Rachel Poliquin

Language: English

Pages: 119


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

With unique fish-like tails, chainsaw teeth, a pungent musk, and astonishing building skills, beavers are unlike any other creature in the world. Not surprisingly, the extraordinary beaver has played a fascinating role in human history and has inspired a rich cultural tradition for millennia.

In Beaver, Rachel Poliquin explores four exceptional beaver features: beaver musk, beaver fur, beaver architecture, and beaver ecology, tracing the long evolutionary history of the two living species and revealing them to be survivors capable of withstanding ice ages, major droughts, and all predators, except one: humans.

Widely hunted for their fur, beavers were a driving force behind the colonization of North America and remain, today, Canada’s national symbol. Poliquin examines depictions of beavers in Aesop’s Fables, American mythology, contemporary art, and environmental politics, and she explores the fact and fictions of beaver chain gangs, beaver-flavored ice cream, and South America’s ever-growing beaver population. And yes, she even examines the history of the sexual euphemism. Poliquin delights in the strange tales and improbable history of the beaver. Written in an accessible style for a broad readership, this beautifully illustrated book will appeal to anyone who enjoys long-forgotten animal lore and extraordinary animal biology.

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North American furs had several distinct advantages. There were no tariffs or taxes in the New World. Many fur-bearing animals were no longer found in Europe, a prime prerequisite to make overseas trade worthwhile. Furs were lightweight, non-perishable and easy to transport. And perhaps most importantly, they took minimal effort to acquire and very little expense to purchase. Native hunters were the ones who trapped and killed the animals, and sold them for what Europeans deemed mere trinkets.

prescribed beaver musk for his sickly patients. The problem was not that beavers were unknown in Europe but rather that they had been known for centuries as animal products, not living creatures. Beavers were already extinct in England by the twelfth century. In 1188, Gerald of Wales claimed that the last beaver colony in all of Great Britain lived on the River Teifi in southwest Wales. A few beavers may have been spotted in Scotland, ‘but [were] very scarce’.2 By the time Michael Drayton

intimacies and murmurings of affection’, Grey Owl later wrote. ‘They seemed to be almost like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not yet quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous.’1 From that day, Grey Owl left off trapping for ever and turned to writing and activism to support his family. Grey Owl feeding a baby beaver. He was wildly successful. In his books, films and lecture tours across North America and Britain, including performances at Harvard

‘Marketing Wildlife: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Pacific Northwest, 1821–1849’, Forest and Conservation History, XXXVII/1 (1993), p. 17. 4  Tina Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (Vancouver, 2006), p. 95–6. 5  Dolly Jørgensen, ‘Hunters as Godfathers’,, 30 January 2013. 6  Dolly Jørgensen, ‘Opening the Box’,, 10 November 2013. 7  Grey Owl, Pilgrims, p. 67. 8  Mike Hansell, Animal Architecture

nature.12 This might explain the zoologically cryptic sea-dog, a biologically mismatched creature with scales, fangs, clawed webbed feet and a broad scaly tail like a beaver. A rather different sort of bite characterized the beaver within fables. According to Aesop a beaver, when cornered by a hunter, will bite off his testicles to save his life. If such peculiar behaviour were not odd enough (beaver testicles were believed to contain a healing balm), medieval manuscripts often illustrated the

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