This winter has been most challenging on every level.
I am exhausted, emotionally and physically. Most of my hair has turned gray. In my mind and body I have become an old woman.
On December 31st I broke my foot at three in the morning when a horrible crash awakened me to a blocked front door. I shoveled pure ice for an hour. Frantic with anxiety, I didn’t even realize that I had broken my foot until the crisis was over and the door could be opened again.
Initially, I believed I had one woman and two men who would help me with snow removal this winter but all three backed out for one reason or another. My trust was misplaced. (Human betrayal/racism have dogged me ever since I moved here almost 40 years ago. It has only been recently that I recognized that this problem is part of a larger story that is more about others than me.)
When help isn’t available – well – there’s nothing to do but to go on alone and that’s what I did. I have two little Chihuahuas who can’t go outdoors until they have paths to get through the snow. This means that regardless of the severity of the storm I need to snowshoe…The night I broke my foot I had already been out four times keeping the way open.
We were being buried by a winter storm.
When I broke a second bone a month later while shoveling ice again I was beyond distraught. A kindly woman who I barely knew became a fierce advocate for me – the first genuine advocate I have ever had in all the years I have lived here. She called upon others to help me find two young men who promised to do the shoveling that I can no longer do. Snowshoeing those paths is all that’s left, and I think I can do that much. I hope.
This winter of ice – freeze thaw – always with ice at the beginning and/or end of every rain/snow storm has made walking so dangerous that even with spikes it is not safe. Never in forty years have we had this much rain all winter long – rain that turns to ice – then snow – then more freezing rain.
Never have I been so housebound.
The changing weather made it profoundly real on a practical level that I must sell the house because I can no longer take care of myself here.
Soul, spirit, and body have finally been re-united as I make this decision seek ‘home’ elsewhere.
I am shocked to realize how ready I am to leave…
I came to these mountains because I am in love with trees and hoped to experience woodland peace by soaking in the green of intact forests, flowing brook waters, engage with wild animals as a naturalist and develop into the courageous woman I have become – one whose integrity stands before her. I was fortunate. For a while I was nurtured by trees and water, experienced peace, and engaged with wild animals on land I loved…
Gradually my feelings began to shift with the changes that were underway … As the Spirit of the Forest began to recede I felt the loss keenly. The logging machine was destroying our woods. My little patch of trees and brook became sandwiched in between land that has been brutally logged or senselessly maimed by my nearest neighbor. The animals and birds lost their habitat; most have disappeared. Road noise, gunning, motorcycles, traffic, speed of any kind has become the norm. It is no longer possible to walk on my road. Most recently the mountain behind me swarms with ‘recreationists’ who use the trails they cut through the land as their playground. Curiously, a year ago I thought I might stay, not because these changes weren’t happening but because I thought I had a reason to… but this belief turned out to be illusion, thankfully.
As the final veil fell away, I was almost free.
Strangely, it was the dead that still held me. My beloved brother was buried below the house and I couldn’t imagine leaving him behind…But last fall I had a series of dreams that informed me that my little brother was no longer here; that he now lived in the very forest that has become my refuge, a place some distance from here that I still love fiercely. Silence, biodiversity – large intact trees, a healthy understory, mosses and lichen, a plethora of ground covers, a winding river, bears and other animals, birds and beavers all befriend me here, offering solace, peace, companionship and love. In one of the dreams my brother has become this whole green forest and he wears an animal skin. That my little brother is free, that he is finally at peace has set me free too. Oh, the joy and the relief. I can let go! No matter where I find home I can always return to my refuge because this forest is protected for perpetuity.
I have a multitude of unknown challenges ahead of me, but because I am flowing with the river to the sea, I believe I will be able to make this transition. As difficult as winter has been I can also feel gratitude because I have finally been able to make this decision.
Letting go allows me to embrace the old woman in myself, the one with limitations. I make the choice to love her, to advocate for her, just as my fierce and caring friend did for me.
The older I get the more apparent it becomes that I need a greening earth to feel whole. Winter ice and snow block my intimate relationship to the earth, breaking root connections. Frozen solid I must await a change in season to thaw. Once the river flows free of ice I can hear the call. I re-enter the river to reach the sea.
