Beaver sketch, painted with acorns, wild grape, avocado pits and oak galls. Based on a b&w photograph by Hope Ryden.
For 2024, I’ve resolved to be busy as a beaver.
But not busy as the beavers in my cartoon-simple conception of them, but busy as wild beavers are. And it seems I need to practice a very different way of being busy, if I would like busy beavers to recognize me as kin.
Thanks to these beautiful observations by Hope Ryden (from her book “Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers”), I have some idea where to start:
“…Despite the descriptive epithet often applied to the species, beavers are not ‘busy’ animals. On the contrary, they normally proceed at a leisurely pace, unburdened by outside pressures. One stick at a time they drag up on their house, one load of mud at a time they push onto their dam. After doing a certain amount of work, they take a break to feed or groom or play or just float about in the water.
Few species, in fact, appear so oblivious to stress as does Castor canadensis. House wrens, for example, build their nests in a kind of frenzy, as if tyrannized by their seasonal timetable. Not beavers. … One handful of mud at a time, they scooped from the bottom of the pond. And, pressing this against their chests, they paddled slowly to the dam, and shoved it up into the crest. As unhassled as they appeared, however, they were in fact accomplishing two tasks at once–deepening a channel and raising the height of a dam.
Beavers work like that. Interrupting one operation to transport its byproduct to a site where that debris is wanted…
All waste products are recycled: dredged mud becomes house insulation or dam sealant; debarked food sticks become house or dam lumber; wood chips (fallout from a tree-felling operation) are brought to the lodge and spread on the floor for bedding. In this admirably relaxed manner, the efficient beaver accomplishes an enormous amount of work. Watching [beavers] is like attending a morality play, and I often thought I ought to take a lesson from it.”~Hope Ryden, “Lily Pond”
John posts a version of this every year, and in years I remember, so do I.
We have a standing rule in our house, and it’s that Neil can and should wake me up for animals. If the motion light comes on, or there is an unusual scurry across the roof. Neil goes to bed much later than I do, so if he hears a nighttime critter, I want him disturb my slumber. I can always get more sleep later, but a flying squirrel perched on the window is right now. And if it stars a flying squirrel, I’m happy to have a waking dream. (Unfortunately our cat Oliver also observes this rule, occasionally jumping into our bed with a mouse in his mouth at 3AM. I prefer the flying squirrel dreams. The Oliver ones drift a little closer to nightmare…)
The same “come and get me for critters” rule applies during the day too. If an excellent caterpillar like an Imperial is spotted in the yard. Or a porcupine shuffles through the woods. Or a ruffed grouse is tightrope walking the poplars. The wildlife here is both abundant and secretive, and I don’t want to miss the glimpses.
The rule applies to all critters. The “good” and the “bad” ones. Whether it’s an opossum triggering the motion light, a baby raccoon discovering the bird feeders (I must remember to bring those feeders in at night…), or a possible sighting of a saw whet by the chicken coop. I want to see them all.
The line of good and bad animals is drawn in different places for different people. Those who have lost chickens to fox may have more trouble seeing a canid’s russet beauty. You’re probably not delighted to encounter a milk snake if you have a fear of things that slither. A bad childhood experience with a domestic dog could easily leave a person wary of coyotes.
And then there are the cultural baggage, biases, and bruises we carry of “good” and “bad”. Painted turtles good, snapping turtles bad. Dangerous animals and tame animals. Clean animals and dirty animals… Cute animals and ugly ones. Even “predator” and “prey”. But the more critters I encounter and observe, the more I learn about them, the less these divisions hold meaning for me.
I structured so much of my understanding of the world around models that aren’t just out of date, not just expired, but were never true. Bears growl, bunnies are sweet, the tiny are afraid of the large. “Not so”, nature keeps gently reminding me here, “not so”.
Take the alpha wolf. Dr. L. David Mech, the scientist who popularized the concept of “alpha male” wolves in his 1970 book “The Wolf”, has devoted a sizable part of the rest of his career trying to explain he was wrong, and requesting, unsuccessfully, that the publisher stop publishing his earlier work:
The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” … Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today…”~Dr. L. David Mech
As for growling bears, ask someone who works with bears and they will tell you that bears hardly ever growl. It’s just not how and when they vocalize.
As Mike McIntosh who runs the bear rehabilitation centre Bear With Us put it (here): “They don’t make a lot of sounds that we often hear and think they make. Bears are usually only vocal when they’re either afraid or in pain. Most of the time they’re quiet”. The cartoon version, it’s not just a caricature, it’s a lie.
