Many years ago when I taught high school in Snow Lake, Manitoba, I was invited to go dip-fishing for whitefish. We travelled by boat to the mouth of a creek, hiked up along the creek until we reached a beaver dam. We lined up along the top of the dam, played our flashlights over the water and tried to dip fish from the base of the beaver dam. That was the closest I ever got to Castor Canadensis, the Canadian beaver. The images of that evening came flooding back as I read a book called Once They Were Hats, a book exploring and explaining the past and current role of beaver, their tree cutting, their dam building and their saving of our land.
I’d seen notices of Frances Backhouse’s latest book subtitled “In search of the Mighty Beaver”. When I had a chance to attend a reading and Question and Answer period put on by The Professional Writers of Canada and hosted by Rosemary Neering, I immediately marked it down as a must-go-to evening. Fran started the evening by reading selections from the book and telling us about how it came about.
She’d wanted to write a book about animals but a publisher had said no, that is too broad. You need to focus on one animal. She really likes woodpeckers so she thought she’d do a book about woodpeckers but the truth be told, there isn’t a lot important Canadian history to go with woodpeckers. She settled, wisely, on the life and history of the beaver.
That, it turns out, was the easy part. It took her six years to research and write the book. Part of the drag was created by the fact that she was writing the book as a thesis for her MFA degree in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. Those members of the audience who had experience with doing research associated with a university rolled their eyes in sympathy. However, that wasn’t the only anchor. The other was that the beaver and native history and folklore are inextricably intertwined. That meant a lot of permission forms being filled out before material could be collected and used. Like the industrious beaver, Fran kept at the task until, at last, she had written a book that I enjoyed immensely.
I may be biased, of course. I’ve known Fran for a long time but, more importantly, many decades ago, a book that had a tremendous impact on me was Ring of Bright Water. It was about the adopting and living with two otters. I am, I admit, a sucker for books about animals.
Fran said in her comments that her classmates, when she first presented the material she was writing in a good, objective, journalistic manner, told her that she should forget about the objective manner and tell the story in the first person. They were right. The first person gives a personal, casual touch to a narrative that could be distant and dry.
Her opening sentence in the introduction says “The beaver has a major image problem. A chubby rodent with goofy buckteeth and a tail that looks like it was run over by a tractor tire”. We learn that in 1851, our first postage stamp was the Three-Pence Beaver. That didn’t stop Senator Nicole Eaton calling the beaver “a dentally defective rat”. That may be because they were chomping on the dock at her summer cottage.
Fran tells about her travels across North America searching out beaver and beaver experts but also tells us about Jacques Cartier stopping :at an Iroquoian town called Hochelaga” which may mean “beaver path”. In Ancient Antecedents we learn about beaver the size of bears and get to meet Natalia Rybcyznski at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s research collection. Yes, there are people who spend their lives learning about beaver and their impact on our planet.
There are the native legends including the one of the beaver that can be killed and eaten but is constantly resurrected and we hear of Ida Calmegane’s Tlingit songs. And, of course, no book on the beaver would be complete without a chapter on Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (Grey Owl). Fran describes her hike in to visit his cabin. She then tells us that it wasn’t just Grey Owl who domesticated beaver. They enjoy, it would seem, lying in front of the fireplace as much as any dog.
Of course, we have to get to hats because it is hats that nearly drove the beaver to extinction. Beaver pelts were so valuable for making hats that pelts were treated as money. As part of understanding how beaver pelts provide the materials for felts to make hats, we get to visit Smithbilt and get to see how those fancy hats are made. However, at the end of that chapter, we follow Fran out of the store without a 20X beaver hat because it costs 895.0.00 dollars.
There are still a lot of chapters to go that are filled with surprising facts such as discovering, along with Fran, that there are beaver who live on the salt flats, beaver that build dams of stone when there is no wood available, beaver that travel great distances over land to find suitable streams and ponds. We meet fascinating people, trappers, traders, scientists, and pest removers (not all people think beaver are great guests).
With climate change drying out parts of North America, with water running off too quickly, beaver are now being recognized as a natural way to keep water in the ground. They’re thought of as eco-system engineers. There were between 60 and 400 million beaver in North America before people started killing them to make hats. There were “At least 25 million dams.” Belatedly, it is being recognized that they were a major part of creating a sustainable environment.
I said to Fran that over the years beaver have re-established themselves in a local creek outside of my hometown. There are aspen trees and willow for dam building and food. There’s water. And maybe, just maybe, we’ve grown up enough as a society that we don’t have to kill everything in order to make a few dollars.