Lately I have been re- reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss trying to conjure up the southwestern face of trillium rock, which is presently buried under two feet of snow below my house. For three seasons of the year this large nubbly granite boulder is glowing with emerald mosses and sage green lichens. For many years I have been watching both spread over the stone’s surface creating a perfect environment for pine and hemlock seedlings, trailing arbutus, partridgeberry and trillium that are now also thriving on this glacial boulder that lies within a foot of the brook.
I learned from Kimmerer’s book that any rock must first be weathered by wind and water and then etched with acids produced by a lichen crust. Only then will the moss rhizoids begin to attach. So the lichens were there first, although by the time I moved here the stone was growing both. During most of the year I visit this spot daily, especially in the late afternoons when the light turns golden. Even in February beneath the snow on relatively mild days mosses and lichens are photosynthesizing. An amazing thought. I love the lowlands for many reasons but one of the most important is that because these are the places where diminutive beings grow. I never tire of running my hand over silken coats of a clump of hair cap moss or the prickly surface of a pincushion. Whenever I examine lichens I am drawn into a magical Lilliputian land or forest…
To digress for a moment… I cannot write about mosses without thinking about my favorite forest, some distance from here. There I am surrounded by so many varieties of moss that I cannot name them all. This naming is a project I intend to engage in this summer having already bathed myself in the wonder that such places still exist. I observe first, falling under the spell of the forest. Only later will I return to do some fieldwork and research…I am impatient for a change in season. White is monotonous and I am tired of the glaring snow crust that separates me from the earth, stilling her song.
Moss not only grows on glacial rocks, but on old stone -walls, trees, clay pots, brick, roofs and even in the in cracks of city pavement, to give the reader just a few examples. Mosses reproduce in two ways, sexually by producing spores that the wind disperses, and by branching or fragmentation, which is what happens when a small piece of moss is broken away from another and begins a new life. Mosses have the ability to clone themselves.
Because mosses have amazing capacities to adapt these tiny plants find ways to thrive in deserts, dark caves, rocky ledges, and frigid mountains; they are capable of surviving very extreme conditions. They can continue to photosynthesize until temperatures dip below zero. In fiercely hot environments like prairies or deserts, mosses become dormant. Desiccated mosses can survive temperatures up to about 200 degrees F.
Mosses and their cousins, liverworts and hornworts, the latter live in water, are classified as bryophytes.
These are very ancient plants. Kimmerer says they date back to about 450 million years ago and have survived earth’s five major extinction periods. There are about 1500 to 2500 species of moss and they occur on every continent and in every ecosystem. There is some controversy around whether lichens or mosses were the first organisms to populate the earth but for me, either way the point is the same. Plants in some form were around 400 plus million years ago and we share approximately 50 percent of our DNA with them. Now that we are contending with a sixth extinction, mosses are becoming threatened for the first time because of habitat loss, water/air pollution and overharvesting.
Mosses are non-flowering plants that produce spores and have stems and leaves. However, unlike most plants mosses do not have roots. They do have rhizoids that are small hair-like structures whose function is to anchor the plant to rocks, tree bark, soil etc. Some mosses absorb nutrients through rhizoids and all draw in moisture and minerals from rain. Water is distributed evenly throughout the highly absorbent surface that acts like a sponge. Mosses soak up rainfall and maintain moisture in the substrate below keeping conditions around them very humid. This ability to hold moisture attracts other plants to moss covered areas. This is one reason we often see mosses and seedlings growing together. These plants create their own miniature microclimates, and all around them other plants thrive.
Mosses also play a critical role in the development of new ecosystems. They’re among the first plants to colonize disturbed sites after fires or when an area has been stripped of its forest. Mosses stabilize the soil and retain water, practices that contribute to the growth of other plant species.
Mosses also impact the temperature of the soil, both warming it up and cooling it down depending on the environment.
In hot places, they can protect tree roots by shading and insulating the soil from high temperatures. In the Arctic they have an opposite effect on temperature. They can prevent the warmth of the sun from reaching the ground and reduce the speed at which ice thaws, keeping it cooler for longer.
