Beavers and the imagination might not seem like an obvious connection, which is why we value the inspiration of authors like Ben Goldfarb. Here, environmentalist, blogger and imagination champion Rob Hopkins explores Ben’s ideas with an interview about his new book and the work behind it. What we found interesting was positioning beavers as the gateway to a more diverse and flourishing ecosystem. Not only to imagine where they could take us, but also our potential collective loss of being able to envision a better environmental future.
One of the finest books I’ve read recently was Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb. Ben is an American environmental journalist who has taken great interest in this remarkable creature and its ability to, as he put it when we spoke, “help tackle many of our ecological problems if we just get out of the way and let the rodent do the work”. I was fascinated to hear his thoughts as to how living in a world full of beavers might impact the human imagination, and how living in a world without them impoverishes it. I started by asking him if he might sum up the narrative of the book for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of reading it.
“We have this animal, the beaver, that was historically ubiquitous, incredibly abundant across North America and Europe, and profoundly responsible for shaping our landscapes. Beavers build dams, they create these ponds and wetlands, and those ponds and wetlands would have historically made our landscapes extraordinarily green and lush and full of biodiversity. When we killed hundreds of millions of beavers in North America and Europe we destroyed our landscapes in ways that we’re just now recognising. All of those beaver dams broken, those ponds and wetlands drained, and these beautiful lush gardens that beavers had created, essentially turned to desert in many places.
beavers of course have been modifying our landscape for millions of years
We’re just now starting to recognise how dramatic a shift that was from this beaver-dominated landscape to a beaver-absent landscape. What Eager is about is the ways in which bringing these animals back, as has been done in many places and is still an on-going process in other places like the UK, can help us address all kinds of ecological problems. Of course in the American west where I live drought is a huge issue. Our landscape is getting hotter and drier as the climate changes, and beavers, it turns out, create thousands of little reservoirs that help us keep water on the landscape.
In the UK where flooding is a big issue, beavers slow down those big surges of rainfall and mitigate flooding. They create these fantastic pockets of life for fish and amphibians and water fowl and song birds and bats. They are a really incredible keystone species and ecosystem engineers and the book is about how, by bringing these animals back, we can create a landscape that’s both new, and old.
New to us, but really quite timeless because beavers of course have been modifying our landscape for millions of years. How do we get back to that point where beavers were this dominant landscape scale influencer? That’s the big question at the heart of the book.