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In Castoria

It's worth considering how the two images of the beaver – one focused upon its hind parts and the other upon its industry – are but two acts in a single history.

... make no distinction as to species or geographical region. “The beaver” is for them something with only a generic reality, and as Aristotle already understood, something that exists only as a genus but not as a species is no more able to exist as an individual, and thus cannot be part of reality.

... make no distinction as to species or geographical region. “The beaver” is for them something with only a generic reality, and as Aristotle already understood, something that exists only as a genus but not as a species is no more able to exist as an individual, and thus cannot be part of reality.

By the following century the majority of authors reporting from Canada had converged upon the view that the dams and lodges of C. canadensis were indeed magnified, nay magnificent, structures, and no mere hovels. Nowhere is this clearer than in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix's Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France of 1744, which collects letters and journal entries from Québec from several previous years. In a letter to the Duchesse de Lesdiguières of March, 1721, Charlevoix writes that “the beaver [Castor] was not unknown in France before the discovery of America; we find among the old Titles of the Hatmakers of Paris the rules for the fabrication of beaver hats [Chapeaux Bièvres]: for the beaver and the castor are absolutely the same animal, but whether it is because the European beaver has become extremely rare, or because its fur is not of the same quality as the American beaver, we seldom speak anymore of any other than this latter.”[18] Charlevoix surveys the anatomy of the American beaver, and declares its tail to be its most remarkable feature. He repeats Perrault's correction, complaining that the ancients were ignorant of the “true testicles” of the beaver.[19]

Eventually the author turns to the “industry and works of beavers”, not only describing the work they do, but also enthusing about the model that this work might provide for the French settlers in their precarious life in that hostile land:

Here, Madame, is everything that the beavers might help to bring to this colony for [the improvement of] commerce: their industry, their planning, the concertedness and the subordination that we admire in them, their attention to outfitting themselves with comforts whose sweetness we did not previously know beasts to be capable of experiencing-- all of this furnishes to man even better instruction than the ant, to whose example the Holy Scripture sends the lazy. They are, at least among quadrupeds, what the bees are among the flying insects. I have not heard it said by educated people that they have a king or a queen; nor is it true that, when they work in a group, there is a leader who commands, and who punishes the lazy ones. But by virtue of that instinct given to animals by Him whose providence governs them, each one knows what it should do, and does it all without confusion, without complication, and with an order that one cannot but admire.[20]

Charlevoix describes the construction of the beaver lodge or “village” [Bourgade], declaring that it would not be out of place to call it a “little Venice”.[21] In order to obtain the needed wood, “three or four beavers position themselves around a large tree, and end up bringing it to the ground with their teeth. That's not all: they take their measures so well that it always falls in the direction of the water... One might say,” he concludes, “that these architects have foreseen everything.”[22] In the construction of the dam, “the ruler and the compass are found in the eye of the great master of arts and sciences... In a word it would be difficult for our own best workers to construct anything more solid and more regular.”[23]

None of this virtuosity, he maintains, is to be found in the European beaver. Charlevoix is not aware of the precise taxonomical difference between the two populations. The American beaver differs in his view from the European beaver only in this, that it lives in America, and has adapted its habits to the exigencies of that land. The beaver remains an exemplum, but no longer of chastity.

When we move ahead to the middle of the 20th century, we find many of the themes that animated Charlevoix's writing on beavers still in place. In the 1950 Walt Disney live-action documentary In Beaver Valley, the animal protagonist is still held up as the model of the hard worker. The beaver is contrasted with the otter, the otter as other, the “Gypsy” of nature, who is for its part, as an authoritative off-camera narrator tells us, “as frolicksome as beavers are industrious”. But if the beaver still works hard, the very idea of work has changed almost beyond recognition. It is no longer performed by settlers to secure their very survival, but by “citizens” of an established polity. The beaver “has no use for frivolity. Nor would he even pause to pass the time of day with a fellow worker... He works the night shift too,” the narrator explains, as the camera cuts to a moonlit scene accompanied by a symphony of frogs and crickets.

Charlevoix, sharing in the utopian vision that animated so many early settlers of the American continent, saw the beavers as primitive communists of sorts, working without compulsion in the absence of kings or queens, or even foremen, in harmony with a nature that would otherwise kill them. Mr. Disney, a decade or so before In Beaver Valley, had been busy busting unionization efforts of workers at Walt Disney Studios, smearing those involved as communists and traitors. For him, beavers do not work freely or in a way that flows naturally from their essence; rather, they work in “shifts”; as “solid citizens”, they do not ask why, or whether, things might be arranged any better. One senses they might be recruited as the perfect scabs for a certain Anaheim theme park, beavers within mouse and duck costumes within the free-market labor pool, silent about their low wages, too busy to protest, and testicles or no, far, far too busy to lapse into animal vice.

Coda A Venn diagram featuring the busy beaver in one circle and the beaver as emblem of sexuality and its possible overcoming in the other would surely also feature, in their overlapping middle, the “eager beaver”. Eager for what? To build something? To secrete castoreum? To rid itself of its ...