Some mosses are luminous. The ones that grow in caves have adapted to lower light conditions. One of the most well known cave mosses is dragons gold (Schistostega pennata) that apparently glows an unearthly luminescent emerald green. Inside the threadlike structures (protonema) chloroplasts gather together to receive the maximum amount of light. Lens shaped cells help focus the light and the reflection from these chloroplasts is what creates the luminous glow.
Not surprisingly, mosses are responsible for biodiversity in moist forests, wetlands, mountains and tundra ecosystems because they offer microhabitats that are critical to the survival of many organisms. Moss communities provide valuable shelter for insects to live, lay their eggs and hunt for food. Turtles frogs, toads and salamanders benefit from mosses ability to regulate temperatures. In Canada turtles spend the winter under sphagnum moss, and around here small frogs burrow in the sphagnum that surrounds my little amphibian pond. Even on a day when it is well below freezing mosses living on a rock may be bathed in liquid water. Sphagnum mosses form spongy carpets on the ground in the lowlands like the ones in my forest stretching across tree roots that might otherwise dry out. They inhabit the edge of marshes, and make up the bulk of heaths playing a vital role in the creation of peat bogs. Mosses have an exceptional ability to remove toxins from the water. And whenever you see moss growing on living (not decaying) trees they are healthy.
Kimmerer also writes that looking at any moss.
community is uncannily similar to the experience she had as a researcher in the Amazon because the sheer volume of living beings in the jungle matched what she sees when she studies moss colonies under her microscope! The structure and function of both is the same.
One very curious note is that although we know that mosses liverworts and lichen all interact we don’t know how these relationships work.
In Maine we have a multitude of different kinds of mosses. For those just beginning to look for moss visit the edge of a swamp or pond and you will greeted with the acidic loving sphagnum moss along with pitcher plants, sundews, small pink orchids, and cranberries (depending on the season). Follow a stream and you will find feather and silver moss, red stem moss, brown fork moss, and two of my favorites, brocade and hair cap moss. There are so many to choose from. I could go on and on here.
As I already mentioned, in the early spring after the snow is gone and before the leaves begin to unfurl, the sight of the burgeoning emerald green moss and lichen colony below my house is a siren’s call that I can seldom resist. Yesterday we had a mild day and I gingerly snow – shoed down to the brook thinking I might uncover a little of the snow – capped rock to see some moss. Much to my surprise, a strip about three feet in length on the southwest corner of this granite boulder was clear of snow and oh, the largest clump of hair cap moss was a brilliant emerald. As I stood there enchanted by both a myriad of mosses and tiny lichen forests, joy surged through me. Winter will not last forever!
Yesterday at dusk the deer appear at the edge of a frozen brook; they find a crack in the ice – a pool of open water. This morning a thaw, temporary respite. Ashes melt old ice. No wind. The moment I see the first turkey I become one, casting off my weary winter self. A miracle of sorts, that one can shed mind’s conditioning even for a moment, to join these gentle birds.
February’s Bear Moon has an aspect that belongs to Brigid….
One legend has it that a crystal drop from Brigid’s mantle touched the earth and became a deep clear lake. I love this image. I think of Brigid’s blue lake as a kind of mysterious bowl that holds different ways of experiencing time. If I throw in a hook I might catch time in the round as I experience it as seasonal cycles. Ah, I have caught a January feeling through a partridge. A childhood loss – memory of a loved one becomes a beloved forest bathed in peace after I throw in the next hook. Maybe I am reeling in a future that releases me from a haunted house. A beloved cousin suddenly surfaces from the deep. In Brigid’s Lake time does not flow like a river even when I experience it that way – Time is simply there as unexplored potential waiting to be lived.
Star Baby Lives.
( I no sooner write these words when Billy sends me Star Baby’s picture)
In these endless days of winter white, I hunger for something beyond monotonous gray or cerulean blue sky against bare branches, a brook so frozen over I hardly know its there, pines with drooping needles. Winter storms and raging winds are exhausting, and the amount of ice has made snowshoeing difficult even before the heavy snow hit. When I can, I snowshoe through my woods noting the plethora of birch seeds that cover the ground providing food for the birds. The grouse are absent and the only tracks around (besides squirrels and deer) are those of snowshoe hares and cottontails. Although these two Lagomorph species are supposed to have different niches both share this spot. I pay close attention to the trunks of trees identifying various species as I pass by and I look for lichens that have fallen from the trees. I bring a few back to the house and give them a bath in warm water. I let them soak in the warmth until like frozen children their color returns! Afterwards my brittle gray friends transform, some turning bright green, all soft and yielding. They are now photosynthesizing, and to me at least they seem to glow. One of my favorites, the lichen I call “wrinkled lettuce” recently became a piece of prose:
When Lichen Comes to Life
When wrinkled lettuce
skin is torn from limbs,
blown by bitter winds
wet snow becomes
its resting place.
