MY BÊTE NOIRE IN THE MARSH
Karl S. Monroe
Beavers don't need my empathy, or even my political support. I try to stop thinking about them, but events force me in the direction of grudging admiration. One winter day—shortly after a near-record stint of almost one hundred days with recorded rainfall, I was shocked to discover that the Great Beaver Pond was drained! I thought this a major crisis, and even called one of my reporter friends to propose a story. But the next day the pond was full again, as if nothing had happened. Beavers could teach city crews a thing or two about cleaning up after a storm.
My attitude toward beavers might be less combative if it weren't for my distaste for the beaver-centric cult running amok at Juanita Bay, a small indentation on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, just across from Seattle. Well, maybe it's not really a cult. Let's call it a squishy indulgence of the gushier spirituality of its adherents. The Beaver Vigil is seasonal, starting in late spring and extending through the summer. And it's semi-nocturnal, because the beavers are most likely to begin their explorations at dusk. The park takes on a festive atmosphere then, in part because it is the end of the day and we have all either accomplished our aims or given them up. People might gather on a viewing platform, and visit while hoping to spot a beaver. These gatherings resemble a saint's fiesta in a Latin town plaza with its aura full of faith, gaiety and expectation. And the beaver, if it appears, parades through the lily pads like Our Lady of Guadalupe, accepting supplicants' pleas for intercession.
I don't like thinking of myself as snide, but this cult always evokes my nastiness. So I rarely join its vigils, which makes my beaver sightings are even rarer. When I run into the assembled cult, my evening visits usually focus on other attractions. I can be transfixed by the subtle swell of the water near shore, gentled by the mass of lily pads, illuminated by the sinking sun and glistening clouds reflected in narrow slits of open water. I am nurturing my affection for the dense, damp, decaying odor of mid-summer. It is the essence of the marsh, the full flowering of a season's madcap growth tipped just beyond its prime. I listen for the bullfrog chant and watch for the young eagle wheeling toward its perch high in a tree at the north end of the causeway. I welcome meeting one of my human marsh friends, and sometimes resent having our conversation interrupted if we come onto a platform where the beaver festival is at full throttle.
Each time I attempt to penetrate the shadows of my feelings about beavers—and think I have found an explanation—a deeper layer, deftly eluding words, always lies beneath. After awhile I began to associate a mantle of sorrow with the creature. This feeling is amorphous. It's like carrying a 60-pound beaver on my back—I can't turn quickly enough to see and identify it.
Still, this awareness begins to foster a deep sense of sadness, and a guilt that feels almost racial. I know it's part of my heritage as an American, a price that comes from thrilling at tales of the mountain men, of having forebears who traveled across the continent in a covered wagon, even from marrying the daughter of an immigrant furrier who had an entire floor in New York's garment district. I know the story of beavers, even before I start researching: It tells how the trade in beaver pelts fueled the exploration and conquest of the continent, lending pragmatic support to the idea of Manifest Destiny.
Once beavers dominated a huge chunk of this continent, their numbers estimated at 60 million. And then the extermination began. In some years, millions of pelts were taken; over the decades the annual average was more than half a million. And for what? To satisfy a sense of style. Beavers are far from extinct. But their age-old habits, which involved the capacity to take control of an ecosystem and transform it—over a term measured in centuries—have been permanently compromised. Their traditional life is portrayed in The American Beaver: A Classic of Natural History and Ecology, by Lewis H. Morgan, a book published in 1868 that retains its capacity to startle.
Morgan, who also has been known as the "father of American anthropology" for his groundbreaking work with the Iroquois tribe, wrote of beavers an area near Lake Superior that was relatively unscathed by the fur trade, treating them as if they were a culture. He dissects the building of their most complex dams and outlying structures. He pauses to remind us that beavers are mere rodents, a lower order of life, but goes on to speculate that a refined sense of architecture and engineering—indeed, intelligence—underlies these edifices, which could have been built only with the labor of numerous generations.
A taste of his observations, from page 81 in the Dover edition: "Throughout this entire area, beavers are now abundant, and for the most part undisturbed in their habitations. Their works meet the eye at almost every point on the numerous streams with which it is covered as a net-work; and they afford to the observer the additional advantage of being in a perfect condition as well as in actual use. Each dam is not only complete in itself, but there is a series of these dams, so located as not to interfere with each other, and constructed so near together that the lower one of two usually sets back in its pond quite near to that immediately above. In this manner every portion of a stream is appropriated by them for the purposes of habitation."
I have begun to believe that my effort to understand beavers has been impaired by my own sense of grief. And true to my anthropomorphological bent, my grief is as much about myself and the human state as for beavers. My friend Penelope points out that grievous as human treatment of beavers has been, it would not account for the depth of my feelings. I wasn't there. I didn't see it. Really, I've only seen beavers on film and in controlled settings. So my feelings about beavers intersect more personal issues. And it must be asked where a person like me, who has led a seemingly sheltered life and even has trouble locating Darfur on a map, presumes when claiming a sense of sorrow.
I assert my sorrow without shame. Its roots lie almost beyond words. Both my parents must have felt deep sorrow, though it went unexpressed. Without dissecting it here, just let me say that to be their child was to quail before a perpetual threat of anger, rage, depression or coldness. My parents both wanted to be admired—and they were. Yet the child who mattered most to them fell deep into depression and a prolonged mental illness with numerous suicide attempts. She accused them of heinous behavior, never substantiated. This cut them off from the grand- and great-grandchildren in whom they had invested the most. And it ushered in years of darkness that—if they didn't plunge my parents into dementia—certainly hastened its onset.
