Book review

Reviewed by  :   Debra Mihalic Staples

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Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Eager is a densely written book that covers an astonishing amount of history and science concerning beavers, and it’s more entertaining than you might expect. Ben Goldfarb, an award- winning environmental journalist, employs a wry, often witty, writing style, evident in such chapter titles as “Dislodged, “Realm of the Dammed,” and “California Streaming.” Yet he writes with respect for the work of the various individuals he consults, whose policies, beliefs, and methods reflect a wide range of acceptance for Castor canadensis in the landscape.

He describes how beavers help create and sustain wetlands, which provide habitat for other wildlife, filter surface water, and regulate flooding. Given that the United Nations Framework on Climate Change says wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests, it would seem like common sense to tolerate, even welcome, the presence of beavers.

But not everyone Goldfarb introduces us to is a Beaver Believer. Despite research that shows how beavers ensure clean, plentiful water and build structures and systems that help recharge aquifers, fireproof the landscape, and control floods, there is still strong anti-beaver sentiment across the country.

While providing in-depth natural history of the beaver that spans from prehistoric time, through fables and literature, to what we know about it today, Goldfarb establishes how the story of the beaver is also the story of water. He also delivers sobering histories of how governments and individuals have used beaver trapping to make fortunes, manipulate land values, and destroy communities of indigenous people. After hunting and habitat destruction took its toll, it’s remarkable that beavers survived past the nineteenth century, much less became recognized by scientists as a keystone species.

We learn about efforts to assist humans and beavers to coexist in the landscape, including the pros and cons of flow devices, relocation, and other methods. In some parts of the continent, reintroduction of beavers has been more successful than expected. One example: Goldfarb details how, despite popular narrative, the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and their effect on the elk, were not solely responsible for the recovery of the park’s riparian ecosystems; beaver played an integral part in the process, too, migrating south into the park from an area where they’d been reintroduced.

As this book shows, when there is conflict between beavers and humans, it stems from the beaver’s messy, chaotic, constantly shifting methods of shaping the landscape. This doesn’t mesh well with a human tendency for control and stability when it comes to land and water use.

Goldfarb’s writing is captivating, whether he’s composing complex research summaries, outlining ethical dilemmas, or weaving poetic descriptions. Eager will appeal to readers who appreciate fine writing about the natural world and those who wonder what this continent would look like if we allowed beavers to flourish.