If the deer don’t
find it first
I’ll take some home.
In a bowl of
one springs to life –
sage and crimson
burnt sienna, umber,
offer refuge –
placing supple green
gifting a friend
white and cold.
Four billion years
of knowledge hidden
by those folds.
In the stillness
that settles after
any storm I know I’ll
another miracle –
animal and plant –
Algae living in
what is needed
for the other.
Air to breathe.
This is more
Most don’t even
know you exist.
But you protect
Spruce and Pine –
call out warnings
from the tallest trees,
The picture of wrinkled lettuce is a foliose or leafy lichen with the usual unpronounceable Latin name: Platismatia tuckermanii. Highly sensitive to air pollution it will not grow in many areas. Thankfully, it still falls from the highest branches of the pines and spruces in my woods, although not in abundance or size like it once did. A troubling shift.
So what exactly is a lichen? Lichens are made up of two organisms. One is a fungus.
Fungi are in a separate kingdom from plants. They don’t contain chlorophyll so must rely on other organisms for food. Most decompose organic matter and their barely visible mycelial threads run just under the surface in temperate areas and are microscopic in deserts but this skin covers the entire earth. Mycorrhizal mycelium is responsible for communication, transporting water, carbon and nutrients between trees and plants in the forest.
Algae are classified in a kingdom that is separate from plants and fungi. There are several types of algae: green, brown, red, gold. They can survive in salt water and in freshwater and in any environment if attached to lichen.
Cyanobacteria are part of the bacterial kingdom. They have to live in water. Sometimes they pair up with an alga and a fungus to partner with lichen.
It’s important not to confuse lichens with moss. Although both are non – vascular plants mosses have tiny leaves and are called bryophytes; they are believed to be the ancestors of the plants we have today.
To recap, lichens are two organisms that function as a single stable unit. Lichens are made up of a fungus that is living in a symbiotic relationship with an alga and/or a cyanobacterium. The dominant partner is the fungus, which gives the lichen the majority of its characteristics, from its shape to its fruiting bodies, tasty mushrooms. There are about 17,000 or more species of lichen – the statistics vary.
Fungi cannot photosynthesize because they lack chlorophyll but they are very clever; they have paired up with algae (and sometimes with cyanobacteria) who can harvest light from the sun and make carbohydrates, fats, and/or proteins. Cyanobacteria (when present) also provide fungi with the additional benefit of being able to convert nitrogen to ammonia, which is a more useable form of this element (nitrogen fixation). In return for providing the fungi with food algae/cyanobacteria also offer protection from damaging ultraviolet rays, sometimes forming a shell with pigments that absorb the light. The fungal partner is composed of filaments that are known as hyphae. They branch in every direction but also grow as single tips. Lichens can survive extreme conditions. Four hundred and eighty –five million years ago ( dates vary with sources) lichens were probably the first living beings to grow on rocks. They helped to break down stone to create the soil needed by more complex plants.
Many scientists believe that lichens arrived on land before the vascular plants did but lately this idea has become more controversial. Some say mosses (also non vascular) came first. It’s important to remember that science is more about the process of discovery so the ‘facts’ and context (often not even mentioned) are always changing. What’s important is the antiquity.
The fungal part of a lichen is known as the micobiont and the algal or cyanobacterial compnent is known as the photobiont. The thallus or body gives the lichen its outer appearance. What fascinates me is that these two (or three) actually have to choose each other, and after they do they live in a symbiotic (mutualistic) relationship for the rest of their long lives as two or more organisms who can no longer survive on their own.
There are different forms of lichen. For example, foliose lichen look flat and leafy (my wrinkeld lettuce lichen); fruticose lichen have a wavy tufted appearance, squamulose lichen have flat overlapping scales; and crustose lichen form a tightly attached crust.
