Archive for the ‘History’ Category

“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.

Happy Mistakes

Posted by heidi08 On March - 2 - 2017Comments Off on Happy Mistakes

One of the artists who donated to the silent auction (Sara Aycock) sent tiny little business cards that were SO adorable I had to go see about designing our own. Turns out they are ‘mini’ cards designed by MOO, about half the size of a regular card. Right now you can design 100 for under 20 and chose a different back design for EVERY ONE. I ordered the cheapest kind just to see if I liked them.

cards So I picked four different designs with three each of Cheryl’s great photos on the back. They arrived yesterday and were AMAZING – but there was a mistake on the logo. I wrote them and they’re reissuing for free. Which means we have 100 adorable unusable business cards to use as an art project. Hmmm…

Now I’ve been trying to think up our Earth day art project and hadn’t yet hit on an inspiration. It’s the beavers 10th anniversary in Martinez and I wanted it to be special. But of course not too complicated for kids and volunteers and not to previewexpensive for us. And nothing we’ve already done before. I already came up with a giant card folks can sign wishing them Happy Anniversary. Wasn’t there something that could be done with these perfect little photos?

LOCKETS!!! Little photos of things you love go in LOCKETS!!! A little locket kids make themselves…and can wear on a string around their necks at the event so everyone can see them. One side could be a photo of our most beloved beavers (beautifully printed on card stock from my failed cards), and the other side should be a photo of something that represents Martinez….since the two are “Married” forever more…..

Beavers and Martinez…hmmm…(You know I considered a photo of the mayor just because I’m troublesome that way)….but I really wanted something more wholesome.

Something that represents Martinez…and it’s for an Earth day celebration at John Muir’s House….and he’s the greatest conservationist and beavers have been called the original conservationists….I think we have  a match made in heaven!16938893_10208977203533577_6242861908722332437_n

earthday locket

We even have all the supplies left over from other art projects! Glue sticks, scissors, card stock, string, and lovely keys to your heart. I’m so excited I’m wearing mine right now. This is the perfect way to say “Happy Anniversary” to our beavers. And its all because of a lucky mistake.

Which the beavers kind of are anyway.



Dam-spotting Drones

Posted by heidi08 On February - 28 - 2017Comments Off on Dam-spotting Drones

Sniff, I’m so proud. Reader Kevin just commented that the ‘beaver’ shirt from Australia isn’t a beaver. Shh, we know. But it’s really cute, and the country doesn’t have beavers so we can’t expect them to recognize one. I’m just so touched that all my beaver suspicion and mockery over the years has made folks attentive to this issue on their own! And they say one person can’t make a difference.

Aw, you guyssssssssss.

I remember, years ago, when I attended my first beaver conference. Afterwards I went to their airport glowing with the warm-haze of beaver believer-ing and met a man from a southern state waiting for the shuttle. (Let’s call him the good ole boy.) When he pressed to inquire what conference I was at, he said smartly, “I work for the railroads and we don’t have any problems with beaver in my state.” (Here he made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and clicked the trigger twice) “Problem solved!”

And I remember thinking to myself, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

I offer this story to introduce you to this mornings news which is pretty much the opposite of everything I’ve been writing for the past week.  I guess it’s natures way of reminding us not to get comfortable and lazy. There’s still plenty of work to do.

Beaver Dam Gone, Roxbury Residents Now Eager for Brook Cleanup

ROXBURY, NJ – Chronic flooding due to beaver dams on Succasunna Brook might have weakened trees, which are now threatening to fall onto some Roxbury residents’ properties, a situation that prompted the residents to complain to Roxbury officials. The residents, primarily on Paul Drive in Succasunna, live adjacent to a flat and low wetland bisected by the brook just upstream from Midland Pond. Concerned about the trees, as well as the overall condition of Succasunna Brook, the residents recently sought help from Roxbury Councilman Dan Kline.

“The beavers were blocking Succasunna Brook last summer,” he said in an interview Monday. “The water rose two to two-and-a-half feet in the area upstream of the dam.”

