Book Review: Beaverland, Leila Philip

Book Review: Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, Leila Philip

Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, Leila Philip

Nonfiction: Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, Leila Philip


Beaverland is the epic book I didn’t know that I needed to read about North America’s largest native rodent. It is in turns poignant and whimsical, personal and historical, and describes how beaver’s unwittingly made and unmade American fortunes and landscapes, and gives some surprising hope for their future.


Leila Philip is a science writer and professor at The College of the Holy Cross. A Guggenheim Fellow and acclaimed author, this book demonstrates her commitment, her research, her work, and her talent. Written in an accessible and non-judgmental way, she shares experiences with modern fur trappers and traders (yes, they still exist) and with environmentalists alike. Philip may be a self-described Subaru-driving professor, but she is on a mission to understand, not to condemn. This gives her a welcome and an entrance into a world which is understandably reticent toward outsiders. Whatever one’s personal feelings about fur trapping or hunting may be, understanding the beaver’s impact on this country requires understanding the power of the fur trade.


John Jacob Astor and fur are inseparable. A German immigrant to New York, Astor quickly determined that fur would make his fortune. The breadth of his influence can be seen from Astoria, NY (part of the NYC borough of Queens) to Astoria, OR. Once the wealthiest man in America, his fortune came from monopolizing the fur trade throughout the US. He was very good at his business–so good that beavers were almost wiped out of the US by the end of the 19th century.


Humans and beavers had coexisted in America for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. WIthin roughly 300 years of their arrival, beavers were limited to territories that were too remote or too difficult for even the hardy “mountain men” to hunt. Unknowingly, though, removing the beavers changed the landscape of America. Beaver dams had tamed waters across the continent. Wetlands abounded, creating habitat for innumerable species of animals, plants, and fungi. When the beavers were removed and their dams were destroyed, rivers began running straighter and faster, carrying sediment off the land and into the sea and draining the surrounding landscapes. Researchers are only now beginning to appreciate the hydrological engineering beavers do. Streams tamed by beavers drop their sediments in beaver ponds, where bacteria eats nitrates and other chemicals, purifying the water. The land surrounding these meandering streams becomes saturated, remaining wetter during droughts, cooler during heat waves, and safer during wildfires. A dramatic photo in the book, taken after a wildfire had ravaged a forest, showed a landscape blackened and denuded–with the exception of a lush wide green band in the middle that marked where the beavers had done their work. 


Beavers and humans are the only animals that intentionally change ecosystems. Despite having little apparently in common, though, we may need beavers to help us combat our own destructive work. The wetlands created by beavers can often (though not always) withstand the pressures of drought and wildfire and other aspects of climate change. They capture sediment that would otherwise be sent to the sea, they purify water polluted by fertilizer runoff, they mitigate floods from torrential rains, and they provide habitats for multitudes of both stationary and migratory creatures. Before (white) humans reshaped America to fit their vision, beavers had built dams that changed the courses of rivers, fertilized some of the richest soils in the world, and irrigated acres of land that are now desiccated by our straightening of rivers and our paving of highways and our plantings of monocultural fields.


The potential future relationship between beavers and humans is still being written. Their comeback is one of the success stories of modern conservation efforts, but their numbers remain less than one percent of what they are believed to have been 500 years ago. If we can let go of our eagerness to tame the environment and accept some help from the original engineers of this country, we may find a way to coexist with this “weird rodent.”

Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, Leila Philip

Book Review: Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, Leila Philip

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