Animals Among Animals: a lesson from beavers

Samuel Crosby reflects on his research and writing process behind The Sight of a Beaver, his contribution to 26 Wild: The Story’s Not Over.

Rolling hills and ugly truths

A friend of mine hates the British countryside for its modern veneer; repeating patterns of manicured farmland.

“It’s ugly, this used to be wild,” he says.

I love him to bits — we’ve ranged miles together through the years — but how can anyone deny the beauty of England’s green and pleasant land? It stands up against any landscape, that includes his impassioned account of the forest and megafauna that came before.

“But,” he argues, “Where’s the diversity?”

When it comes to nature, diversity is important: the more species and contrast and colour the better. Somehow, on a primal level we all know that. But do we know why?

That was the question on my mind embarking on a research trail to write a 26 Wild Centena, a 100-word poem starting and ending with the same three words, for 26 Writers and The Wildlife Trusts. Each writer was assigned an endangered or recovering creature – for me it was Castor Fiber, the Eurasian beaver.

Once native to the UK, they were totally driven out by our penchant for fur (you can read more in the essay that accompanied my poem here). Thanks to the efforts of an enlightened few, they’re slowly being reintroduced to our shores.

The status of beavers

A recurring theme in my research was the language of status. Anthropocentricity and categorisation; beavers as a resource for humanity. As if making the point, Google deigned to summarise this endlessly interesting, industrious creature with: ‘Not extinct’, in which there hides an implied ‘yet’. Not as lucky as cats and dogs. Better off than the dodo and the western black rhino.

In poetry, my purpose with words is not to convey facts – there are fantastic academic papers for that, I read many of them on this journey – but to cast light. Ignite feeling. So, instead of attempting to translate the language of status, I sought to get closer to the animal itself.

The Cornwall Beaver Project, one of a handful of projects in the UK, was closed to visitors thanks to Covid-19. But on hearing about 26 Wild, Chris Jones the landowner and custodian of the project agreed to meet.

The Cornish home of beavers

The sun was shining, had been for days. Driving cross-country to Woodland Valley Farm in Ladock, I can’t help grinning at the kestrels, chittering crickets and patchwork yellow and green fields flashing by. Diversity or no, it’s beautiful.

I arrive and we’re off. Chris takes a moment to choose a walking stick from the bundle leaning by his front door. He stops to listen for bird calls. Cups wildflowers, hits thistles with his stick, greets the dogs bounding from a gap in the hedge, sniffing at our hands, disappearing again. We never make it more than a few steps at a time, and I know I’m in the right place, with the right man. Here’s the language of beauty, of appreciation for the world we live in.

As we get closer to the beaver site, Chris comes alive, tuned-in to the site. A newly gnawed tree, a freshly trodden track. The space, as he describes it, is made new by the presence of beavers. Where there were fickle waterways – floods in one season, drought in another – a steady flow runs from the dammed pond, edges flushed with green.

In the midst of the unmistakable awe and urgent chatter of a naturalist, Chris fielding every question I can pitch, we stumble into numbers and cost vs benefit. And when it comes to the restoration of beavers in our country, he’s not just a supporter, he’s a diplomat.

“When we’re talking to the government you’ve got to be showing there’s real value to having these things.” There’s that language of status again. Humans at the centre of the debate, not on equal footing with the natural world. I ask Chris what kind of value beavers can bring and he lights up again.

The eco-engineer

The beaver is an opportunity maker. A keystone species. An architect. An ecosystem engineer.

we call her ecosystem engineer for
land thriving in her blueprints 
life teeming in her pawprints

They’re extremely powerful swimmers kitted out with self-sharpening, iron-enamel teeth – which accounts for the orange tint – claws and a strong tail, but they’re awkward on land. Very simply, a beaver’s best defence is a lodge: a construction of branches surrounded by water. To create the best conditions, they dam rivers and streams that make areas of deep water, protecting themselves from wolves and other land-predators.

This has huge impacts on the surrounding land. The controlled flow of water, like a battery charging up, stores the energy, minimalises flooding and negates periods of drought, creating a reliable environment for fish, birds, life to flourish. For Ladock, the often-flooded village downstream of the Cornwall Beaver Project, these local beavers symbolise hope.

