Friday, December 16, 2011

The Beaver Manifesto by Glynnis Hood

"If I could design the perfect animal, it would be the beaver -- even its looks are compelling." Glynnis Hood's opening sentence makes her admiration for Canada's bucktoothed symbol clear. A longtime National Parks warden and now professor of environmental science at the University of Alberta Augustana campus, Hood has studied beavers for years. Her passion for them is inspiring.

I learned that beavers have been around for millenia and that there were once giant beavers the size of black bears in North America. Beavers have "outlasted the Ice Age, major droughts, the fur trade, urbanization and near extinction." The export of beaver pelts began in the 17th century, fueled by a craze for beaver felt hats. "The trade was to become a big industry; it was a mammalian gold rush complete with espionage, smuggling, ecological warfare and greed." It is a fascinating piece of history, told with tongue-in-cheek humour. She writes about antique maps portraying zombie-like beavers and I found an example online here. Hood outlines the way beavers and the fur trade shaped the formation of Canada as well as contemporary Canadian psyche.

It is the ability of these "remarkable hydrological engineers" to mitigate the effects of drought that has made the strongest impression on me. I grew up on the shore of a small lake near St Paul, about 200 km northeast of Edmonton. Beavers lived there when I was a child, but they were trapped and removed as pests when they prospered and chopped down a lot of trees. In 2002, that lake dried up completely. After reading The Beaver Manifesto, I believe that the lake would have survived if the beavers had still been there. "Whether land managers can bring themselves to see beavers as allies rather than pests, however, is as unpredictable as the weather."

Hood's book is only about 120 pages long and would make a lovely gift for anyone interested in the environment, eco-politics and Canada's history. I love the cartoon beaver on the cover with its fist raised high. Readalike: The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus, also published by Rocky Mountain Books.

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