The Village Idiot: Beaver Tales

By John Hopkins

In his book ‘Sajo and her Beaver People’ the author Grey Owl – widely acknowledged for his appreciation of our First Nations – remarks on the industriousness and intelligence of the beaver. He describes them as “the very wisest” among the creatures of the forest, and “especially respected” by the native Canadians.

I find I must also pay them a grudging respect, following the events of last autumn, although I might choose to use words like conniving and devious in my assessment.

We had been well aware that we shared our stretch of river with a family of beavers, among other wildlife, and we were quite prepared to live in harmony with them. We honestly try to fit in with the creatures around us, even if the geese and I didn’t get off on the right foot two years ago (Country Roads Fall 2015) and there are the issues with the party animals in the woodpile (Winter 2016-17).

So when we saw the beavers swimming by in the morning or evening, we smiled and waved and didn’t think too much of it. In fact, we were impressed at the regularity with which they made their passes, almost as if they were working to a finely honed internal schedule. We could almost predict their passage past our place by the time of day or the position of the sun in the sky.

When they started swimming closer and closer to our shore, including passing right under our dock, we thought it was fantastic. When one of them came up on shore for a brief rest not three feet from me, I took a video on my phone for my friends in the city to gawk at. Through all this it never crossed my mind that the beavers may have a darker purpose in mind.

Then one morning last fall as I was walking around outside I noticed that the view into our neighbour’s yard was particularly clear, unobstructed, and I couldn’t understand why. Then Nancy came out and, being a woman, she immediately understood what was missing. The large and flowering bush that had stood on the edge of the property had been cut down. It was there, on the ground, the trunk sheared cleanly. It turned out the culprits had taken down some of our neighbour’s trees near the water, and had started to attack a rather large poplar in our backyard. The culprits were clear – beavers! All this had been done quite surreptitiously under the cover of night. We had not heard a thing, and our two cats had certainly not acted as if anything unusual was happening outside – the female in particular is quite attentive (see earlier reference to women vs. men).

After some rapid online researching protecting trees from rampaging beavers, Nancy and I spent the afternoon wrapping the exposed trunks of nearby trees in wire mesh and went to bed that night hoping that we would not awaken to the sound of crackling branches and a loud thud as the beavers continued their lumber activities. There were no mishaps, and the autumn concluded with no further dramas.

Over the winter I’ve been reflecting on the events that led up to the beaver attack on our trees and bushes. All that time we had been watching them and plotting their schedule, had they actually been doing the same thing to us? Did they notice when we were sitting on the dock and when we weren’t, then return to their lodge each night and on a large graph record our habits and patterns, devising the perfect time to strike? Did they know when we would be in bed and therefore unaware of their attack? It was all so deceptively simple, like a plot out of a John Le Carre spy story. These beavers were operating right under our noses, letting us think we were observing them when it was actually the other way around… I still get chills up my spine just thinking about it. “The very wisest among animals” indeed, Grey Owl.

So now, as Spring arrives, I am starting to think more about the beavers, and what their plans might involve. Having found that we have wrapped tree trunks in wire mesh, will they move on to new targets, or do they have some other weapon up their sleeve? What new plot are they dreaming up? Or, being the cunning animals they are, is this all part of their plan, to torment me simply by making me worry about what they are plotting next?

What I do know is that, come the summer, I won’t be watching the beavers swim by with the same naïve innocence as last year. That’s right my oily-skinned friends – I will be spying on you. See how you like that! Then we’ll see who’s the wisest among animals…