbers but a change in widespread attitude among some segments of the population regarding animals that have for so long been considered troublesome vermin.
“I'm always looking for ways to keep water here, and beavers do it for free,” James Rogers of Winecup Gamble Ranch in Nevada tells Goldfarb, “They don't do it perfectly, but who am I to think I can do it better?” To put it mildly, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a rancher who'd have said such a thing back in 1868 when Lewis Henry Morgan wrote his "The American Beaver and His Works."
This change in attitude goes hand-in-webbed-paw with an increased awareness of the corrosive environmental effects produced by, among other things, industrial farming and ranching. As Roger Caras wrote over 40 years ago, beavers are nature's prototypical engineers. They encounter a river, stream, or drainage basin of some kind and immediately set to work: They clear some nearby foliage, they dam moving water in order to create ponds and side channels, and they often set up sturdy and ornate headquarters from which they can oversee constant maintenance on their projects (really big dams are often generational endeavors).
Not all beavers are fanatical builders – as Goldfarb points out, for instance, a 1980 Russian study showed that a quarter of the beavers studied “were content to live inconspicuously in bank burrows.” But when beavers go into full engineering mode, they dramatically alter the entire shape of their environment – for the better. “We're not smart enough to know what a fully functional ecosystem looks like,” Methow Beaver Project spearhead Kent Woodruff tells Goldfarb. “But beavers are.”
Goldfarb talks to many people – ranchers, environmentalist, conservationists – whose lives involve them with beavers, and he meets plenty of beavers himself, in all moods and weathers. He relates the intricacies of their natural history with enormous, happy energy – this is the ultimate start-here book for anybody interested in beavers – and he makes the strongest case yet for the extensive benefits beavers provide for their wider surroundings, far more extensive benefits than are typically attributed to these anti-social little brutes.
And through it all, Goldfarb maintains a level of fandom that's downright charming. "Eager" is a fascinating snapshot of the beaver's current conservational moment, and it's a thought-provoking exploration of the benefits beavers bring to the land.
But it's also very much a protracted love-letter to Castor canadensis. “Just as irradiated, elephant-sized cockroaches will someday scuttle through the ruins of downtown Los Angeles, so are we living in the world that beavers created,” Goldfarb writes, in the full swing of his spiel. “Christening a new era probably won't win me any friends among geologists, who can't even agree on when the Anthropocene began, but what the heck: Welcome to the Castrocene.”
The Castrocene! Ah, true love ...