Blood said the beavers built an impoundment that “extended from the Midland Pond property all the way across to Paul Drive.” He said the structure was a couple hundred feet long and ranged in height from 18 inches to three feet.

“Every night we tore it apart and in the morning it would be back,” he said.

The beavers are now gone, thanks to the efforts of some trappers, and the dam was removed this month by the Morris County Mosquito Commission, Blood said.

Blood and Raths said the township is working with a company that uses drones to conduct aerial videotaping. This will enable township officials to see further beaver dams or other “snags” along the course of the river that need to be removed.

The entire community banding together to kill beavers! It brings a tear to my eye. Why stop with just using drones to spot beaver dams? Why not shoot them directly from the air? It works for terrorists I understand. (And wedding parties.) So the whole community is so grateful that their rights to maintain drought and erosion have been protected by their tax dollars that they came by Councilman Kline’s office just to say ‘thank you”. That’s mighty civic of them. They’ll have even more to thank him for with the reduced nesting habitat this spring because of all that dead tree removal. I’m sure the fish would thank them personally but they’re already washed downstream in New York by now. (That is if the sediment hasn’t clogged their gills completely.)

And seriously, “Blood and Raths“??? You hired a company run that employs men namedBlood and Raths“??? Are you kidding me??? If I made UP those names my publisher would object because they sound too obviously villainous.  Is this a Lemony Snicket chapter? Is Count Olaf going to come leaping out from behind one of those dead trees and announce that  we shouldn’t worry about our town because he is the mayor and he will protect it with his two special guardians, Mr. Blood and Mr. Raths?

If you’re going to pay to shoot beavers from the air, and pretend this is protecting the community, at the very least you could have the decency to choose some deceptively well-intentioned names. Like “Baby-saver and Hero” or something. Or the Clean Water Act. Sheesh.

There were literally 5 trapping articles on my news feed this morning, but that’s all I can stand for one day. Jon noticed there is a netflix series now loosely following the beaver trade in early North America. I tried dimly to watch it but it is so thick with blood, cliche, testosterone and bad accents that I couldn’t stomach it. The credits, however, have a moment that might interest you. Although I am fairly certain no trapper ever used a musket to catch beaver.


Posted by heidi08 On January - 5 - 2017Comments Off on Stewardship

For some reason, (for many reasons), we are lucky that special people take things on and protect them. Martinez protected beavers, Megan Isadore protects otters, Corky Quirk protects bats, and Steve Holmes protects the urban creeks of Los Gatos and the south bay.

Steve Holmes: San Jose needs to step up to protect creeks

For the past two years, Friends of Los Gatos Creek, an affiliate of South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, has been conducting cleanups along creeks in Santa Clara County. We have tallied an astounding 76 cleanups. On our most recent event, June 4, we had 55 volunteers from Google, Santa Clara County Parks and the Friends team leaders converge on Los Gatos Creek in downtown San Jose.

With very little fanfare, our small grass-roots effort has surpassed a milestone: 100 tons of trash removed from the Los Gatos Creek — with over 85 percent of it linked to encampment activity.

Sometimes Steve uses the removed trash in artistic sculptures, (because man does not live by bread alone). A recent clean up struck such a fancy he had to send it my way. I met Steve at the creeks coalition conference in 2010 and we have swapped emails ever since. Isn’t this beautiful? The fur is cigarette butts, the tail is an old tire, and the ‘creek’ is an rusted box spring. I told him he should really come to the beaver festival and share his work and his message.


Steve Holes: South bay clean creeks coalition.

There might be very exciting news soon, but I won’t jinx anything by sharing it. For now we can delight appreciation of this inspiring article in the LA Times about an elementary’s school appreciation of the appearance of a burrowing owl. Because urban wildlife matters.

In a paved, urban world, nature makes a rare appearance — delighting kids near MacArthur Park

Principal Brad Rumble took a photo of the burrowing owl that has been spotted on the grounds of Esperanza Elementary. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Nathan, 9, had no idea how the bird found its way to the courtyard of his school, Esperanza Elementary, near MacArthur Park in the middle of the city.

“This is a big deal,” he thought.

Nathan told a teacher, who then told Brad Rumble, the school’s principal and a man who takes bird matters very seriously.