Like the lemmings who were dumped over the cliff in the fake
“documentary” that shaped so many of our understanding of those rodents — it was not, is not, and never was true. Sweet little rabbits will fight each other, as will docile does. Father birds will sit on eggs, mothers will build nests. We either just didn’t look, or didn’t see.
Similarly, the tiny are not always intimidated by the large, and prey don’t always give ground to predator. One spring evening we were having dinner when the character of the birdsong out the window suddenly changed, like someone had abruptly clicked to the next song, mid-track. I looked out the window and saw a feathered kerfuffle unfolding in the large maple tree in our yard. A sizeable hawk was perched on a branch, but not for long. It was being pelted at all angles by tiny birds. A variety of tiny birds. Nearby small nesting moms and pops and various bystanders were having none of this large bird in their midst. Now that we’re aware of it, we’ve seen this “mobbing” behaviour many times since.
It is not uncommon to see a group of blackbirds or swallows chasing a hawk or eagle, or a group of songbirds fluttering and calling around a perched owl.
Such “mobbing” behavior is probably the most frequently observed overt anti-predator strategy. Nevertheless, the exact purpose of such noisy group demonstrations remains a matter of some debate.
…one function of mobbing may be educational–to teach young birds… Another may be to alert other birds to the presence of the predator, either getting them to join in the mobbing or protecting them, since a predator is unlikely to be able to sneak up on an alert victim.
Much is lacking in our understanding of mobbing. It is not clear why predators don’t simply turn on their tormentors and snatch up one or two of the mobbing birds. If they did, presumably mobbing would quickly disappear; that it persists suggests that surprise is an essential element in raptor hunting.~The Birder’s Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl
But this isn’t about a victory of tiny birds over the big mean hawk either. David and Goliath stories stir the soul, but no one is the villain in their own story, and the tale is of course different from Goliath’s perspective. A “predator” has its own beautiful babies to feed. Its own soaring life to support. Life-Death-Life, around and around we go. The fierce and the delicate, wrapped up in one package.
I met my wise and wonderful friend Tess Miller when I was a volunteer at Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre, where she was a member of staff. She’s cared for a wider variety of animals than most of us will encounter at a distance, in a lifetime. While we were mucking out enclosures and hand-feeding critters, Tess shared a lot of insights into animal behaviour. As she put it: “Once you have the chance to work with or observe any animal, you will grow a strong admiration and appreciation for its abilities to survive, regardless of what those abilities are.”
I have a theory that so many of these good/bad, cute/ugly divisions come from a discomfort with our own complexity. Our own times of growling, or being dirty or disheveled or annoying. That we think creatures have to be cute to be loved, or “alphas” to be worthy, because of our own deep-seated fears. When we can’t completely accept our own shades of grey, we pedestal some animals as ideal, and pretend they are something they’re not. In doing so, missing the beauty of their — and our — complexity. How beautiful the “ugly” animals are, and how gentle the giant beasts. The shining texture of a snake, an earwig mother doting on her babies, two does striking at each other with their sharp hooves.
“It’s not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades.”~Clarissa Pinkola Estes
A world without good and bad guys, with no alphas, no roaring bears or ever-sweet bunnies is a more confusing and beautiful place to be. Up is down, down is up and sweeping statements just sweep away the truth. When the truth, it turns out, is so much stranger than fiction. So much more interesting. So much more beautiful and compelling and frightening. So much more… hopeful.
A version of this article also appeared in the OWA‘s The Ontario Woodlander.
It wasn’t so much teaching them how to carve masks, I thought I’m going to teach them how to unlock the creative side of themselves.
So what I did was I went to the art store and I got I think 7 or 8 easels and all these canvases, with the canvas already on the frame, like these pictures, blank canvases, tonnes of paint, and laid everything out, and I told the kids I don’t care what you guys put on this canvas as long as you feel strongly about it.
There’s no such thing as an ugly painting if it’s something that you feel inside of you, that means it’s beautiful. And if you can put that on canvas that means it’s the truth, so that makes it beautiful. So there’s nothing that you can put on this canvas that will be ugly.
