Ben Goldfarb grew up on the East Coast, where access to public lands was limited. A job out of college at Yellowstone National Park doing trout research introduced him to the big spaces offered in the American West.
Time in Seattle sparked a serious interest in beavers, the critter that would be the star of his first book.
“Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter,” was released by Chelsea Green Publishing in June, about the same time he and his wife, Elise, moved to Spokane from Connecticut so she could take a job as a nurse practitioner and midwife at CHAS.
And on Tuesday night in Manhattan, Goldfarb won one of the nation’s top literary prizes: The E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing from PEN America.
“It was incredible,” Goldfarb said on Wednesday. “Five minutes before I went on stage, Matthew Broderick had been presenting an award. It was pretty surreal to share a stage with Ferris Bueller.”
Goldfarb, who grew up in the greater New York City area, said to win any award is an honor. Having his parents there Tuesday night made it special.
“To win an award named for E.O. Wilson, who is probably the greatest living conservationist we have, for me as a writer whose work is about nature and conservation, it’s doubly rewarding,” he said.
In many ways, it makes sense that the 32-year-old environmental journalist ended up in Spokane, a city that not only has a river running through it, but a river with beavers.
“It’s an amazingly beavery city. I’ve seen beavers numerous times while fishing on the Spokane River since arriving here,” he said. “But it’s also a city with a fantastic beaver consciousness. The Lands Council is here, and they have a really fantastic beaver program. Joe Cannon, who leads their beaver program, is in my book and has been a fantastic help to me since I began writing about beavers in 2015.
“It’s so cool to walk along Riverfront Park and see all the trees that have been wrapped in mesh wire to protect them from beavers. In lots of places, those animals would be killed. In Spokane we’re trying to co-exist with them, and doing it pretty effectively. That’s a great tribute to both the city and the Lands Council, and especially Joe.”
Once this past fall, he experienced the “aquatic mammal triple crown” while fishing at Riverside State Park: He saw a beaver, a mink and an otter all in the same morning.
“I’ve seen a lot of beavers down there in the Bowl and Pitcher stretch, and a ton of beaver activity along the banks. I like it there a lot.”
Goldfarb has always had a “mild beaver interest,” he said. “I’d been around beavers and thought they were fantastic, but I didn’t appreciate them for the amazing, world-changing landscape architects that they are.”
His interest spiked in 2014 when he was living in Seattle and working for High Country News. Looking for stories to cover, he spotted a flyer for a beaver workshop and decided to check it out. There he met biologist Kent Woodruff, of the Methow Beaver Project in Winthrop, who invited Goldfarb to spend a week with his crew live trapping and relocating beavers, and seeing how the beavers had transformed landscapes into lush wetlands teeming with life.
“It made me begin to see beavers not just as these fun little rodents, but as these incredibly influential ecosystem engineers,” he said.
A couple of the stories he wrote about that experience for High Country News came to the attention of Chelsea Green Publishing founder Margo Baldwin and editor Michael Metivier, who asked if he was interested in writing a book. “To their credit, they identified the growing interest in beavers among the ecological and restoration communities. They started looking for someone who had written about beavers,” Goldfarb said.
It paid off. PEN’s Wilson Prize is among several accolades bestowed upon “Eager.” It also was named one of 50 notable works of nonfiction by the Washington Post, a favorite science book of 2019 by Science News and a top 10 science/technology book by Booklist.
In the award citation, the judges praised “Eager”: “While maintaining a strong central storyline, Goldfarb offers eye-opening, fascinating vignettes about these industrious engineering rodents and the people whose lives are devoted to reintroducing, protecting, and championing them. At times tragic and at times hopeful, ‘Eager’ is a charming, surprising, and compelling lesson in the intricacies of ecosystems, and the limits of human hubris.”
The Wilson prize comes with a $10,000 award, a big deal for a freelance journalist.
“Freelance journalists, you don’t say no to $10, let alone $10,000,” he said with a laugh. He also recently won a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation that will allow him to get started on his next project: a series of stories about road ecology, an emerging scientific discipline examining the environmental impact of road-building.
In the meantime, he’s continuing to explore the recreational and cultural opportunities his new community presents.
“I came out West and fell in love with big spaces, public access, fishing and all the fantastic stuff that comes when you cross the 100th meridian,” he said. “Spokane, from a land access and outdoor recreation standpoint, is just such a fantastic place to be.”
Goldfarb was not the only winner Tuesday night. The big winner from PEN was the story collection “Friday Black,” the debut collection by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. It won the $75,000 Jean Stein Book Award for “originality, merit, and impact.”
Other winners include Will Mackin’s “Bring Out the Dog,” which won the $25,000 PEN/Bingham Award for a best first book of short stories, an honor for which “Friday Black” was not nominated. Michelle Tea received a $10,000 essay writing prize for “Against Memoir” and Bernice Yeung’s “In a Day’s Work” won a $10,000 nonfiction award. Honorary awards were presented to filmmaker-playwright Kenneth Lonergan and author Sandra Cisneros.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.