Rumble pulled a few students out of class to observe the visitor, identified as a burrowing owl. In a neighborhood of asphalt, street vendors and crowded apartment buildings, this was their closest encounter yet with nature.

Decades ago, before buildings and cars covered Los Angeles, burrowing owls were a common sight, said Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist who manages bird collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  Now, sightings are rare. The last one spotted near downtown Los Angeles was six years ago, near the museum.  

Rumble thinks he knows what attracted the bird. In mid-November, he teamed up with the Los Angeles Audubon Society to transform more than 4,000 square feet of asphalt on campus into a native habitat.

High school students helped Esperanza families lay down a bark path and plant California golden poppies, an oak tree and a sycamore.

“It’s not natural around here for kids to come down from their apartments and walk down to the creek and play,” the principal said. “But if the neighborhood is lacking, at least the school campus can serve as a living laboratory.”

He created something similar once before — with remarkable results.  A few years ago, at Leo Politi Elementary in Pico-Union, he had 5,000 square feet of concrete ripped out and replaced with native flora. 

The plants attracted insects, which attracted birds, fascinating students. They learned so much, their test scores in science rose sixfold, “from the basement to the penthouse,” Rumble told The Times in 2012.

Since the owl showed up on campus, peculiar things have happened: Students have skipped recess to stay in the library, poring over books about falcons, swallows and hummingbirds. Some have pulled their parents out of their cars after school to hunt down the owl’s droppings. Teachers watched in shock one day when two crows tried to attack the school’s honored guest.

Rumble encourages students to use an observation board he set up outside the main office to document each owl sighting. There have been more than a dozen so far — on drainpipes, rooftops, PA speakers, even a library rolling cart. For more than a week, the owl frequented a jacaranda tree located next to the lunch tables, amusing the 200 kids who munched on pizza and sandwiches below.

The bird has caused such a stir, the student council is considering changing the school’s mascot from a dragon to an owl. 

On a recent morning, teacher Elizabeth Williams talked with her third-graders about the bird’s diet, markings and nesting habits. She introduced new vocabulary: perch, burrowing, conservation, habitat. 

  • “It likes to burrow in nests underground,” said Emily Guzman.
  • “It bobs its head up and down to protect itself,” said Yonathan Trujillo. 
  • “It makes sounds like a snake,” said another student. 

Some students are getting quite savvy about birds. They see them soar overhead, dark specks in a blue sky, and know them by name: a yellow-rumped warbler, a red-tailed hawk, a common raven.

When he asked Jose what he thought of the bird, the boy’s eyes glowed and he smiled. 

“It’s made me very happy,” Jose said.  

The arrival of a simple burrowing owl delights and energizes an entire public school.  Are we surprised? And the principal is smart enough to know how special this is. If you doubt its value go to Martinez California and read how some children responded to beavers. Urban Wildlife reminds us that there are things alive and precious besides roads and freeways. Children are reminded that there are wonderful things the adults don’t control. And adults are reminded that not everything has been formed in concrete and shaped by convenience.

I think it reassures us of that special place inside each one of us that isn’t molded by expectation and responsibility. Something wild and free even amidst the most tangled constraints.



Mysterious Beaver Ways of Yore

Posted by heidi08 On December - 11 - 2016Comments Off on Mysterious Beaver Ways of Yore

Our retired librarian friend from Georgia, Bob Kobres, is always finding us interesting tidbits. Whether it’s hot off the presses new beaver research in or some historical gem that the world has long overlooked.  This comes from a letter to the editor of Popular Science magazine in 1884. And it’s a whopper.

The author, one Samuel Aughey of Lincoln Nebraska, is responding to the May issue in which Dr. Stockwell wrote about Henry Morgan’s seminal book, “The beaver and his works“. He begins much in a familiar manner, saying it was a fun read but just because some researchers never saw something doesn’t mean it never occurs.

 Rickipedia used to quote, “Absence of Evidence, isn’t evidence of absence“.

And then goes on to tackle the thorny debate about whether beavers use their tails in construction. Dr. Stockwell apparently said “No way”, but Samuel had other ideas.