So don’t feel weird because you don’t have the right technique. If you feel like painting flowers and you feel sunny inside, that’s good, that’s the truth. But if you feel ugly inside and you want to paint something dark and scary that’s good too, that’s because it’s the truth, so that’s still beautiful.Eric Schweig, from his interview with Friends United
At Toyota, waiting for car service. I always wait outside if I can. Every waiting room seems to have a TV, spewing bad news on my lap. Out in the real world, the news is at least mixed.
I’ve spread my picnic blanket out on a patch of garlic mustard — or is it creeping charlie? — behind a line of supersized pickup trucks. Their hulking metal forms the back wall of my improvised porch. A short chainlink fence straight ahead warns lazily about the high speed highway beyond. I could jump the fence easily, and I am terrible at jumping fences.
But to my right is a tiny green tangle — a few yards of plant life. And the longer I look, the more threads I see. Purple loosestrife is woven with yellow salsify, stitched through with queen anne’s lace. Patches of white sweetclover, pops of sunny goldenrod. Tall swishing grasses, and the velvety stalks of sumac. Some plants I recognize, some I don’t know. I look them up, though my phone is old and battery life is precious. Knapweed, burdock, birdsfoot trefoil.
I’m alone back here, save for the guy a few dealerships to my left, who is working this fenceline with a weedwhacker. But he’s going slow, and I’ll probably be gone within the hour. I doubt he’ll get to me and this little thicket before then. If we’re lucky, he’s only working his dealership’s particular domain, and his weedwhacker will be stopped by a line in the corporate sand.
Chicory’s pinwheel flowers bloom mauve nearby. On each one is an iridescent green sweat bee, harvesting pollen. The chicory harvested, the bee moves on to the pretty pink rosettes of the field bindweed. I notice another little green bee, then another. Transport trucks storm past us. Decorated with logos of eagles and tigers, their bellies are full of fossil fuels and plastic.
I get up to investigate some burdock, and when I return, three tiny grasshoppers are sitting on my plaid blanket. Dandelion clocks that have run out of time float past and snag on the nap of the fabric. The four of us sit surrounded by wild carrots, raspberry, and grapes, with a few plastic takeout containers chucked on top.
I look up at the summer sky and spot a tiny bird chasing off a crow. The tiny bird is so very tiny, but nevertheless, it persisted. The corvid flies past another invisible line and, triumphant, the tiny bird sails back home. I can’t make out what sort of bird this is, this stalwart little spirit. It’s a David and Goliath story, with the part of the pebble played by a self-slinging bird.
The guy with the weedwhacker is inching closer, fighting against all the life that’s already made it up and over the fence. It’s whacked and whacked but the green just keeps coming. Already, the bindweed slinks undaunted over the harsh gravel meant to keep plant life at bay. As if the gravel were a river, and the bindweed were thirsty for more.
It’s all about as simple as everything is, which is to say, not simple at all. Most of these plants are invasive or introduced. I drove here today, and I will drive home. I’m woven into all sides of the story. Sometimes I cut down the green, kill the bug, and whack at “weeds” too. But, as Amy Krouse Rosenthal said: In the alley, there is a bright pink flower peeking out through the asphalt.
A. It looks like futility.
B. It looks like hope.
Less than 1% fatality.
🕷️🌯: That’s the science on being bit by a black widow. Not instant death on saying the words, or looking at a photograph. You don’t keel over from walking past one, or letting your eyeballs rest on her. This beauty, undisturbed, is living her best spider life. Hanging out, deciding what to have for lunch. Today, I opted for a veggie burrito, while she settled on a well wrapped bug. To each their own.
I don’t want to be blasé about her venom though. I have not experienced a black widow bite, and I hope to keep it that way. I’ve read the pain can be very real, and the risk is greater for the very young and the elderly than it is for me.
🕷️📵: But humans have a gnarly tendency to fear all the wrong things. We are quick to spin tall tales around small dangers, but slow to act on the real but boring or difficult ones. Otherwise rational people learn a black widow — generally shy and timid spiders — was once seen in a field, and run straight back to their car to drive home doing 140kph. While texting.
🌬️🕷️: To be clear — I am also afraid of black widows. Not the spider herself. She is exquisite. But why she is here… Now that does worry me. Like ticks, climate change is shifting their range further north. Lines on a political map don’t define where critters live, habitat does. Wherever they can survive, that’s where they’ll be. And Canada’s welcome is not so cold anymore. This tiny spider’s presence is a sign my habitat is changing. She is a glossy black canary in this coal mine.