When lichens are dry or desiccated they look drab, brown or blackish in color, but once wet the fungal cells become transparent and the colors of the green algae and the darker but no less astonishing blue-gray colors of the cyanobacteria shine through. The lichens are completely transformed from withered dead looking organisms to living beings with vibrant hues in less than twenty minutes when put in water.
Lichens are compelling “creatures” who have many important functions. I have already mentioned that they can fix nitrogen, and that they can break down the surface of rock releasing minerals and chemicals that will eventually create soil for other plants. They provide food for deer, moose, caribou, reindeer and other animals. The life cycles of many native animals are intricately tied to lichens. For example, Ruby throated hummingbirds line their nests with lichen, some insects protect themselves from predators by looking like lichens. Lichens produce unique biochemical to fend off herbivores, prevent freezing, and stop seeds from germinating in their soft moist tissue.
Many people don’t know that lichens possess anti microbial, anti fungal, anti bacterial, and anti viral properties that have been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to treat various illnesses. I make a tincture out of Usnea, a pale green lichen that helps me with respiratory issues when I have a cold. Lichens absorb pollutants like heavy metals, carbon and sulfur, and when extracted give us an indication of the levels of these pollutants in the atmosphere (Bio- monitoring). Some lichens like my wrinkled lettuce lichen can’t tolerate air pollution as already mentioned, while others like the crusty lichens of the desert are more forgiving. Another important function of lichens is that they provide a mode of survival in harsh environments where algae cannot normally survive (due to lack of any water). Finally, I think lichens are important because they are so beautiful to look at, a golden orange, lemon, sage, sea, sap green, burnt sienna, umber, mole brown feast for any artist’s eyes. I have an old spruce that is full of Usnea, a sea green lichen that cascades over the sides of its many encrusted branches. I can lose myself in this unruly sky tangle until my arching neck begins to ache, returning me to the present.
There are approximately 3,600 species of lichens in North America and those are just the ones we know about. New discoveries are being made every year. Lichens can be found growing in almost all parts of the terrestrial world, from the ice-free polar areas to the tropics, from tropical rainforests to those desert areas free of mobile sand dunes. While generally terrestrial a few aquatic lichens are known.
I hope I have intrigued the discerning reader to pay more attention to lichens during these long winter months when walking or snowshoeing in the woods offers an opportunity that is almost always lost when spring blossoms in all its generous green glory making it so difficult to focus on such subtle creaturely organisms. And perhaps like me you might find a lichen that isn’t even supposed to grow here at all!
The American Beaver, our first ecologist, personal narrative
The morning my dad died I awakened from a dream that told me that my father had just become a beaver. A phone call confirmed his death minutes before. That previous spring I had fallen in love with beavers and had been struck by their incredibly industrious behavior. They were always working, and reminded me of my father who was then a retired aeronautical engineer who once built our house in his free time.
At the time I lived in a very isolated area where the beavers were active during the day as well as at dawn and dusk. Around dawn beginning in the spring I would take my coffee down to the edge of the pond to sit on a bench my father had built to watch the beavers begin their day. They had already felled the poplars and birch closest to the stream. Now beavers were climbing the hill to gnaw down larger trees. I marveled over how methodical they were. After the animals got used to me I examined the channels they dug at the edge of the stream. I watched them using muddy paws to dig up and remove the detritus. These waterways once completed, flooded immediately, making it easier for the beavers to get logs and branches to the water. It wasn’t until early summer that the two kits appeared following one parent or the other. The first time I saw a little brown head with two tiny white sticks in his mouth following an adult I could hardly believe it. Obviously, the little one had gnawed off the nourishing cambium for breakfast before swimming behind his parent to the dam that was about 40 feet across. I watched both deposit their sticks/logs in the sturdy structure before the little beaver disappeared.
In the center of the pond there was a large domed stick house where the beavers lived. The chambers of this structure lay above the waterline; entrances were installed below for protection from predators and to make it easy for beavers to reach their stash of winter food. I couldn’t tell the difference between the sexes of the parents (later I learned that it is almost impossible to do so) but their devotion to each other and their children was obvious. There was also a third beaver who worked these waters, evidently an older sibling from last years litter? I couldn’t be sure.
