Dec 03, 2020
If Fire Were an Animal, it Would Be a Beaver
What if I told you there was a force so big it affected millions of acres for thousands of years across North America? Something that altered the landscape on a grand scale, creating a cascade of habitat and biodiversity values. Something that sometimes killed trees, but from that death, gave life to a multitude of plants, creatures and habitats. Something that for millennia shaped North American landscapes, only to be removed in recent centuries by newcomers—people who didn’t understand the very agents by which their beloved “nature” was shaped and maintained. People who didn’t understand that their future in this place was inextricably tied to the natural processes and cultures through which the places were created. People who couldn’t accept the discomfort of not being in control—of not knowing what might happen next. People who clearly couldn’t coexist with beavers.
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I love coincidences. I’m one of those people who looks for connections in all things. (Ask me who shares your birthday—I’ll probably know someone, and though you may not know them, it’ll still feel like a fun coincidence to me. I share birthdays with Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin, just FYI.)
Anyway, one day on my way to work, I randomly thought of some of my dearest family friends, Winke and Terry, who I hadn’t talked to in a couple of years. I wondered how they were doing and was thinking that I should write them a card. When I arrived at work ten minutes later, my phone rang, and who was it? You guessed it: Winke—that very friend who had just come to mind. She had just finished reading a book and wanted to send it to me. It was a book about beavers by a guy named Ben Goldfarb. We briefly caught up, I gave her my address, and that was it. The next day I got a call from someone who was organizing a national conference and invited me to give my first-ever plenary presentation. She told me that the other plenary speaker was quite different from me: an expert on beavers named Ben Goldfarb. Now I was intrigued!
Here it is many months later, and I’m finally reading Goldfarb’s book, “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter”. And it’s now really becoming clear why Winke sent it my way. I had never quite made the connection between beavers and fire: arguably two of the most powerful, transformative things to ever touch down in North America—aside from humans, of course.
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How’s this for a coincidence? On page 9 of the book, in the introduction, Goldfarb talks about Will Harling: my good friend and the subject of my last blog (whose birthday was the day I started writing this blog!). Will, who works on a wide range of fire- and fisheries-related projects in the Klamath River watershed, told Goldfarb that some California watersheds host just one one-thousandth of the beavers that existed before the trapping era. And of course this isn’t unique to California: beavers have been removed on a massive scale across the continent for centuries. And like fire exclusion, the removal of beavers has had unthinkable effects. As Goldfarb cites in the book, scientists estimate that there were somewhere between 15 and 250 million beaver ponds across North America before European settlement. Even a mid-range estimate, assuming ~150 million ponds at one acre each, would mean beavers historically flooded at least 234,000 square miles of North America—an area bigger than Nevada and Arizona combined.
I have to say the scale of the beaver’s influence had never really occurred to me, although I think about the scale of fire all the time. California’s first recorded “gigafire”—the August Complex—was uncomfortably close to my hometown this summer. (In fact, it came within hundreds of feet of Winke and Terry’s house, a gorgeous hand-built, cedar bark-sided cabin in a meadow deep in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. My husband was the Long-Term Fire Analyst (LTAN) on that fire, and we were watching their meadow with bated breath for weeks.)
I’ve been pondering this year’s fire season in California, which with recent rains is plateauing at just under 4.2 million acres. Isn’t it interesting to think that historical estimates of annual fire extent in California pre-European settlement are around 4.5 million acres—quite a bit more than we experienced this fire season? And isn’t it compelling to think that beavers might have historically influenced around 150 million acres nationwide—clearly commensurate with the influence of fire? Where fire was opening forests, invigorating woodlands and breathing new life into grasslands, beavers were a natural complement: damming streams, storing water, trapping sediment and creating habitat. Isn’t it interesting to think that the West was most hospitable—with resilient forests, high water tables and landscapes teeming with life—when it was most subject to fire and beavers?
Like fire, beavers provide a cascade of benefits to other plants and animals. As an example: my friend Damon Goodman, about whom I wrote a blog earlier this year, is one of the lead lamprey biologists in the west coast. His work on lamprey has in recent years found him with beavers, who moved into a set of human-made sediment storage ponds in the upper Trinity River watershed east of where we live. The beavers built dams on the outlets of the ponds, causing a political ruckus but also creating incredible habitat for the lamprey, who thrive in the fine, silty sediment trapped by the dams. Based on samples they took in the beaver ponds, Damon and his colleague Steward Reid found an average of 17 juvenile lamprey (and a maximum of 81) in every square meter of pond, and they estimate that there are more than 60 thousand lamprey in the 3,500 square meter pond complex. Likewise, the ponds support three different species of lamprey and 10 native species of fish, including life history strategies that are very rare in the Trinity River. Mammals like mountain lions, deer and raccoons are using the dams as crossings, and a wide range of hawks, birds and amphibians are also making use of the ponds. Like fire, beavers leverage disturbance to unleash life.
In the Trinity River example, the biologists have tried to balance the benefits of the beavers with the need to slowly transport sediment, attempting to sneakily lower the dams and release more water. But the beavers won’t have it; they repair their dams each night, plugging every hole by morning and ensuring that their vision holds.
I have to say, I came home today and related to the beaver: my husband had been in charge of distance learning all day for the four kids in our two-family pod, and he was at his wit’s end. Our toilet paper was out and the house was a mess; I had concerned emails from colleagues and a few slipped deadlines, including this blog; and our county changed COVID tiers because of a blowup last week, pushing in-person school and “normal” life even further into the future. And so here I am at 11 pm: plugging holes before tomorrow as if my life depends on it.
In Goldfarb’s book, he says some people use “beaver” as a verb; he cites Brock Dolman, a California “beaver believer,” who says that the word beaver can be used to “see the organism as an actor, as a manipulator, as an entity affecting processes over an unfolding continuum of space and time” (p. 59). While I find this usage grammatically awkward, I love the concept, and it makes me wonder: do we need to reframe the way we see fire? Is fire no longer just a process, but an actor—a manipulator—a stakeholder? As the primary force behind tragedy, loss, biodiversity and beauty, why doesn’t fire have more of a voice, more of a personality? As with any stakeholder, we can choose to agree or disagree with fire, but it’ll still be here. And like beavers, fire is bit of an unknown—it doesn’t always behave as we’d like it to; it requires a certain level of humility, flexibility. So we can choose to keep fighting it—sneaking out every night to lower the water level—or we can just help build the dam.
I recently learned the word “apophenia,” which is the tendency to see meaningful connections between unrelated things. The word gave me pause; was this me, with my love of coincidences and my tendency to relate all things—even Bigfoot, lamprey and John Prine—back to fire? Is this insight, or is it a condition? But I think the beaver confirms my perception that real connections are everywhere; we just have to let our guard down a bit to see them, and sometimes we have to position ourselves in a way that helps enable them.
And let’s face it: if fire were an animal, it would be a beaver.
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