Like lions and sea otters, beavers are a keystone species whose existence supports an entire ecosystem. In a new book, Ben Goldfarb explains why.
In the middle of “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter,” environmental journalist and author Ben Goldfarb sums up his core argument, and the subtitle for this book, in a series of pictures.
The photos are of Susie Creek, a stream in northeastern Nevada that runs from Lone Mountain into the Humboldt River. The first shot, taken in 1992, shows the waterway surrounded by a dry, brown, uninhabitable landscape. The other two, taken in 2013 and 2017, show the area completely transformed, green and covered with new growth. The region’s renewal was due, in part, to a regulated grazing schedule for local ranchers, but a great deal of the credit goes to beavers, newly introduced to the area.
“Narrow channels became sprawling cattail marshes,” Goldfarb writes. “Water-loathing sagebrush ceded to native sedges. … Water tables rose as much as two feet; floodplains rebuilt, too. Once-beaverless Susie Creek now churned through a labyrinth of 139 dams. A wasteland had become a paradise.”
This is the image — and idea — to which Goldfarb dedicates the entirety of his impressively researched, charmingly written, absolutely persuasive book: that those odd aquatic mammals considered pests in some circles are actually vital to the survival of our planet. Like lions and sea otters, beavers are a keystone species whose existence supports an entire ecosystem.
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To prove his point, Goldfarb travels the Western U.S. and even into central Scotland, tracking how these creatures affect the natural habitat of these regions. Along the way, he introduces us to a bevy of colorful folks: activists, scientists, trappers, farmers and opportunists who are all, in large ways and small, helping to keep the mammals’ population growing. Goldfarb quaintly dubs them “Beaver Believers.”
His most cogent argument comes early in “Eager,” as he tracks the “three-century killing spree” that almost drove beavers to extinction in the U.S. Hunters and trappers at the time were lured by the money to be made from the animals’ soft fur, turned into hats and coats. Goldfarb connects the evils of that trade to everything from the War of 1812 (“Egged on by Canadian and American traders sparring over control of beaver-rich lands around the Great Lakes”) to health issues for some residents of Danbury, Connecticut, due to the mercury used in hat manufacturing that poisoned groundwater. And just as their absence impacted the environment in some parts of the country, the steady march of colonization and development in the U.S. left many beavers without wood to chew on or water to swim in. Goldfarb ties it all together with thoughtful, humble prose.
Goldfarb’s other skill, honed from years as a writer for Science and Audubon magazines, is his book’s ability to pack in information without becoming something akin to a slog through a technical journal; he delivers the details almost sneakily. In the chapter cutely titled “The Beaver Whisperer,” he visits the Methow Beaver Project, a joint effort by the state of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service to relocate wayward beavers and give them a better chance of survival by pairing them up with potential mates. As he walks through their work, he also sneaks in an anatomy lesson, a small discussion of how farmers have abused aquifers to water their crops, and a hilarious history of how Idaho’s Fish & Game Department airdropped beavers into needed areas.
“Eager” does carry a dire undercurrent within its pages, a timely one given the current administration’s attempts to roll back environmental regulations and ignore reports on the effects of climate change. But it’s also a book that delivers its message without proselytizing. Goldfarb makes his argument with a quiet power and deceptively breezy writing that paints a vivid picture of how the various inhabitants of the natural world rely on one other. Take one vital piece out and the whole thing could collapse.
“Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by Ben Goldfarb, Chelsea Green Publishing, 304 pp., $24.95
The author will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, at Elliot Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; elliottbaybook.com.