Although I couldn’t identify a beaver’s sex I always called one ‘he’ or ‘she’ never an “it”. I accord all animals sentience. Humans share about 60 percent of our DNA with beavers, so we are literal relatives. Using the pronouns of he or she allows beavers to be the unique creatures they are with their own attributes and abilities. This has absolutely nothing to do with anthropomorphizing which is what humans do when they attribute human-like characteristics to animals. This sentimentalizing of animals has nothing to do with who they are. Materialistic Science is allergic to values. Using the word “it” objectifies the animal making it easy to continue to use animals for human purposes while denying personhood, for lack of a better word. Two extremes; neither position allows an animal to be seen. With this much said, I find it fascinating that animal behavior often resembles that of humans, reinforcing the reality that humans and beavers are related.
My continuous presence seemed to intrigue the beaver family, and as long as I sat quietly on my bench one of the adults would approach me, occasionally coming so close I could almost touch the animal’s head. The mole brown fur was lush and shiny glowing burnt sienna in the evening light. One night around dusk an adult actually climbed out of the water to sit by me on my bench (sitting on one’s haunches with a flat tail balancing a rotund body seemed like quite a challenge). I was astonished and deeply moved by this act of trust. When the beaver slipped back into the water it was so dark I could barely see the animal’s V wake in the water.
I investigated the dam on a regular basis often walking across it with ease. Now that the beavers were used to me I brought another bench down to sit at the opposite edge of the pond right next to the dam. The first time I wore a bug net the beavers revolted. The one closest to me slapped his tail and disappeared underwater the second he saw me. When the next beaver appeared I tried to reassure him with my voice (I often spoke to the ones that showed interest in me). Nothing worked. One look at me in a bug net and a tail slapping disappearance occurred almost instantaneously! The beavers won. I gave up the bug net. One day I was startled by another commotion that turned out to be one of a family of otters that had moved in upstream from the dam, but that like the moose family that also inhabited this pond is another story.
From a distance a dam looks quite uncomplicated but seeing one close up reveals how intricately these dams are constructed. First logs are placed in a perpendicular position, driven into the mud. Crisscrossed in between are smaller branches. More branches are added until the desired water level is reached. Stones and old leaves are brought up from the bottom of the pond and the dam is always sealed with layers of mud. If there is even the smallest leak a beaver arrives instantly. The sound of even a little water running will galvanize a beaver into action, even during the winter. For this reason there is always an open space somewhere close to the dam so that in an emergency the beaver can emerge to repair the damage.
By early summer the adult beavers would approach me as I sat watching them, swim by, and then return to the channels to bring down another tree. Beavers move awkwardly on land. But gnawing down a poplar or maple was another matter entirely. I gazed at them in awe as they sat with their flat tails balancing their chunky bodies as they sunk their orange incisors into a tree. The three beavers felled trees towards the water, sometimes in a matter of hours. I never saw one get hurt by a falling tree although later I read that sometimes they do. Depending on the size of the logs the beavers either cut them up and hauled the pieces into the nearest channel or dragged a whole sapling into the water. Many branches were stripped before being cut up into sticks. Nourishing cambium sustained these workers who took turns felling the trees. Beavers have amazingly strong curved iron rich orange incisors that keep growing throughout a beaver’s lifetime.
By mid summer the two kits were following the adults to the channels almost every evening but neither had ever approached me, although by now all the adults had befriended me. One little fellow couldn’t decide if he could risk getting near me or not. He kept swimming towards me and then created a circle by swimming away. I sat statue-like on my bench hardly breathing, allowing bugs to drain me of a few pints of blood! Finally this little beaver decided to climb up the bank next to me. What I remember most vividly was his beady black eyes staring at me with obvious curiosity; I was thrilled. He didn’t stay long, but this first visit was followed by others, and now both kits often approached me in the water although most of time they just swam around in front of me. When mid summer temperatures climbed too high in the afternoon the beavers disappeared for a few hours re appearing again around 5- 6 PM.
