Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Busy As Beaver NGRAM

Posted by heidi08 On May - 4 - 2017Comments Off on Busy As Beaver NGRAM

CaptureThank goodness there’s nothing to cover on the beaver news feed this morning, because I recently came across a fascinating tool that I wanted to share with you. It started because we were innocently wondering about the phrase “Busy as a beaver” for obvious reasons. When was did it start being used and when was it used less?

We were curious because just as many people also say “Busy as a bee“, and the way my particular mind works at the moment I wondered whether the phrase interchange had anything at all to do with the fur trade, and beaver extinction. Did the usage disappear, for example, when it stopped being common knowledge to know the manner in which a beaver worked? And did busy as a bee take over because we still had bees? I’m sure there used to be phrases describing things we were once likely to see every day that dropped out of common use when technology or habit made them obsolete – like iceboxes or parafin.

data 3So idly thinking this I stumbled on the Google Books NGRAM viewer. This searches the text of all the books entered on google and gives you a lovely graph about their occurrence. You can chose the language or the time period according to your interests. Our mystery phrase “Busy as a Beaver” looks something like this:

Bear with me here, but I think even with this silly rough tool you can see that the phrase ‘Busy as a beaver” was in strong use at the height of the East Coast fur trade in 1790, and then dropped off when they ran out of beavers until the 1830’s when the fur trade was driven west and found a new treasure trove to raid. Once they wiped at all those too  it was used rarely for a long time, until the late thirties when beaver reintroduction started to make the furry little metaphors easier to see.

phrase 2Is there a growing field of ecological linguistics? If there isn’t there should be. This was stunning to actually see on paper. Out of curiosity I also checked the results for “Busy as a Bee.” Jon thought this phrase might have been more English and maybe a more thorough analysis would establish this, but the crazy thought that popped into my head when I saw this is that it was pretty much the opposite as the beaver. So maybe when there were no beavers left to be as busy as, maybe they thought about bees more. And maybe when we kill off all the bees with our neonicotinoids they will come up with a brand new phrase entirely?

Here’s what they look like together because I’m just like that:

meshedI made cards to announce the Beaver Festival yesterday for our next couple events and wanted to add something on the back. I thought this was appropriate.


“Mní wičhóni”

Posted by heidi08 On March - 22 - 2017Comments Off on “Mní wičhóni”

A very interesting thread appeared on my beaver news-feed yesterday. It began by talking about the native protests of the Dakota pipeline. Then ended by discussing the relationship between beavers and water and Native Americans.

Why is water sacred to Native Americans?

The Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” has become a new national protest anthem.

It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. on March 10, and during hundreds of protests across the United States in the last year. “Mní wičhóni” became the anthem of the almost year-long struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.

For Native Americans, water does not only sustain life – it is sacred.

Native American tribes on the Great Plains knew something else about the relationship between themselves, the beaver and water. They learned through observation that beavers helped create an ecological oasis within a dry and arid landscape.

As Canadian anthropologist R. Grace Morgan hypothesized in her dissertation “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology,” the Blackfeet sanctified the beaver because they understood the natural science and ecology of beaver behavior.

Morgan believed that the Blackfeet did not harm the beaver because beavers built dams on creeks and rivers. Such dams could produce enough of a diversion to create a pond of fresh clean water that allowed an oasis of plant life to grow and wildlife to flourish.

Beaver ponds provided the Blackfeet with water for daily life. The ponds also attracted animals, which meant the Blackfeet did not have to travel long distances to hunt. The Blackfeet did not need to travel for plants used for medicine or food, as well.

Beaver ponds were a win-win for all concerned in “the Great American desert” that modern ecologists and conservationists are beginning to study only now.

For the Blackfeet, Lakota and other tribes of the Great Plains, water was “life.” They understood what it meant to live in a dry arid place, which they expressed through their religion and within their ecological knowledge.

R. Grace Morgan’s dissertation on beaver ecology and mythology? What? Why had I never heard of it? I went hunting immediately thinking that everyone else knew something I didn’t. I found the entire dissertation online at the University of Alberta library and just the abstract was enough to send thrills up my spine.

CaptureI sent it along to some beaver-minded folks just in case they hadn’t seen it either and Michael Pollock wrote immediately back, confirming that the oversight wasn’t mine alone.

“WOW! Heidi, what a total score. Just read the abstract, fascinating.”

1So I wasn’t the only one, and I settled in for a good read. I’m about half way through, but I have to keep stopping to make notes or tell someone else how cool it is.  I thought I’d share some highlights. Basically she postulates that for the plain tribes in the middle of Canada and North America, water was so scarce that they valued anything that protected it. They evolved a taboo system about killing beavers, so that no one wanted to eat beaver meet or wear beaver skins because it would ultimately threaten that water resource. They relied totally on the buffalo for survival for most of their needs. And the beaver was literally the “sacred cow they would never harm.

Because beavers save water, and water was life.

