Markets, Mohicans and Beavers Part Three


The first lesson of Economics 101 is scarcity, the simple observation that humans can never fully satisfy their needs. From the hungry person at the bottom of the pyramid to the dissatisfied souls at the top, everyone wants something more than they can get. Economics studies the calculations and measures and scrambles people use to try to cross those gaps.

The system that the Dutch brought to America and the system we struggle with today are the same in one essential way. The answer to scarcity, for Evert Wendell and for almost any 21st century American, is more: find more, make more, earn more, spend more. In January, 2016, as I write this, headlines in the morning Times speak of a captured Mexican drug kingpin worth a billion dollars, falling stock prices as an economic bubble bursts in China, and “52 Places to Go this Year.” But I could pick any day, any year, and the stories would share a similar theme: acquisition, growth, expansion, the rewards, and the consequences suffered.
“More” is not, however, the only answer to the question of scarcity. Another response is to simply need less. The Mohicans, and most of the American tribes, lived in societies that needed astonishingly less than I, in my oil and propane heated home, my clothes made on the other side of the world, surrounded by an array of machines I depend on and don’t understand. They took what the seasons offered: corn, beans and squash crops in fall, meat in winter, berries and fish runs in spring, and an abundance of fish, seafood, migratory birds in summer. Don’t think they led lives of exemplary asceticism; they loved jewelry, paint, and other adornments. They wanted things they didn’t need. (There’s some evidence that they became increasingly picky about the color and quality of the strouds they traded furs for, allowing one to wonder if this vast trans-Atlantic trade was driven, on both sides, by fashion.)
But their society, unlike ours, kept wants and needs in rough balance with resources. One striking fact: the Indians seemed to have accepted late winter hunger as a part of seasonal rhythms. They were capable, for a period of time at least, of barely even needing food.
When the Mohicans offered Juet those furs in 1609, two opposing cultures began to swing towards each other. When they collided, the Mohican way of life crumbled. Their means of survival, still rooted in an ancient hunter-gatherer past, became an appendix to global capitalism. Bows and arrows gave way to guns, pottery to metal, seasonal patterns of hunting and growing to an increasingly desperate scramble for the foreign goods they now depended on. Land deeds tell a heartbreaking story of the Mohicans, decade by decade, parcel by parcel, selling off their land until they were cornered into untenable scraps and finally forced west.
It’s easy to condemn them for this. Mohican leaders, as well as many Europeans, deplored the havoc alcohol brought the tribe. (Some witnesses said that women and children would hide in the woods when the men came home with rum, and emerge when the fighting was over.) But any judge of the Indians’ actions must also remember that alcoholism is a disease, and most of all, not ignore the great dusk that had fallen over these people: the smallpox, cholera and other European-born diseases that may have killed ninety percent of the original American population. They participated in the shattering of their own culture, but that culture must have been deeply cracked already.
It’s also too easy to dream that our American land was once in perfect balance with its stewards. Every society is in motion, and who can say for certain how sustainable Indian society was in the long, long run? Northeastern populations had been rising since the advent of agriculture: could Indian numbers have eventually outstripped resources?
Still. Trying to peek forward and backward into the centuries, I can’t help concluding that the Mohican way of life had a far better chance of lasting than ours. The foundation of capitalism is a paradox: eternal growth. As long as populations and productivity rise, the system continues. So far, we haven’t hit its limits.

How long before those South Taconics beavers were trapped and killed? Clearly: not long.
The major Mohican population centers lay along the Hudson, maybe thirty-five miles from the Taconics. Trails linked villages, in historic times, just west and east of the mountains. Using Seton’s population estimates, you could guess that the pre-European beaver population of all Columbia County was around 3,000. In 1633, 8,000 beaver skins were exported from New York.
Let’s say a crew of Mohican hunters climbed into the South Taconics in 1630, trapped the beaver out of the pond I’ve described, and marched away with the prized pelts. By that year the pond had already reached its maximum depth of five to six feet. It supported a little less aquatic life than in previous years; the shreds of gnawed wood that had gathered at the bottom discouraged the growth of plant life. The brook trout found less to eat and had lost some size. It was still a robust ecosystem.
First signs that the caretakers were gone: willows and osiers growing from unpeeled sticks atop the dams. Without the continual labor of repair, the dams opened, the pond drained, and the stream resumed its interrupted course. The lodge collapsed into a heap of sticks and mud. The stumps in the nearby cleared areas grew bacteria and fungi and harbored insects that bored through the trunks, broke them down, and fed woodpeckers and bears.
The edge zone around the pond welcomed wind-blown seeds of aspen, cottonwood, white pine, birch, ash. With no beavers around to eat them, and ample sunlight, seedlings grew quickly. Animal and bird droppings brought competition: seeds of cherry, juniper, blackberry and blueberry.
The exposed floor of that pond was quickly colonized by smartweed, food for migrating birds. Once it became a meadow, covered with a variety of grasses, it was home to rabbits, mice, woodchucks, and other prime fodder for predators. Strawberries and mushrooms sprouted.
Within a few years, the border between meadow and the edge zone began to blur, everywhere a dense growth of saplings. Further away from that dam that began it all, beaver-created marshes, bogs and forested wetlands persisted.
But the deep ponds were gone, for centuries, and all the life that flourished there.
I delighted my young son, in the early nineties, by leading him across the frozen pond just below the Mount Washington State Forest headquarters, and lying down beside him on top of a beaver lodge. When we pressed our ears against the roof of sticks, we heard the residents rustling around inside. Sometime in that same decade, my friend Dave True and I bushwhacked up a stream that feeds into Ashley Brook and found a complex of beaver dams, stretching up towards the east side of Alander Mountain. This was all gone when I hiked up there a few summers ago. Right now the beaver have extensive works just off the east side of the Mount Washington Road, and just a few years ago Guilder Pond (highest pond in Massachusetts) had an energetic population that kept plugging up the outlet stream and threatening to flood the road that leads up towards Mount Everett.
Andrew Madden, a wildlife biologist working for Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, told me he believes the beaver population in the Taconics plateaued decades ago. In 1928, a single beaver appeared near West Stockbridge, the first to be seen in the state within living memory. With little aid from humanity, the population grew until, by 1950, there were forty-five colonies west of the Connecticut River. There are currently something like 70,000 beaver in Massachusetts, but the population is expanding into beaver frontiers in the eastern, not western part of the state, helped in part by a 1990s law that limited trapping.
Beaver prefer young forage: alder, aspen, willow. The Taconics have been protected land since the 1930s, allowing a more mature forest of hemlock and oak to grow there. In addition, some Taconics streams are far from ideal beaver habitat. A cascade such as Race Brook, Andrew explained, might attract a young, roaming animal who might make an attempt to dam it, until a spring torrent flushed his efforts. As common sense would suggest, beaver need some kind of level area to work with. Not every stream in the South Taconics provides that.
Those empty ponds in the South Taconics? Probably headed towards meadow, new growth, young trees, and the arrival of future generations of beavers to cut and dam and trigger the cycle again.

Near Boston Corners, just where the Taconic Ridge slopes into flatter land, I watched a beaver swimming back and forth across its pond one evening. Only its head was visible, but the motion of its body underwater was clear in the pattern of ripples produced. It eyed me. My presence didn’t change its course. It didn’t seem to care that I was there.