Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Engineer on Our Lake: American Beaver

Some of the best times on my wilderness canoe trips in Minnesota have been spent in the company of wild creatures - moose, common loons, black bears, and the American beaver. In this week's broadcast of "Living on Earth" on KAXE 91.7, writer and photographer Mark Seth Lender is interviewed by Jeff Young and gives a poetic tribute to this creature who shares Nord Lake with our neighbors.

A beaver takes a tree. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

Pablo Picasso once said creativity is a sum of destructions. Salt Marsh Diary writer Mark Lender observes that nature is a sum of creations and destructions, as exemplified in the American Beaver.

YOUNG: People aren't alone in their desire to change the places where water and land come together. Writer Mark Seth Lender spent some time watching one of nature's engineers at work.

LENDER: The pond is still as polished stone, a duotone, tannic brown and gray. And quiet. A quiet made of fine rain. Slow churning of earthworm. Purr of woodpecker on a dead tree across to the other shore. Hush of river rolling over the dam of crossed sticks, which holds all this, this space, this wetted openness.

Toward me now comes the Engineer. Fast as a blur he comes, the V of his wake deep and sure, nose lifted just above the water. Thick fur, wet but warm, covers him all but where he sees and breathes and hears, and the pad of his paw. He has no gills, no fins, no scales. When he dives he holds his breath. Where water flows he must stop it. Wherever it goes he will find it. He is drawn by the sound and by the feel and perhaps, even the scent. Now closer, as close to me as curiosity demands, 'til the flat of his tail waves goodbye and smooth as a silk scarf he disappears, under water.
Taming of the liquid force is the lifework of the American Beaver. It is the product of both forethought and design and an agile mind. First, a survey must be made. Noting where the bank is high and the river narrow he will begin there. He needs no protractor. No T square. Lacking transit and plumb bob he proceeds by rack of eye alone yet what he builds endures. With saplings and small lumber, in a weave that seems random but is not, with mud, with stones, layer by layer the dam is raised until all water will be conquered.

In the finishing of a pond a beaver takes many trees. Teeth are his adze and ax and he works in the round. Carefully. His lodge laid of branches is the keep where his family shelters, and their safety is his purpose. High in the leafy tops, predators may lurk in the form of eagles. Low down, cougar and coyote may hide behind the trunks. To hold the standing woods at a distance is not unwise in a beaver's nearsighted eyes.

Among the beaver's works trout and minnow swim and great blue herons fish for them. Wood ducks in Kandinsky colors. Kingfishers, querulous lovers. Painted turtle, drifting ark. Dragonflies hunting, near dark; Late returning red-shouldered hawk...

All this is here from what the beaver clears. Much depends upon the Engineer.

YOUNG: Mark Seth Lender writes a syndicated column called "Salt Marsh Diary." To see some of his photographs, go to the Living On Earth website:

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