As I coped with my responsibility for my parents I increasingly sought refuge at Juanita Bay, and finally began to see how preternaturally the beavers of Juanita Bay fit into my personal myth. Serious, dark and secretive—hiding away in an unprepossessing single-family home—yes, beavers triggered the anxiety I had so deliberately squirreled away. And as I learn more about beavers, the uncanny connections proliferate. Researchers speculate that beavers are naturally diurnal creatures. Their eyes lack the evolutionary adaptations seen in other nocturnal creatures. Beavers chose the nightlife as an act of self-preservation. That's an argument made by Hope Ryden in her excellent book, Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers. (William Morrow and Co., Inc, New York, 1989, pp. 40-41, 44-45, 48-49.)
Maybe beavers are naturally cheerful. In centuries-old anecdotes, they are portrayed sunning atop their lodges. And in this, I find a disturbing personal parallel—my own tendency toward sunniness, a quality that dives for the privacy of the lodge when I see others observing me. No wonder I have not wanted to return to Juanita Bay as a beaver—it would be too much like being me in this life.
And this is not the end. I find new lessons to learn from beavers in this life. As I read on in Morgan, he speculates about the evident intelligence in the works of beavers. This makes me think anew about the Great Beaver Pond at Juanita Bay. Its dam looks rudimentary—the entire pond seems no larger than the main lodge in pictures of major beaver ponds. But wait—haven't I always known there was something more? South of the big Juanita pond there is a sense of terracing in the marsh. The stream separates—most of the water goes to the pond and over and through the dam. Another waterway slips over a spillway, crosses beneath the causeway and follows a little channel through the reeds, rejoining the main stream beyond the pond. Is this all beaver earthwork? The apparent structures are obscured by hummocks of marsh grass, so it is difficult to tell.
Morgan imagines that when beavers set out on huge projects that will take generations to complete the progenitors cannot have the entire design in mind. They start with the basics, and their successors go to the next level. He deduces this in part from watching beavers repair a dam. They do not seem to gather and confer on a plan. Instead, each beaver patrols the dam, and makes such amendments as it deems necessary. Perhaps this same capacity persists in the beavers—not to mention the park visitors—at Juanita Bay. And I want to wrap up the essay here, with human and beaver lumbering virtually hand-in-paw, spiraling upward toward a large and shared vision in which both species will become completely self-actualized.
But instead I awake at 4 a.m. with a vision of a cold, clear winter's morning at Juanita Bay. A wizened beaver morphs to the surface near the lodge, and then cautiously makes her way—with every mark of the arthritic—to the top of the structure. Rising to her hind legs, she surveys the causeway, the lake and the marsh. And she seems to heave a giant sigh. I imagine she is looking for something, and I know it must be on a closer horizon than the next Ice Age.
Ah, that sigh must have a dual purpose. It expresses satisfaction with the cold weather that has deterred the human animal from venturing into the park. But once again she sees no harbingers of an end to the reign of Homo sapiens over her realm.
With another deep sigh, she clambers back to the water, deliberates and carefully raises her broad, flat tail. She brings it crashing down to the surface, with a resounding clap. It is the matriarchal declaration: Enough is enough.
This mighty report echoes across the lake and marsh, yet soon it loses way, overpowered by the far larger roar—like a squadron of Nazi bombers—of people driving to work. As the beaver makes her way back to the lodge, how could she know? God has decreed that even the mightiest sound in the marsh goes unheard unless a human stands by to record it.
The morning paper tells us about an "aggressive" beaver that felled a large tree across a freeway ramp about four miles from Juanita Bay. Maybe a new spirit is in the air. If God won't answer their prayers, perhaps beavers can find a press agent to re-educate editors. A beaver acting in its own self interest is not being aggressive, but assertive. A good start would be booking my matriarch beaver on Oprah, if only she were still on the air.
HOW I WADED INTO JUANITA BAY: A REPORT FROM KARL S. MONROE
Juanita Bay has always been on my radar, and for more than 40 years I have lived within a couple of miles of the headwaters of the creek that feeds the marsh at the center of the nature preserve.
The marsh is more renowned for its birds than beavers. More than 120 species can be observed, counting the visitors and migrants. I myself took up residence in the park, so to speak, for a couple of years after my parents were both diagnosed with dementia. It was a refuge, a place to find myself, a retreat to puzzle out my failure to launch a big career. I would have avoided writing about beavers if I hadn't stumbled upon the brilliant 19th century work, The American Beaver: A Classic of Natural History and Ecology, by Lewis H. Morgan. How could I overlook history? And soon after that, I came across Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers, by Hope Ryden, which is destined to be celebrated as a 20th century classic. If you care about beavers, I strongly recommend both these books.
Other books fueled this project, as well.
Early on one of my literary friends brought me a copy of Still Life With Insects, by Brian Kiteley. I always knew this was a novel, but the protagonist seemed so real that I began to feel that he was a blood brother. Sometimes he kept me going when I felt discouraged. My friend brought me a well-used paperback copy, which invited me to think of it as a rare document, its thin pages barely clinging to their binding, commanding reverent treatment.
Later my wife turned up a copy of River Earth: A Personal Map, by John C. Pierce, a story of one man's love for the rivers of the Northwest. It is a beautifully written book.
My passion for the geology of Washington State was ignited by Glaciation of the Puget Sound Region, by J. Harlan Bretz. Published in 1913, it was a state report. It is out of print, but has been digitalized by Google. There's a single copy in the King Country Library System. I check it out every now and then to read favorite passages and breathe the musty odor of its ancient pages. Certain kinds of readers would have to read a book like this.
If you would like to read another essay from my collection, email me [here], and I will send you "Welcome to Beaverville." It deals less with beavers than the problems encountered in trying to recall a memory from the future, but maybe you'd like it.