Okay, did you get that? Samuel is minding his own business when he suddenly sees a group of beavers work together to move a trunk – some pulling some pushing. Already I’m intrigued because we never really saw beavers working together on a single log.

failedSo there’s a little rut in the hill and the beavers can’t get the log over it, no matter how many times they try. Time for a new strategy.

captureOkay! Beavers in a huddle form two teams, the pull team and the push team! The pull team LAID THEIR TAILS OUT FLAT and the log was rolled onto them. Then they hauled that log forward hoisted, as it were, by their own petards.

releasedOompf! After that big log gets moved the pull team examines their tails to make sure they weren’t injured in the line of duty. Nope, all fine here.

samuelSamuel ends with “Just because they didn’t go to your fancy schools doesn’t mean what they saw didn’t really happen”. And by the way who is this wacky Samuel Aughey of the obvious “tinfoil hat” beaver brigade?

Samuel Aughey Jr. was a minister and naturalist/ geologist in Nebraska and Wyoming from 1864 until 1886. He graduated from Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) in 1856 and then attended seminary there. Aughey came to Dakota City, Nebraska, in 1864 as a “home missionary” for the Lutheran Church. After resigning this position in 1867, he worked for the Dakota County government from 1866 until 1869 as superintendent of public instruction and county surveyor. He was named the first professor of natural science at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1871.

Well okay, professor of natural science, superintendent of schools and county surveyor. But still we’re talking Nebraska and anyone that could read would be called a scholar there, right? Here’s a partial list of is publications:

captureWhich all goes to leave me scratching my head in wonderment. Surely when there were millions more beavers they might have worked together differently. But did they use their tails differently? Samuel thinks that some beavers have better ideas than others. Not just any beaver could do it. Go read the whole letter to the editor here and puzzle for yourself if it could possibly be true.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, Act I: Scene 5

Another Origin Story…

Posted by heidi08 On November - 19 - 2016Comments Off on Another Origin Story…

I am hard at work on the newsletter for our tenth anniversary, and I spent most of yesterday writing the origin story of Worth A Dam. As nothing else seems to be happening in the beaver world at the moment, I thought you might enjoy it.

origin-storyIt was certainly unusual to have beavers in the middle of town, as our city suddenly did in 2007. Maybe if nothing else had happened that’s all it would have been; a passing interest that eventually –  passed.  But when the city announced that flat-tailed residents would have to be eliminated people started talking: to their neighbors, to each other, to their representatives, and to the media.

Eventually the city was forced to hold a meeting to discuss the beavers’ fate. There were too many people interested to fit into city hall and the forum was moved to the High School Auditorium. Some 200 people showed up – coming from uptown, downtown, and out-of-town. There were representatives from the Sierra Club, the Human Society, local news and a documentary filmmaker. The vast majority overwhelmingly demanded that the city solve the flooding risk without harming the beavers.

Faced with such vocal public support, the city council agreed to form a subcommittee to study the issue further. I was thrilled to be invited aboard the task force which consisted of council members, creek professionals, beaver supporters and concerned property owners. We had 90 days to address the pros and cons of possibly living with beavers in an urban stream. We quickly recommended hiring Skip Lisle to install a flow device that would prevent possible flooding.

The success of that first big meeting originally left me with euphoric hopes for a positive outcome. I was surprised to learn that even after we succeeded in persuading the city to hire Skip and even though his device worked entirely as promised, there was still uncertainty about the beavers fate. Addressing the real (and imagined) concerns in the subcommittee soon made me realize that the fight was a long way from over. It was Skip Lisle who initially suggested that a nonprofit might be necessary to advocate for the beavers and direct funding over time. After watching the acrimony of those meetings even after flooding was averted with his help, I could see he was right.

In choosing a name for the organization  I remember thinking that the struggle was too bitter for something benign like “Friends of Martinez Beavers” or “Wildlife Protectors”. It seemed the name needed to be something snappy with a little feisty backbone to get us thru the long struggle that lie ahead.

Thus “Worth A Dam” was born.

And the rest, as they say, is history.