Chris points out huge, impressive dams. Felled trees, gnawed stumps. Acres, once impassable gorse, now clear and vibrant forestland. And, he says, the whole habitat has been restored more cheaply and with less environmental impact than any human equivalent. They fuel up on ferns and there’s no carbon footprint to speak of. And, perhaps most profound, the beaver tends towards diligence, not expedience. This squat, surreptitious rodent opts for better, longer lasting work, not money saved. Amidst talk of human centric value, that seems rich.

I ask Chris about diversity. Why is it so important? Are there downsides? It’s the only question he chooses not to answer. He beckons me to the water’s edge. There are ripples rolling out across the wide pond, a bow wave. Silently, gracefully, leisurely, a beaver cruises into view.

a tomorrow glow
and with moisture-beaded fur
algae between her toes
she invites us to follow

Edging closer, camera at the ready, I crack a stick underfoot with almost comical loudness. The beaver dives for safety. My cheeks burn red and I’m suddenly aware of my own body. The human animal. Absurd images flash through my mind of my primal ancestors teaching me how to survive in the wild, building with soft, domesticated fingers, foraging without a debit card. How disconnected from this world have we really become? 

I come back to the moment. Share the silence with the trees and the mayflies, the flapping fish and the ferns. I think of my friend who calls farmland ugly. He’d like it here.

Why is diversity important?

As we leave, Chris matter-of-factly celebrates the diversity of the site again. I take another stab at my question and he gives me the look of a disappointed tutor, thinks it’s a strange line of enquiry, points at a circling cloud of insects.

“That’s a food source for something,” he says.

Where there’s diversity, life abounds. Flourishing ecosystems and nature in its truest form, where even the buzzing flies are a crucial part of in their own, frenetic way. What more can there be to discuss?

Dr Stephen Green, from the Centre for Applied Zoology at Cornwall College, talked to me about interconnectedness. From the standpoint of a naturalist, there’s no such thing on the planet that isn’t connected to something else. An ecosystem-web spanning the known world.  And keystone species’, like the beaver, have inordinate impacts on those around them. Diversity, he says, is effectively a way to insure against all situations. If one species fell and there were no others filling that role, it could mean the collapse of the entire web. 

He summarised by saying that all life on earth is effectively a process from sunlight onwards. I’m reminded of my visit to the beavers with Chris, who said that there was one critical part of their impact. The deeper, but importantly, slower water created by beaver activity, lets algae take hold. Capturing sunlight and delivering it into the ecosystem.

The foundation of life aquatic.

“This lack of diversity”, Dr Green says, “Therefore less steady ecosystems and the natural defences that go along with that, could be changed for the better by beavers.”

Our place in it all

In a country designed for farming at scale, diversity is lessened over time and could, ultimately, become completely irretrievable.

And there is the answer to my question.

In lieu of diversity, there is destruction.

There could come a time when collapsing ecosystems and lack of diversity will be immune to our efforts. A struggle that no longer responds to money. Maybe on an alien database somewhere out in the cosmos we’ve already been given our own status: ‘Not (yet) extinct’.

“Ecosystems would eventually fight back,” Dr Green tells me, “As life has throughout time, but that doesn’t account for the huge, wrenching change to our world and life as we know it.”

And suddenly, I’m back with my ancestral teachers again. Weighing this fight not only on cost/benefit or out of a sense of responsibility, but for our fellow creatures. Animals, as we are, among animals.

shake off our numbers and acrid industry
dip our noses in the dew
bear to be fossils
not monuments to ourselves
leave the world behind
graves and dust
the only giveaway

It’s impossible not to see the many facets of beaver life as benefits and improvements to human life. From flood and drought protection to the land they clear, diligently working day-after-day with no upkeep. (As a surfer, I was lost to hours of reading when I found a paper comparing wetsuit technology and beaver fur.)

But there’s value in seeing them for what they are, not just change-makers and custodians of diversity, but diversity itself. A different species. A different form of life. Because somehow, on a primal level, we all know that’s important.

The story’s not over but #TimeIsRunningOut

There’s just a couple of days left to pledge for a copy of the 26 Wild book of centenas. It’s called The Story’s Not Over and is helping to raise vital funds for The Wildlife Trusts – pledge before the end of Monday 28 September 2020.

 – Samuel Crosby

Samuel Crosby believes that when we make connections, authentically revealing ourselves, the world is a richer place. And that nothing connects us more than storytelling.

You can find out more on Sam’s website and @mrcrosbay on Instagram.

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