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Reflections from the SwampBelieve in Beavers

Believe in Beavers

Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Reader

As many of you know, we live on the edge of a swamp that is teaming with all kinds of wildlife. There are still a few geese, swans, and ducks around however, most of them have moved to warmer places. We haven’t travelled south lately because of Covid. Before Covid, we didn’t travel much because we didn’t have any money, and now we aren’t travelling south because Greta says that air travel adds too much carbon to the atmosphere. Ah, the rational mind can always find reasons! So forgive me if I tell a disproportional number of stories about the swamp. We don’t get out much and have adapted to enjoying the places where we are at. This swamp was created by beavers.

There is an expression that, God created the world but the Dutch created Holland. Over half of Holland was created by building dikes or dams and then draining out the water. Similarly, it can be said that God created the world and then the beavers created diversity by building the wetlands. I’m a beaver believer. From flood defence to strengthening biodiversity, the ecological benefits of beavers are beyond doubt.

Coady Creek drains from the swamp and becomes a creek after passing through two culverts on our driveway. We are the first house that rests on the shores of Coady Creek. From here the creek flows through Corkery and ends up joining The Mississippi near Pakenham. Along the way, there must be a dozen beaver dams. Many beavers are called bank beavers because they don’t build lodges, but dig into a creek bank and build a stick home along the shore. These beavers don’t have as much prestige as beavers who build palatial lodges on privately held ponds. Many of these beavers were encouraged to leave their birthplace lodges and find their own way in the world. Like humans, there is a limit as to how long beavers want their adult progeny to hang around living in the basement. This is especially true when new generations of beavers are born in the lodge.

From a beaver’s perspective, our driveway is an impressive dam with two round holes that are easily plugged with weeds, mud, and sticks to make a 300 foot long beaver dam extraordinaire. It is not clear to us mere humans how beaver real-estate agents evaluate beaver lodges, however, maintenance and labour of a roadway dam is considerably less than trying to keep a stick dam in repair. In the three little pig story, the pig with the stick house ends up moving into the brick house. Our driveway is like the brick house and attracts beavers like bees swarm to honey.

There was a time in this fair land when the beavers did not roam, but that was when the dinosaurs still called this land their home. When Creator wanted wetlands to diversify available life forms, the second-largest rodent (after Capybara) was chosen to oversee the construction jobs required to make it happen. Most beavers earn their engineering degrees through extensive apprentice programmes offered at lodges across the country.

From a human, frog, or turtle’s perspective, beavers are hard-working free labour in the quest to purify water, maintain water tables in times of drought, and provide habitat for so many. The silt that collects behind beaver dams is full of microbes that help break down pollutants which mean that water leaving a dammed area is cleaner as it flows downstream. These ponds are called the “Earth’s kidneys” because of their cleansing properties.

When the settlers came to Canada they found a cold land which was described as the land God gave to Cain. The main item of value which they found was the beaver. Beavers were almost extinct in Europe and fur hats and coats made from beaver pelts were all the rage. Early maps of Canada were based on mapping river and lake routes which were used to set up the Hudson Bay Company and other companies, which were based on fur, especially beaver pelts. Beavers were hunted almost to extinction and had to be reintroduced to many areas, including Corkery, in the early 1900s.

In most areas where beavers and humans coexist, beavers are seen as pests. Anti-beaver sentiments are growing near urban areas. They cut down trees, plug culverts and flood lands used for farming or development. In recent times, wearing furs is no longer in vogue and beaver pelts have dropped in value from about 100 dollars to nine or 10 dollars a pelt. Very few trappers are left. Beaver populations are beginning to reach their historic highs when settlers first came to Canada. This is actually great news for the environment.

Each September, I start cleaning out my Culverts on a daily basis. I have grates that I pull up each day to clean out the weeds and sticks. I accumulate about 20 wheelbarrows of nutrient-rich weeds which I separate from the sticks and use as compost. It breaks down beautifully and is better than manure as a soil conditioner.  This year I have a pile 8ft high, 10ft long and 10 feet wide of mainly alder sticks which I removed daily so that the beavers couldn’t reuse the sticks.

Some years I’m lucky, and I get relatively lazy beavers who quit after about a month of me removing the sticks from the culvert. Most years, the beavers are determined to plug the culverts regardless of how often I remove their sticks. Most beavers have a passion for plugging culverts and can’t be discouraged from doing so.

I regretfully end up trapping the beavers, which leaves the culverts clean until the next year. The trapper actually eats the beavers and uses the fur to make hats, just like the first trappers did. He makes prosciutto from the meat. It’s an acquired taste. Next year I’m putting in a system involving drainage pipes which will allow water to flow through the culverts in spite of them being plugged up by beavers. No other creature has the engineering skills of the beaver.

Indigenous peoples called the beaver the “sacred center” of the land because they created habitat for other mammals, fish, birds, insects, frogs, and turtles. These wetlands are the most species diverse habitat on land and are rated as the most valuable land-based ecosystem.

What we need is a new way of being in the world that embodies the reality that all life is sacred and connected. A new mindset can bring forward this new consciousness which is needed to awaken a more loving, just, and sustainable world. It is no small challenge to reduce the use of fossil fuels, share the land with beavers, or stop polluting and overfishing the oceans, but it can and must be done.

I’m thankful to the beavers for making the pond and creating habitat for so many animals. We all find ourselves challenged to live with nature and share the space with wildlife. This challenge happens at a local as well as at a global level. I believe that we must find a way to live in our world as a part of nature. I’m sure that the oceans and some of my beaver friends would agree.

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