Science  /  Book Review

A Fascinating History of Beavers Shows How the Species Shaped the U.S.

Leila Philip's book is thrilling, both on scientific and historical levels.

Leila Philip’s fascination with beavers was unexpected. As she recounts in her new book, “Beaverland,” it all began with a community of beavers near her home in Woodstock, Conn. She became intrigued by their “chunky and awkward” bodies, the meaning of their tails slapping against water and their ferocious work ethic. She and her dog became regular visitors to their pond.

“I felt almost uneasy about my obsession with the beavers, as if I had fallen into what was now a well-known trope in American nature writing,” Philip writes, “a woman of a certain age journeying into the natural world to discover solace. But my beavers were so completely determined, how could I not fall for them?”

And so, she finds herself one of the converts, just the latest “American eccentric” to throw herself into the study of beavers. But Philip is not the average nature writer. She once moved to Japan to learn traditional pottery, and in “Beaverland” she again joins a new culture with an anthropologist’s curiosity.

One of her guides is a trapper, who teaches her to skin a beaver. She also traces the old fur industry route as far as the Pacific, and meets conservationists trying to work with beavers on river preservation. Using historic maps and descriptions, she finds her way to a beaver pond that is centuries-old.

The world she introduces to the reader is fascinating, both on scientific and historical levels. Biologically speaking, beavers should be fairly dim based on their brain-to-body ratio, but their teamwork and focus, as well as knack for engineering, suggest otherwise.

Their instinct for building is so deeply ingrained, when they hear running water — even a recording of the sound — they run toward the source and start building a dam. Their dams protect the entrance to their lodges, and they will grab anything, from sticks and mud to hubcaps and pieces of cable, to patch a leak.