Leila Philip / Twelve / 336 pages
Part narrative, part reference source, Leila Philip’s Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America provides incredible information about beavers—from their physiology and behaviors to their entwined history with humankind in the United States and the threats they now face.
Philip starts by relating an Algonquian tale of how her home state, Connecticut, was formed after an argument between the Earth’s creator and Ktsi Amiskw—the Great Beaver. She describes the beaver lodges near her home, the time she spends around them, and the changes to the landscape she has witnessed over time because of the beavers. The book is full of interesting facts—for instance, that beavers only eat the bark (not the wood) of trees felled for branches to build their dams and lodges; and that during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Merriweather Lewis was struck by the fact that beavers in Montana—where they were not heavily hunted—were active during the day. In contrast, beavers in the East had become nocturnal and crepuscular, presumably, he wrote, in an effort to steer clear of human hunters.
Philip recounts how people have made fortunes on beavers—John Jacob Astor, in particular, who monopolized the burgeoning fur trade to Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, helping him to become the first US multimillionaire. Philip spends time with a local trapper dealing with “nuisance” beavers—describing the heartache she felt over his activities even as she acknowledged his skill and particular respect for the beavers and their environment.
Whether killed as commodities or simply as inconvenient wildlife, by 1842, beavers had been extirpated in Connecticut. They were reintroduced in 1914, and by the 1950s, enough beavers were back that the state opened beaver trapping seasons. Philip applauds how—despite this renewed pressure—beavers have managed to persevere with the help of farsighted naturalists, who understand their essential role as keystone species in the ecosystem; innovators (e.g., the Beaver Institute, which AWI supports), who are devising clever tools to foster peaceful beaver-human coexistence; and beaver fanatics like Philip, who simply admire and love them for who they are.