Beaver Land: How One Weird Rodent Made AmericaLeila Philip
If the sight of a beaver dam has ever sparked your curiosity to learn more about this native rodent, Leila Philip's new book, Beaver Land will give you a sense of how deeply the beaver is embedded in American history and culture. Philip, author of A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family brings her authoritative narrative style to this investigation of the North American beaver and its role in our shared habitat. Philip's research into the historic fur trade that brought riches to early capitalists and colonial powers as well as current conservation efforts is exhaustive, but the book includes fascinating conversations with humans working at many beaver intersections, and they all have an interesting story to tell.
The book begins with an overview of the Ktsi Amiskw, or Great Beaver story, of which many versions have been handed down orally throughout North America. Philip traces several Indigenous tribes' understanding of the beaver story then poses the question as to why this "fat, furry rodent with four orange teeth" has been so central to North American creation and destruction sagas. The Great Beaver story has many variations but almost always includes a cautionary warning for humans interacting with the land. The natural world demands responsible stewardship from its inhabitants, or else the habitats will be lost. Philip writes to summarize how the Ktsi Amiskw legend guided people living in North America for thousands of years to understand, "you destroy the Earth, you destroy yourself."
Driven by greed and the demand for beaver pelts, we learn of John Jacob Astor's success in capturing a government charter to establish a trading post on the Columbia River, a key strategic post for trade with settlers and Indigenous peoples. Astor became America's first multimillionaire after establishing the monopolistic American Fur Company, which dealt in beaver pelts. The quest for beaver fur was so rapacious that after Astor began to corner the market in the early 1820s, the beaver was nearly wiped out 20 years later.
Philip accompanies Herb Sobanski Jr., a modern-day fur trapper in Connecticut, who worked as one of 52 professional fur trappers in the state until his death in 2019. Philip's conversations with Sobanski are some of the most illuminating in the book. She checks out trap lines and witnesses coyote skinning in a fur shack to give readers a sense of the modern fur trade culture. More remarkable is reading that this activity takes place practically in the Connecticut suburbs. Philip also attended the North America Fur Auction where beaver, mink, and fox pelts were auctioned behind closed doors. Her access to this contemporary fur trade culture was unprecedented and she captures the uneasy aura of the auction itself. Though she interviews many actors in this chapter, names were changed for fear of reprisal if they were identified with the fur trade.
Philip shines light into other beaver corners such as Dorothy Richards's Beaversprite, the beaver sanctuary founded by Richards in the 1930s where she lived with 14 beavers in the Adirondacks. Philip visits Beaversprite (now operated by the Utica Zoo) where she gives the reader a sense of just how unusual Richards was in her relationship with beavers. (I secretly wished the book included some of the images of Dorothy with multiple beavers on her lap, which can be found online.) Sharon and Owen Brown are the current stewards of Beaversprite and offer personal accounts of Dorothy's life. Readers unfamiliar with Richards or the history of Beaversprite will find this chapter captivating and certainly worthy of the word "weird" in the subtitle of the book.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book discuss the beaver's patterns in building dams and lodges and current conservation or watershed management projects. One Harvard scientist from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana studies how beavers work collectively on a waterway by taking cues from the volumetric flow rate of water, or the current. The book ends on an optimistic note about the role the beaver can play in land and water management
Beaver Land is a well-balanced history, personal narrative, and journalistic investigation of a curious but familiar rodent in the Hudson Valley.
Leila Philip reads and signs at Hudson Hall on Friday, December 9 at 6pm.
Kevin Maher, illustrations by Joe Dator
Turner Publishing Company, 2022, $18.99
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Paintings by Kate McLoughlin, text by Gail Straub
High Point, 2022, $35
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Princeton Architectural Press, 2022, $19.95
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Acre Books, 2022, $17
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