🛤️⤵️: The world around us is screaming to pay attention, but we are driving too fast to notice. I hope that as individuals and communities and municipalities and provinces and nations that we learn to pump the brakes in time, and chose a different direction.
Additional black widow reading:
Happy International Women’s Day!
A short personal note for context, and then unsolicited advice. After all, unsolicited advice is the meat and potatoes of being a woman. If being a woman came with a slab cake, “You’re doing it wrong” would be finely scribed on the top in festive font. A list of corrections would be iced on every surface, wrap all sides.
First, the personal — Though I am in possession of a fully-functioning uterus, I decided long ago it wasn’t a good idea or necessary that I bring more children into the world. At least not the world in which I find myself, and the world I see coming.
This is probably the decision I’ve made that gets me the most derision, and colourful comments as to my character. Even today, there are many ways of being a woman that seem to be sand in the world’s shorts.
The world makes a pastime of telling women we are either not enough, or too much, or, somehow, both. A trap with snares at both ends. It’s enough to make a person skittish.
So for today, instead of that, here is my anti-advice. “Choose Your Own Adventure” advice. Ready? Let’s go!
🚪🛤️: You don’t have to be a mother, or a wife. You can, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to be strong, neither do you have to be weak. You don’t have to love nature, or science, or philosophy, or art or math or mechanics or history. You can, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to feel a kinship with any particular gender. You don’t have to be close to your family. You don’t have to crave companionship or shun solitude. You don’t have to need help, nor turn away assistance for your achievements to “count”. You don’t have to be mystical or divine or graceful. You don’t have to be pragmatic, magnanimous, conscientious or sweet. You can, but you don’t have to.
And, for any or all of the above, you don’t have to agree with me, as I don’t have to agree with you. But I do hope you will agree with this — that you are enough. Deserving of love and kindness, opportunities and happiness. You’re enough at the end of your journey, the middle, and the beginning. Exactly, exactly as you are.
Happy IWD folks!
Being a maker goes well beyond the workshop, to the thoughtful crafting of culture and community. So with Family Day on Monday, how does a person make “family”?
Make family out of whatever knits you to this world, and holds you together. You can be a family of one. Or, if you like, your family can include critters, or trees, or sunsets. (All three make good listeners and stalwart friends…) Or maybe your family includes a human or two or three or many. A partner, partners, children, wise elders, dear friends… You name it. The possibilities are endless, and none of them are mandatory.
Family is a bespoke creation. And like any good project, it’s a work in progress. It iterates and changes. It gets broken. It gets mended. People now long gone may have built its loving foundation. Or perhaps it had a bad foundation, and you’ve had to start over. That’s alright. How a project looks in the beginning might be quite different from where it ends up. No matter where you start from, creativity, patience, and perseverance may yet yield something beautiful.
With whomever you find care, love, understanding, empathy, and grace… Wherever and however you feel safe, whole, and loved. That’s how to make family.
Have a great long weekend folks!
Apricity: “the warmth of the sun in winter”
“This word provides us with evidence that even if you come up with a really great word, and tell all of your friends that they should start using it, there is a very small chance that it will catch on. Apricity appears to have entered our language in 1623, when Henry Cockeram recorded (or possibly invented) it for his dictionary The English Dictionary; or, An Interpreter of Hard English Words. Despite the fact that it is a delightful word for a delightful thing it never quite caught on, and will not be found in any modern dictionary aside from the Oxford English Dictionary.”from Merriam-Webster’s Winter Words
On Saturday morning, I went for a tracking walk with OWA. It was -20 and change, but woodlot folk are hearty folk. A couple of dozen people went tramping around a beautiful property, looking for signs of other critters tramping around.
We were looking at the footprints of a fox skedaddling over a wood pile when the sun suddenly appeared. I don’t always notice the sun’s absence on a cloudy winter day, but I always notice when it re-appears. It doesn’t provide the same blazing heat of a summer sun, but whenever I am enveloped by its brilliant sparkling rays, I am warmed from the inside out.
The time for apricity is passing. I’m certain we’ll have a few more big blasts of snow this year, a lot more treacherous ice, some wintry mix, and at least a couple of surprise storms. But I saw my first robin today, and I’ve been told the sap is already running. Time to tap. I would prefer a longer colder winter, with more time to disrupt invasive cycles, more time for the hibernators to rest. But while we do what we can, it is what it is. For now, I’ll be savouring the last of this year’s winter, while waking my thoughts of the brighter bolder suns that are around the corner.