Glynnis Hood, The Beaver Manifesto

Before we look at Glynnis Hood's nerdy little gem The Beaver Manifesto, I need simply to say that y'all should regularly be browsing the new releases zone for Rocky Mountain Books' RMB Manifestos series. Naturally they won't be equally appealing to everyone, but in my book, they're the only reasonable competitor for the Transmontanus series (from New Star Books). Volumes in both series are short, highly readable nerdstravaganzas, with either an intensely local focus or a personably political view of the world.

Revolutions aren't individual actions. Build your community, if you want to change your world.

And speaking of community, one crucial lesson from The Beaver Manifesto, a 2011 RMB manifesto by Glynnis Hood, is that North Americans -- especially Canadians, but not only us -- should imagine that this continent evolved under the joint stewardship of beavers and Indigenous humans. We've all gotten past the renovated "noble savage" stereotype that sees First Nations peoples as a kind of collective proto-No Impact Man, I hope, what with the irrefutable evidence (even for would-be deniers) of large-scale urban-style construction, fire-based resource management, and permanent aquaculture installations. Humans thoroughly reshaped the apparently natural environment of North America in all kinds of complicated ways before European contact, so settler Euroamericans need to get over themselves, and I think mostly that's underway.

Beavers, though, unless we've dealt with them at any length on the land, we tend to see as mascots and aren't-they-cute amateur engineers. Hood has done great work here in writing a popular-style book heavily indebted to academic research: hydrological and ecological studies of beavers' effects on the land (including during drought conditions), statistical data about the absolutely VAST scope of the fur trade, and political analysis of deliberate local beaver extirpation as a strategy of corporate warfare. Without beavers, human and animal populations in the Great Plains (on both sides of the border) would have been at great risk of collapse in the face of prolonged or intense drought. In regions without regular precipitation, or where steep slopes would otherwise have been subject to slides and slumping, it's really all about beavers: with them, there's a chance at a rich and thriving ecosystem, including humans, but without them, we're never far from catastrophe in the form of landslides or desertification.

Take Canada's boreal forests, for example. Hood's academic research (with Suzanne Bayley) has shown that upwards of 80% of open-water area is directly attributable to beavers. Given the ecosystem type is known for having such characteristic elements as bogs and moose, it may be accurate to say that the world's largest coterminous forest owes its fundamental structure to the multi-century efforts of beavers, most of which (most of whom?) were killed so that Europeans could wear particularly snazzy hats.

North America would have been a different place altogether, if beavers hadn't been pushed near extinction. If maybe half of the estimated six million beavers trapped for their fur had been left to keep managing local ecosystems, it's possible that the terrible American drought of the 1850s and 1860s would have been far less consequential, and it's even possible that the 1930s Dust Bowl would have been much more of a local event. (Side note: it's extremely difficult to figure out how many beavers were trapped! Hood doesn't specify a figure, and "six million" is the best I can find online. Advice appreciated.)

There are plenty of ecological atrocities that we should mourn and that should radicalize us. Today, I'm with Glynnis Hood in seeing the beaver trade as having generated a reduced, weakened North America. Rewilding should maybe start there -- and I'm taking rewilding more seriously all the time.


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