Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beavers Return

1) The Big Pond
2) The beaver home
3) A beaver dam
4) The beaver "kitchen"
5) A paw print

Years ago the big pond in the woods was shallow and nearly dry. But that began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when beavers returned and successfully reestablished themselves, building homes and dams, and restoring the pond. Their return has been centuries in the making.

According to William Cronon, in his study of colonial New England land use practices, Changes in the Land, Native American practice, prior to the arrival of Europeans, had been to trap only as many beavers as were needed for personal use and for trade with tribes that lived south of the southern-most area of beaver habitation. But that changed when Europeans arrived. Early towns that were established along rivers such as the Connecticut (Hartford and Springfield) and Merrimack (Chelmsford) had originally been trading posts where Europeans transacted with Indian trappers – now in possession of firearms – for beaver pelts to feed the European continent where beaver caps had become a fad. Within a few decades of the founding of these trading posts, by the mid-1600s, the beaver population had been so severely decimated that the trade in beaver pelts dropped considerably. Other animals, such as turkeys, deer, elk, and bears, were also overhunted and went into decline. The drop in the deer population was so precipitous, in fact, that in 1694, Massachusetts enforced its first closed hunting season, and in 1718 it banned deer hunting for three years.

Now, however, with the current increase in the depth of the water, other wildlife has come. For a few years during the 1990s, Great Blue Herons built huge nests in the branches of dead trees that stuck out of the pond, and when I was wandering through the woods this past summer, a White-Tailed Deer and I encountered each other, not 30 feet apart. The deer, a doe, was still as a statue for a moment, and then she turned in a flash and bounded through the trees, to where I don’t know. These woods are small, just a few acres, but I suspect that deer, coyotes, mink, fisher cats, weasels, and other creatures are right around me every time I walk through them.

In fact, I have heard coyotes at night, my aunt has seen fisher cats, and my uncle stumbled upon a nesting mother turkey and her newly hatched young when he was out haying this past summer. I also took a photograph of my foot next to a large paw print in the woods, not far from where the deer and I had an encountered each other. Perhaps a black bear print – as a mother bear and her two cubs had been sited near these woods not too long ago.

Cronon discusses the decline in numbers of animals in a chapter called “Commodities of the Hunt.” It’s in the middle of his book. In other chapters, he goes on to discuss the felling of the forests and fencing of the land. His last chapter is called “The Wilderness Should Turn a Mart.” In this chapter, he starts to confront the contradiction in sustainable living and capitalism, and concludes that “the colonists’ economic relations of production were ecologically self-destructive.”

Our current relations to production are probably also self-destructive – but humankind has been able to artificially extend the human population carrying capacity of the planet, probably temporarily, through fossil fuel inputs into the soil, among other means. It's nice to imagine that the farm that my aunt and uncle are now working can become a role model for more sustainable living, but I'm not sure that's possible unless massive numbers of people voluntarily agree to change the way they are living on the planet -- and to accept declines in their standards of living.

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