It was a sodden, soggy America that was encountered by the first European explorers and naturalists. In his oft-quoted and page-turning compendium “The Eyes of Discovery: the pageant of North America as seen by the first explorers”, John Bakeless describes an endless spectacle of wet land coast to coast, a land so sodden in places that it quaked and trembled and white explorers had to be shown by their native guides how to walk on all fours, like frogs, to traverse the tremulous earth.
Through the valleys of California, Oregon and Washington, down the east coast from Maine to Florida, through the Great Lakes, across Texas and the Mid-West, into the watersheds of the Rockies and Sierras, white colonists described a more than significant part of the country as perpetually, or annually drowned, a mosaic of damp bottom land, flooded and swamp forests, marshes, muskeg, wet grass meadows, “trembling” prairies and prairie potholes, peatlands, kettles, swamps, swales, sloughs, bayous, bogs, potholes, deltas, floodplains, oxbows and meandering, multi-channeled rivers.
The soaked land was seen as an impediment to settlement and travel, to be engineered away, and until it was, it was the engine that anchored the astonishing plant and animal life those first white-eyes also recorded. Wet landscapes give us the most fabulously rich and productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs (both of which have been described as wetlands!), and host to every kingdom of life. The first Euroamericans saw life in stupefying quantity - passenger pigeons gathered in night-time roosts covering more than 750 football fields (1,000 plus acres), buffalo herds covering 1,200 square miles (most US townships cover 36 square miles), salmon runs so thick that rivers changed colors, and watercourses from both coasts to Rockies choked with beavers and their dams.
Those first naturalists, white settlers and Bakeless never asked the question “why” was America wet, and if the richness was related, assuming like most (I guess) that this was the way that God had made it. But join me in a thought experiment and draw the connection that Bakeless almost made. He noted (in discussing the Mid-West) that “the low, wet land exactly suited the beaver”, presuming wet America first, and beavers second. But what if it was the other way around? What if America was wet not because of some lucky post-ice age confluence of geology, climate and weather but because beavers had made it so? That’s right – what if it was beavers that engineered a continent-wide hydrological system the likes of which we can hardly fathom (after all it has effectively taken us 3 centuries to dismantle and drain what the beavers built).
Let’s continue with the experiment. Is it truly possible for beavers to have engineered the continent’s hydrology, and consequently given us ecosystems at the scale and density of my musings? And why not?
Beaver ancestors date back over 20 million years, with millions of modern beaver having covered the North American continent from Northern Mexico to the tundra, from coast to coast including deltas, estuaries and inter-tidal zones (yes, brackish and salt water), and into the Rockies and High Sierras, for close to 10 million years. Arguably enough time, coevolution and geographic coverage, to engineer the continent-wide hydrology in the oral and written record of Homo sapiens, and enough time to for us to say that the great American damp had always been so, and was a permanent state of the nation.
Distribute these 65 lb hydrologists widely enough and they are certainly competent enough to engineer a durable shift in much of our continent’s water table - we can have some fun around the campfire with a touch of (someone else’s) math. Modern techniques allow us to estimate the impact of beaver handiwork in the places where they were active - everywhere in North America except tundra, peninsular Florida and the Great Basin desert of southern Nevada and southern California. Ben Goldfarb, author of “Eager: the surprising, secret life of beavers and why they matter,” posits 50-250 million beaver dams likely inundated acreage of some 234,000 square miles across all the states in America. And for every gallon of water held back and visible above ground, five were held in the ground. A veritable swamp. Pierre Radisson, our frog-walking 1600’s explorer came across beaver dams with pools behind the dams covering twenty leagues (60 miles): it would have warmed his heart to find this half-mile long dam (yes over 3,000 feet), recently discovered by a researcher using Google Earth. (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/worlds-largest-beaver-dam)
So between us folk around the camp fire, this is my case. America was born wet and soggy-bottomed. After the glaciers retreated for the last time, additional continent-wide beaver engineering followed, supporting tremendous food chains of grasses and trees, birds and mammals, insects and fish (did you know 80 different species of fish have been recorded in beaver ponds, and that beaver ponds anchor critical habitat for salmon?). For what it’s worth I reckon pre-Anthropocene America must have been a planetary natural wonder to take its place alongside other “wetlands” such as the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef.
But what should we do with this knowledge? The conservationist in all of us wants to see rich, whole ecosystems. If we want water or bird life, elk or salmon, we should cue the beaver. Reintroduction of beavers could naturally restore habitat. As a force multiplier - beaver weight (pounds) to biomass production (tons) – we have an efficient engine that far exceeds any efforts humans could produce. Beaver-created systems are also tremendous carbon sinks, exactly what we need in a greenhouse-gassed world. And if beavers heal watersheds that restore salmon that feed orcas, then I’d argue that the effects of our hydrologist spreads from small ponds to large. I know we won’t be able to bring back the scale of life we once had, but in those lands we care to protect, and for a planet we’d prefer not to cook, let’s bring back real richness, and re-soak the land. It might just be the time to hand the keys to an engineer with 10 million years of experience.
READING (all accessed November 2020)
The Beaver State, one or two beaver creation stories, and don’t forget to look for the Beaver Moon (November full moon signifies when the beavers start to lodge for winter), and the beaver/beaver name related constellations start to appear in the sky- https://www.dibaajimowin.com/myths/the-beavers-fur-teeth
Pre-farming and pre-ranching landscape- John Bakeless. The Eyes of Discovery: the pageant of North America as seen by the first explorers. Philadelphia, PA. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1950. The book that started me thinking about wet landscapes, some 30 years ago.
Everything you wanted to know about beavers, but were afraid to ask- Ben Goldfarb. Eager: the surprising, secret life of beavers and why they matter. White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018. This spectacular book was recommended to me by a friend at the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). I read it this month – I wish I had read it years ago, and before I had written most of this essay - and commend 2 chapters in particular. “Dislodged” paints the best picture I have read on how water must have worked , and how wet and green America must once have been. The chapter is also the best description I have read on beaver as the ultimate keystone species. I had long harbored the thought that beaver were essential to salmon. “Realm of the Dammed” makes the case beautifully! Watch out friends, I’m giving copies of this book for Christmas!
Beavers in tidal marshes- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13157-012-0294-8 and https://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=19-P13-00008&segmentID=6
Tulalip tribes restoring salmon using beaver- https://nr.tulaliptribes.com/Programs/Wildlife/Beaver
World’s largest beaver dam- https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/worlds-largest-beaver-dam
Once there were a lot of fish in the Columbia River, and flooded forests- https://www.tribepilot.com/post/swimming-through-the-forest
My favorite organization- Thanks to the Oregon Natural Desert Association, ONDA, for introducing me to beaver dam analogs (BDAs), allowing me to help build a few in the John Day watershed, and introducing me first-hand to the criticality of beaver in the ecosystem. https://onda.org/our-approach/restore/#riparianrestoration I’m donating time and dollars – will you?
A great compendium of FAQs about beavers. Pollock, M.M., G. Lewallen, K. Woodruff, C.E. Jordan and J.M. Castro (Editors) 2015. The Beaver Restoration Guidebook: working with beaver to restore streams, wetlands, and floodplains. Version 1.0. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, Oregon. 189 pp. Online at: http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/ToolsForLandowners/RiverScience/Beaver.asp