Then the Fur Trade came marching along and threatened that way of life. For centuries the Blackfoot Indians refused to help out hunting beaver, until the entire economy started revolving around beaver. Then their enemies who were willing to become beaver enemies started to get preferential status. The tribes they had quarreled in the past were suddenly armed with guns and ammunition because they agreed to help. Dr. Morgan was the first to pose that the sacredness of the beaver eroded under economic and hostile pressure. They reluctantly did what was needed and started to kill the thing that saved their water until all the beaver had gone the way of the buffalo and dinosaur before them.

abAnd do you think it might be important for a water vulnerable state like CALIFORNIA to know about this dissertation? Or remember why the things that save water are sacred? R. Grace Morgan returned to academic life after her children were grown and was in her fifties when the dissertation was completed in 1991, nearly a decade before Dr. Glynnis Hood showed up to study the same subject in the same area of Elk Island, Alberta. Glynnis said they never met, but she heard good things about her from colleagues. Dr. Morgan was an archeologist – not an ecologist. And some of the things her dissertation faithfully reports about beavers have since been debunked, like the fact that their dams never blow out. But she got so much right. I wish we had met.  She died at age 81 last February after a long struggle with oviarian cancer.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

If water is life



Ohio has beaver nostalgia!

Posted by heidi08 On March - 9 - 2017Comments Off on Ohio has beaver nostalgia!

What a pleasant surprise! An article from Ohio about beavers that isn’t discussing how to trap them! Richland County is in the middle of the state, down below Lake Eerie.

A living heritage: Beaver in Richland County

It has been more than two centuries since beaver shaped the rivers and creeks of Richland County, but at long last they are quietly reclaiming little pools of their ancestral wetlands.

When the first settlers came to the forested hills of Richland County in the early 1800s they encountered many wild animals we seldom or never find here today. Their letters and diaries and later reminiscences document the abundance of wolves and bears, otters and panthers.

But there is one common native of the American wilderness that was never listed in their memoirs because, by the time the pioneers arrived in the early 1800s, this critter had already been hunted out of these lands.

That was the beaver.

The last people who saw beaver in Richland County were Wyandot and Huron hunters, or French fur trappers.  The Richland beaver clan gradually departed here through the decades of the 1700s: carried out bundle at a time as furry pelts.

The fur was toted to a frontier trading post; then made its way to the coast where it was loaded on a ship and sailed across the ocean. Somewhere in Europe the fur was processed into waterproof felt material, and then manufactured into hats.

You’ll note the date that Richland last saw beavers was about 100 years before California lost out. It’s funny to think about the cascading domino effect that swept the nation in slow motion, East to West, over many years ago as the loss of beavers back drove folks ever west to find more.  Funny in an eerie kind of way, I mean,  not at all amusing to think about the drought and wildlife devastation that followed the hunt.

There were a lot of people in Europe in those days and they all wore hats.

The best hats were made from beaver fur because these warm blooded animals evolved in chilly ponds so their skins are naturally designed to keep water out and heat in. If a hat was to shed rain it was well to be manufactured from the soft, dense under fur of a beaver.

When permanent residential villages were established along the Clear Fork and the Black Fork in the 1700s, they were peopled mostly with clans of diverse tribes who had been displaced from their homelands by Beaver War conflicts.

The other major impact that the Beaver Wars had on Richland County was the complete extermination of Mohican watershed beavers.

Richland County happens to be placed on the continent at a particularly generous confluence of influences—bedrock stratum and weather pattern—that produces a wealth of water resources. We have a ‘Spring field’ township precisely because water is so plentiful it cannot be contained under the ground.

So imagine what happened when these two dynamic natural elements—water and beaver—were free to interact in wild genius.

Back then every Richland stream, creek, and tributary was undoubtedly repurposed by beaver, and shaped by their dams. The image we have today, of meandering streams flowing through the bottom of carved creek beds, did not exist in the era of beaver. These same waterways 300 years ago would have been seen as a series of small beaver ponds.

True. And every single one of those ponds were filled with wood duck and otter and trout so thick a man could walk across them. But why dwell on the past. It was a great idea turning all those little furry engineers into gold, right? That’s why we’re still doing it every day – trading our clear streams for fracking waste water and letting oil wells tunnel into every public land. Because what good is the environment if you can’t spend it. Amirite?


Since the beaver disappeared 200 years ago Richland County has transformed: dried out, plowed and planted, and paved so dramatically the animals could hardly be expected to recognize the place. Yet, interestingly enough, when they made their way back here 20-30 years ago, one of the places they gravitated toward is a wetland that they may well have created themselves hundreds of years ago.

Almost like a homing instinct they have set up camp once again at the headwaters of the Clear Fork River.

It is marshland today, and seemingly created through construction of the Clear Fork Reservoir. Yet documents from engineers in the 1940s show that the area was already waterlogged before they built the dam.

In fact records from 200 years ago, when surveyors first paced off the wilderness of Richland County, indicate there was a backlogged stream in the place even then.

This marsh is situated within a stretch of landscape that is otherwise well drained. By the surface and subsurface evidence, a local geologist and forensic landscaper suggests that this bit of wetland may well have been first terraformed by beaver engineers hundreds or thousands of years ago in order to create a comfy neighborhood for their community.

Perhaps the beavers who navigate the marsh today are direct descendants of the ones who started the swamp long ago when they backed up the waters of the Clear Fork.

I think this author is having a wistful moment wondering what the watershed looked with a healthy beaver population. Good for him. I know I always am. I can’t imagine if it will ever get that way again, but if beavers have their way they will turn our ruined city waterways to wetlands the same way they have transformed Chernobyl.  They won’t need our help or invitation either. I don’t know where the human race will be when that happens, but I suspect the beavers won’t miss it.

Timothy Brian McKee is a featured columnist on our site every Saturday with a column titled Native Son. Every Tuesday, he taps into his knowledge and collection of historical photos and bring us Then & Now, a brief glance at the way things were.