MTPR

'The Surprising, Secret Lives Of Beavers' With Ben GoldFarb

Nov 1, 2018

“Eager" is the powerful story of how nature’s most ingenious architects shaped our world, and how they can help save it—if we let them. Ben Goldfarb’s captivating book reveals how beavers transformed our landscapes, and how modern-day “Beaver Believers”—including scientists, ranchers, and passionate citizens—are recruiting these ecosystem engineers to help us fight our most pressing environmental problems. The Washington Post calls it, “A masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world” and The Boston Globe calls it, “The best sort of environmental journalism.”

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter

The following highlights are from a conversation with Ben Goldfarb about his book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast. 

Sarah Aronson: Can you explain the connection between Beavers and drought?

Ben Goldfarb: There’s a lot of beaver interest right now—beavers are very hot—and that long predated my book. The reason for that is we’re recognizing how important these animals can be from a water conservation standpoint. We’re entering this era of climate change and climate-fueled drought. Our water resources are really stressed and anything that can conserve water becomes really important. Beavers are very good at that. All of these dams and ponds that they’re creating function as thousands of little reservoirs on the landscape. They’re basically slowing water down. When precipitation falls as rain it’s going to run off to the ocean, but if you’ve got all these dams, especially up in the high country—catching that water, slowing it down—you’re basically keeping water in streams later in the year. You’re basically holding onto water so that it’s there in August, September, October, later in the season when it’s so important.

You’ll often hear people, especially farmers and ranchers, complaining that beavers steal water, that every drop of water behind a beaver dam is one less drop of water for the downstream users. But beavers aren’t stealing the water, they’re basically slowing it down.  They’re taking all these seasonal streams and turning them perennial by holding water back and delaying its passage downstream. So, from a water conservation standpoint, these are really critical animals. There are all sorts of stories about ranchers using beavers as water source creators for their livestock and people reintroducing beavers to their properties to turn seasonal streams into perennial ones. These are incredibly important animals as we enter this drought era in the west.

Break

You interview a number of subjects in your book, and one of them says, “One of the coolest things beaver dams do is fail.” What do you mean by that?

That’s a great question. That was actually Dr. Rebekah Levine, who’s a geomorphologist, somebody who studies stream formations in the Centennial Valley in Montana. What she was saying basically is that—it kind of depends on the place. In some places beaver dams are remarkably stable. There are places you can see from aerial photographs that show beaver dams remaining in a single spot for decades. But elsewhere, especially in the west where we have these flashy streams and high spring flows, beaver dams blow out and when they do fail they’re actually still providing lots of service. They’re basically deflecting stream flows onto the floodplains, and that’s one of the most important things streams can do is spill out onto the floodplain to recharge its groundwater and to create those nice, lush wet meadows that elk and deer and moose love. They’re actually transporting willows downstream so willows can re-sprout. A beaver dam washes out, those willow sticks get deposited along a stream, a ways downstream and then they take root.

Rebekah has found that lots of the willow in many beaver streams is actually being transported from blown out beaver dams. So even when these structures fail they’re still creating complexity. To me, I think that’s the biggest thing. You said before I compare a healthy stream to a plate of spaghetti with lots of threads going everywhere instead of one clean ribbon. You’ve got this tangled series of side channels. That kind of complexity is really important: those side channels are great fish habitat, they’re great amphibian habitat, they’re great for all kinds of stuff. So beaver dams when they fail, they still enhance the complexity of a stream and that’s so important for habitat.

Break

The title of your book comes from an idiom, “eager beaver,” and I just want to talk about the play of language in your book. One of the chapters is called “Appetite for Construction,” which of course is a play on Guns N' Roses’  “Appetite for Destruction,” we have “California Streaming” which of course comes from  the Mamas and the Papas. What else did I miss and why did you need to do this play?

“Appetite for Construction”:  all credit goes to my editor Michael Metivier. He came up with that chapter title. At the end of the day, beavers are funny. They’re these  strange looking, waddling, fat rodents. There are so many different connotations of the word beaver. I’ve heard every single beaver joke you can imagine. Rather than taking a really straight-laced approach to a topic that’s inherently amusing I just felt like I should lean into the comedy inherent in beavers and have some fun with it and of course it’s a great way of connecting with beavers. My favorite chapter title, and it’s a little more subtle, but there’s a chapter in here about the reintroduction of beavers to England and Scotland, and that chapter is “Across the Pond.” I just wanted to have fun with it and recognize that beavers are inherently funny and there’s also something funny, too, about spending several years of your life obsessing over a rodent. I just wanted to lean into it.

About the Book:

“Eager" is the powerful story of how nature’s most ingenious architects shaped our world, and how they can help save it—if we let them. Ben Goldfarb’s captivating book reveals how beavers transformed our landscapes, and how modern-day “Beaver Believers”—including scientists, ranchers, and passionate citizens—are recruiting these ecosystem engineers to help us fight our most pressing environmental problems. The Washington Post calls it, “A masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world” and The Boston Globe calls it, “The best sort of environmental journalism.”

About the Author:

Ben Goldfarb
Credit Terray Sylvester

Ben Goldfarb is an award-winning environmental journalist who covers wildlife management and conservation biology. His work has been featured in Science, Mother Jones, The Guardian, High Country News, Orion, Scientific American, and many other publications. He holds a master of environmental management degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018).