Ben Goldfarb is many things. Award-winning author. Environmentalist. Journalist. Devoted fly fisherman.
What he definitely isn’t? A beaver. No matter – he’s the next best thing. A beaver’s best friend. A “Beaver Believer,” in the Cult of Beaver.
“Like most people who grew up hiking and camping and fishing and canoeing, I’ve certainly been around beavers,” Goldfarb said Tuesday. “I had a baseline appreciation for how cool they are, and how they modify the environment. But I didn’t become a true Beaver Believer, as the people in the beaver cult call ourselves, until five years ago.”
Thus began the journey that would lead to Goldfarb writing an entire nonfiction book about the small, furry animal, covering everything from its long history in North America to its potential as a water savior, capable of curbing drought in the wake of warming global temperatures.
“Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter,” was released by Chelsea Green Publishing in June last year, about the same time Goldfarb and his wife Elise moved to Spokane from Connecticut.
Among its accolades, including being named one of the Washington Post 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction and Best Outdoor Book of 2018 by Outside Magazine, earlier this year it won one of the nation’s top literary prizes: The E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing from PEN America.
And not to be outclassed, on Sept. 18, Goldfarb and his beaver book are headlining The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club event at the Montvale Event Center.
We caught up with Goldfarb this week to ask him life’s most pressing questions, like, why write about beavers and what was it like determining the sex of Half-Tail Dale?
How did you get on this path of environmental journalism?
As an undergraduate, I was an English and environmental studies major. After college I had a succession of field ecology jobs. I worked for the National Park Service in Yellowstone. I worked for the New York City Parks Department. I tagged sea turtles in North Carolina. I did all kinds of stuff. Went to graduate school to get a masters in environmental management expecting to continue on that trajectory as a professional advocate, or conservationist. … I always loved to write. And when I was in school I started to write for various campus publications. I realized I loved writing more than anything else. Becoming an environmental journalist seemed like the perfect way to marry my passion for nature with whatever little aptitude I have as a writer.
The big question: Why beavers?
I was living in Seattle working for the magazine High Country News, looking for things to write about. I was sent a flier for a beaver workshop up in Everett. I had no idea what a beaver workshop entailed, but it sounded like a story. I went up there and went to this workshop. There, for one full day, the succession of biologist and hydrologists and ecologists just rhapsodize about how important this animal is for storing water in the face of climate change, for helping us recover endangered salmon runs, for improving water quality. It was this incredible eye-opening experience. That was the moment I became a Beaver Believer. I ended up writing a couple of articles at High Country News about beavers, and those articles were the seed of the book.
What was your life with beavers like before this?
I think that when I went to that conference, I was primed to become a beaver lover. I’m a pretty avid, though very unskilled, fly fisherman. I had seen them all over the place fishing. I remember very vividly having a beaver swim right by my leg when I was fishing once in the Beaver Kill River in New York, of all places. I saw them frequently in Colorado when I lived there. I had a number of beaver encounters, and I really enjoyed them. I didn’t know a whole lot about them besides the basics. They did feel like a part of my life and an animal I frequently encountered. Seeing a beaver in the wild is usually pretty magical. They’re active primarily at night. When you see them it’s dawn or dusk typically. The light is low. You’re standing in some beautiful river. This kind of silent, graceful, brown head suddenly comes cruising by you. Even if you don’t know anything about beavers, it can be a truly magical experience. At least it is for me.
Who first realized the beavers were so important?
It goes back a long way. There were people, there’s a great book called the “The American Beaver and His Works,” written in the 1800s. There was another great book called “In Beaver World,” in 1913. It seems like every couple of generations society rediscovers just how important this creature is. I think that the thing that has catalyzed this latest round of interest in beavers is climate change. We know that the West is getting hotter and drier. As it does, our water resources are increasingly under stress. A lot of our precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow. And we’ve begun to recognize that this animal that builds thousands of little reservoirs essentially up in the high country, up in the headwaters, has a really important role to play in helping us keep our streams hydrated, even through the summer and fall. It’s really climate change that has caused beavers to reenter the zeitgeist.
I noticed the title of the paperback makes it apparent, with its style and font, that “Eager Beavers Matter.” And the chapters, too, play around with words, such as “Appetite for Construction” and “California Streaming.” Did you mean to have this much fun writing it?
I did have a lot of fun. I think and hope the book itself is funny as well. People seem to have laughed while reading more than they would with most nature books. That was my goal.
I think that beavers are inherently comedic. They’re these fat, small, buck-toothed rodents with big paddle tails. Even the word beaver has certain connotations for certain people. I think that it’s an inherently funny subject. I just tried to lean into that. I also think that so much environmental news people consume is really dark and bleak. A lot of bad stuff is happening. The Amazon is on fire, the glaciers are melting, the Endangered Species Act is being rewritten as we speak. The story of beavers is a really uplifting story. It’s a species we tracked almost to extinction for 300 years and has recovered spectacularly. And has a really important role to play to solve some of these environmental problems facing us.
What’s your favorite beaver memory?
Finding the sex of a beaver, probably. I was really writing my first beaver article for High Country News and I went to the Methow Beaver Project in Winthrop, which is really one of the flagship beaver relocation projects in the country. There, they basically, before they relocate the beavers that they live trap, they have to determine the sex to pair up male and female beavers to make these little compatible, stable families. These families are much more likely to settle down and start these little beaver families. Trying to figure out the sex of this beaver, Half Tail Dale, which you accomplish by squeezing the scent gland and smelling the secretion. That was a very memorable scene. Although, one that I might not want to repeat.
In your book you propose using beavers like medics, dropping them onto the front lines of climate change. Does Eastern Washington need this type of treatment?
One of the reasons that I was actually excited to move to Spokane when the opportunity arose, this is a city with a great beaver consciousness and culture already. There’s the Lands Council, which has had a very active beaver program for at least a decade, and has done lots of beaver relocation across Eastern Washington. There’s the fact that when you walk along the Spokane River, along the riverfront, you see half the trees down there have been wrapped with wire to prevent beavers from chewing them down. In a lot of cities those tree-chewing beavers would be killed. But in Spokane, there’s a great commitment to managing those impacts nonlethally. I think there’s already a lot of good beaver work happening in this area.
But certainly there’s the need for more. Hiking and camping around Eastern Washington, all the time I see streams that would have historically had a very abundant beaver population, where they just don’t seem to occur. One great example is Hangman Creek. Here’s this watershed that’s fantastic beaver habitat, and I think they are in there, but in very low abundance. Every spring it’s just dumping huge amounts of agricultural runoff into the Spokane River. Beavers would be one potential solution to that problem, by building dams, slowing water down, causing all of that sediment to settle out of the water column. They really have an important role to play in mitigating some of that agricultural pollution.
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