Beginning in August I noticed a change in their behavior although the beavers continued to fell more trees. Large ungainly bristly branches with leaves sometimes seemed to be moving along in the water by invisible means. The beavers were starting to prepare for winter. Tree tops were being transported to the front of the dome shaped lodge where they would suddenly disappear under water! Although I couldn’t see what was going on I knew they were anchoring these branches and small trees to the bottom of the pond where they would stay until the water froze over completely. The kits didn’t participate in this diving process but one or two them would often follow an adult to the lodge. The kits were bigger now often shadowing an adult with small branches to help shore up the dam, or add to the lodge.
Fall brought more of the same food gathering activity, although the beavers were no longer as active all day long, and I no longer saw three adult beavers. I wondered if the older sibling had moved on to create his own dam somewhere else on this stream. There were plenty of good trees that lined this body of running water for miles, so food was abundant. I also knew that if these beavers met again they would recognize each other by scent. The bond of kinship is never broken.
I was already anticipating how much I would miss my friends when they entered their warm sleeping quarters in the lodge for the last time, and when November turned cold and ice covered the pond I somewhat reluctantly bid them goodbye. Beavers do not hibernate; however they rest during the winter usually only leaving their quarters for food or to defecate unless they hear water running.
I also walked over to the dam one last time to see if there had been any activity. The mud that the beavers had piled on top of both the dam and the lodge had frozen solid, and there was no sign of anyone. On my way back I counted twelve channels that led to the pond, all quite frozen.
One day I walked around on the hill above the pond that was quite open now, marveling over those lethal looking foot high tree spikes. Farther up I noticed there was one large poplar that a beaver had felled but for some reason, the tree had simply been left. The entire hill had piles of chips left around the gnawed stumps. The following spring this area exploded with blooming pink and white lady slippers that had been waiting in the wings for light.
In today’s world beavers are primarily considered pests. Roughly 20 plus thousand beavers are killed each year, a disgraceful number considering that these animals were our first ecologists. When colonists came to this country it was full of beavers who made sure there were adequate wetlands (“cradles of diversity”), bogs, ponds, and forested areas. Streams were stocked with millions of beaver dams; birds and all manner of wildlife. Fish, including salmon, were in great abundance. Beavers not only shaped this continent they altered the ecology of this land in ways that enriched it. When the demand for beaver pelts became fashionable so many were killed by trappers that the millions of beavers on this continent almost went extinct. As the beavers were extirpated in state after state the contours of the land changed in irreparable ways. Gone were the wetlands, gone were ponds, gone were the newly born forested areas that supported so many large animals. These marvelous engineers, our first ecologists who took care of the land, its animals, fish, and birds were absent, and what was left was rich soil to be mined by the colonists who farmed until they eventually ruined it.
We are learning that beavers are a keystone species. With more weather extremes in the forecast for the future due to climate change and other human induced factors, it is time to support beaver restoration – not kill more beavers.
Beaver ponds help slow down the flow of water, providing natural water storage and flood control. The ponds recharge groundwater, which keeps streams running when rain and snowmelt are scarce. Ponds also spread water across the floodplains so more green plants can grow to feed terrestrial wildlife and livestock.
Fish like trout and salmon thrive because beaver ponds diversify stream habitat and produce more aquatic plants and insects. Plus, the side channels, sloughs, and meanders created by dams add complexity to stream habitats, giving fish more places to hide, rest, or spawn.
Culvert protecting flow devices have been around for more than 20 years. They work efficiently and yet the fish and wildlife organizations insist they don’t, although entire towns have been saved by these ‘beaver deceivers’. The excuse offered by fish and wildlife organizations is that more research/more data is needed. Meanwhile Vermont has installed more than two hundred flow devices since 2000 that have worked so well to deter beavers that success rate approaches 90 percent. Beaver deceivers are a non –lethal way to “manage” beavers when they become pests.
Lest the reader believe I don’t know firsthand about beavers creating problems it is imperative that I finish my own story. I experienced both sides of having beavers as neighbors. The last year I lived in this area the beavers flooded the road so completely that it was impossible for a car to enter or leave the property. I attempted to let the water level drop by opening the dam each day, but every night the beavers rebuilt it. Desperate for a solution, I tried to find someone to live trap the beavers and move them to another area. I was unsuccessful. When I called the Environmental Protection Agency for help they told me that I had no choice. Shooting the beavers was the only option.