Patti Smith / Green Writers Press / 284 pages
Life seems to fly past, ever more fast-paced and electronic-obsessed, with parents and their kids increasingly sitting indoors communicating via electronic tools. We all but ignore the natural world that is just outside our doors. In The Beavers of Popple’s Pond: Sketches from the Life of an Honorary Rodent, author, naturalist, artist, and wildlife rehabilitator Patti Smith shows us what we are missing. She takes us with her out into the beautiful Vermont countryside and describes, in loving detail, time spent observing, interacting with, taking notes about, and drawing the wildlife in the unspoiled valley. It is an inviting and enchanting place, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Increasingly, I also found myself inspired to look out in my own backyard to watch the wildlife there.
Smith’s initial focus is on the beavers, having been motivated by the book Beaversprite, Dorothy Richards’ moving account of the close relationship she developed with beavers with whom she shared a home. Smith had beavers living nearby, so she resolved to get to know them, too. She decided on two key techniques to employ with the beavers, as well as with many of the other wild residents: she talks to them gently, and though watching them, seeks to give the appearance that she is busy doing other things. Her method worked, and she succeeded in developing relaxed relationships with many animals over the course of the book.
The first beaver acquaintances are named Willow and Popple (poplars are a favorite beaver food); they are quick to learn that Smith is not only nonthreatening, but that she comes bearing snacks (maple branches, apple slices, and nuggets specially made for injured or orphaned beavers). Popple and particularly Willow will visit Smith and eat in her company, but also go about doing the things beavers do such as working on their dams, preparing food caches, and raising young. There are so many other residents both large and small we learn about too, including moose, bears, hares, salamanders, otters, geese, bats, wrens, thrushes, warblers, owls, newts, voles, mice, shrews, and frogs.
Smith appears to have endless enthusiasm for all the creatures she encounters, except for the mosquitoes. In one comical account, Smith chronicles her efforts to stay out and observe nature when the weather turns warm, but is desperate to protect herself from the mosquitoes that will feast on any exposed flesh. Ultimately she fashions a netted canopy to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Her mistake was in letting Willow join her inside, for when it was time to go, Willow abruptly left right through the netting, dragging the whole enclosure with her down to the pond.
Smith taught me that red-backed voles sing, shrews use echo-locating clicks to navigate, a chipmunk can hold 70 seeds in her mouth, and porcupines peel apples before eating them. Which leads me to the book’s ending: an intriguing description of Smith’s interaction with a porcupine, but you’ll have to read the book if you want to know how that tale ends.
—Cathy Liss, President, Animal Welfare Institute