MARKETS, MOHICANS, AND BEAVERS
In 1608, her own family drove a beaver out of the watershed of her birth. That’s what beaver families do, when a colony’s population grows too large. She trundled off over a rise, seeking water that would save her from wolves and bobcats.
The end of her journey was a South Taconics stream, one that had been conquered and then abandoned by beavers before, over and over over many centuries. But in 1608 the dam that had once formed a pond had vanished, and this stream sliced through small meadows pocked with stands of aspen and red cedars, snarls of blackberry and raspberry, clusters of staghorn sumac, assemblies of highbush blueberry. Pines and hemlocks stretched their branches wide, killing the competition with shade. Sycamores studded the stream’s sides.
When our beaver found her new home, she tunneled into its banks and dug out a burrow. Now she could spend her days feeding cautiously near her refuge, or else unassailable inside. Food was abundant, because a beaver can eat almost any part of any plant, but she relished most the inner bark of those aspens. It was early summer, and the sycamore leaves were still a yellowish green.
A male beaver, another refugee from another stream, arrived in July. The pair got to work, first diverting the stream, at a narrow point, to weaken the flow. Their incisors (iron-reinforced) gnawed through nearby trees (something like six per day). These became poles, thrust into the mud as a base. Trunks as thick as three feet in diameter became logs jammed into the dam, along with rocks, sticks, grass and anything else available. Mud dredged from the stream’s floor patched any holes.
The stream backed up.
What a burst of new life, triggered by a wall of logs and sticks! By the next summer, bacteria, busy breaking down dead vegetation, provided meals for protozoa, which fed microscopic creatures with too many legs to count: cyclops, daphnia, gammarus, which nourished tadpoles and wood frogs and toads. Tree swallows skimmed the pond to snare dragonflies and damselflies that were busy hunting smaller bugs. Ribboning through the muddy water: sticklebacks and minnows and brook trout double the size they would have reached in a stream. Muskrats (tolerated by their hosts even though they sometimes tunneled into the dam) built a scruffier-looking lodge at the pond’s edge. Ducks fed on duckweed, and turkey waded into the water, feasting, when leopard frogs emerged to lay eggs.
There’s an uneasy balance in the South Taconics, no different from any Eastern forest. Open ground seems to want to move through stages to a stable climax forest of the sort the first settlers admired: tall, massive chestnuts, oaks, hickories, hemlocks, deep shade, sparse undergrowth. But this landscape is not an ideal habitat for most wildlife. They flourish under edge conditions, where woods offer shelter and open fields give browse.
Thanks to the beavers’ incisors, the rim of the pond had become a region of pencil-point stumps and left-behind logs useful to all sorts of creatures. Birds darted and sang there: woodcocks, snipes, red-winged blackbirds. Blue-winged teals found nests in grass close to water. Woodpeckers gouged grubs out of the dead wood and dug homes there. Abandoned nests kept baby ducks safe from predators and easily able to drop down into the water. But garter snakes and brown snakes and milksnakes lurked in the grass of the new field that grew with every felled tree.
Female field mice can produce thirteen litters in a year, each containing four to eight pink thumb-sized candidates for survival. A mouse three months old is an elder. But each acre of marshy field around the pond supported as many as 150 little mice, population constantly replenished: food for owls, hawks, wolves, foxes, bobcats, even bears.
No ecosystem is permanent, but by 1611 the pond reached a level of uncommon stability. Bullfrogs need a few years for their young to develop, but now their egg masses spread like a filmy curtain over parts of the water’s surface. Blue herons paid visits. Water snakes attacked fish and frogs, and tried to dodge snapping turtles. Minks targeted the muskrat families. The pond was now part of a rhythm that pushed across the continent: migratory ducks, visiting in spring and fall — coots, mallards, gallinales, rails. Pied-billed grebes nested atop the muskrat house.
In this year, the third generation of the beaver clan worked well upstream and down of the original dam, leaving a network of new ponds, marshes, wet fields. In order to bring more food within easy reach, they dug canals as straight as gridlines out away from the stream, expanding edge conditions. Their borders were marked by mudpies, scented with squirts from castor and anal glands, warning wandering beavers to stay out.
By now a reserve of carbon and nutrients had built up behind the dams, something like ninety-five percent more than the stream could ever have supported. The tranquil water flow allowed a steady buildup of nitrogen as well. The upshot of the beaver’s relentless work: an abundance of organic matter that sustained an intricate scheme of life.
For centuries, Russia and Scandinavia supplied the rest of Europe with beaver furs. Beaver furs are uniquely well-suited for the felting process, by which the fur is removed from the skin and made, through heat and pressure, into a strong and pliable felt. Europe loved felts for coats and capes to stay cozy, linings for shoes, and especially hats: hats for fashion, hats for status, hats to be cool while keeping warm. The Canterbury Tales describe a fourteenth century merchant, “In motley, and high on his horse he sat / Upon his head a Flandrish beaver hat.”
The trade hummed, with Russians controlling the secrets of the felting process, until it destroyed itself. By the end of the sixteenth century, beaver had been hunted to the point of extinction in Europe.
In the South Taconics — for who knows how many centuries — Mohicans had hunted beaver. They relished the meat, and considered roast beaver tail a delicacy. The teeth could be made into cutting tools, skins used for bedding. According to Hendrick Aupaumut, a late 18th century leader who left behind an account of his tribe’s history and old ways, beaver were hunted in fall and in spring, “as soon as the rivers, creeks and ponds are opened, but they used to take good care not to stay over two months.”
How Native Americans hunted beaver is crucial to this story, because beaver are not easy prey. William Wood, in a 1680 description of New England, acknowledged that “Beaver are too cunning for English. Only Indians had skill to catch them.” One way, which must have required quite a large and well-organized hunting party, was to destroy the dam, thus draining the pond and exposing the lodge. Once the exits were blocked, the lodge could be attacked with axes by some hunters, while others stood ready with spears or snares or nets to kill or capture the escapees. In winter, hunters waiting at air holes could intercept beavers fleeing hacked-up lodges. If the pond was frozen, and the “smash the dam” strategy wasn’t workable, more skill was required. The ice-hidden entrance to the lodge had to be ascertained, so that stakes could be driven across it to force the beavers into a narrow exit. Then the trick was to chop a hole through the ice, place a twig down through the water against this exit, and wait until a wiggle in the twig betrayed exiting beavers. Then, when the entrance was quickly blocked with stakes, a beaver had no choice but to come up for air through an icehole watched by a patient, ready Indian. Even more patient hunters could utilize pits, deadfalls, and snares set on beaver pathways.
So those beavers that began to colonize that South Taconics stream in 1608 were always under threat from not only wolves and bobcats, but also Mohicans. Their generation, however, lived (at least some of them) under an invisible shield.
Mohican tradition held that prey, any prey, had to be taken selectively in order not to anger animal spirits. To a Mohican, after all, animal spirits were a force every bit as powerful as the wind in your face or the cold of a winter day. Every Mohican belonged to one of three clans that drew their identities from animal spirits: Bear, Wolf, Turtle. A young person had to gain an animal spirit ally to make their way in the world. So in 1608, if animal spirits demanded that a good many of those South Taconic beavers must be left to thrive, those spirits were obeyed.