The process of evolution can provide some jarring examples of what animals must do in order to survive. Predation, warfare, cannibalism, kidnapping, fratricide—all of these things can be considered normal in nature. Learning about them for the first time can be shocking, even depressing, especially when we consider the implications for our own species. And yet, the meat grinder of natural selection has also encouraged some altruistic traits, such as loyalty, empathy, sacrifice, and even love. One animal in particular that encompasses these gentler qualities is the astonishing, resilient, clever American beaver, an animal that has some surprising things to tell us about kinship and survival in the face of upheaval and extinction.
My own “study” of this amazing animal goes back to my days as a student at St. Bernadette School in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. In 1987, when I was in the third grade, the school faced a serious dilemma. Since the parish’s founding forty years earlier, the beloved mascot had been the beaver. It made our school unique. We even wore these cool shirts that showed the beaver standing upright, wearing a St. Bernie’s jersey, clutching a pennant in his paw. But—children being the way they are—the nickname also opened up the sports teams to all sorts of unfortunate insults from opposing players. So, what to do?
The teachers decided that an election among the students was the best way to settle things. And so they made little ballots with three choices: the Beavers, the Bears, and (weirdly) the Bullets. I remember discussing the upcoming referendum (Beaverexit?) with my classmates. More than once, someone asked me: “You know why we have to get rid of the name, right?” I of course said yes… and then asked some close friends what was going on. After they explained the various uses of the word, I decided that it was my civic duty to help change the mascot to the Bear. Sure enough, that’s how it went down, with the Beavers scrubbed from existence like the thought criminals of 1984.
Years later, while researching my novel about talking animals, I felt obligated to rehabilitate the noble beavers by making them characters in the book. And somehow, this became more than a research project, and instead grew into something that I found surprisingly inspirational.
If you haven’t treated yourself to a book or a documentary on the topic, I highly recommend it. These bumbling, nearly blind engineers may not be photogenic, but watching them haul mud and logs along a riverbank, one armful at a time, never fails to impress. The sound of the river drives them to build their elaborate dams. This means that if you broadcast the same noise from a boombox, the beavers will insatiably pile leaves, sticks, and dirt on top of it until they can no longer hear the gurgling water. Thanks to this eerie adaptation, the beavers construct ponds that soon become diverse nature preserves, allowing for new plants to grow, and attracting animals of every species. Over time, the dam washes away, breaking the cycle until the next season, when the beavers begin again.
Among my favorite documentaries on the subject is the aptly titled “Leave It to Beavers,” an episode of PBS’s Nature. In it, we meet the people who have worked tirelessly to help beavers flourish following centuries of abuse and neglect. Animal rescue clinics work with landowners to transplant the beavers to areas parched with drought. Beavers mate for life(!), and so a pair of them, over time, can build a dam that can save an entire river valley—or resurrect a dead one. In a particularly moving scene, a woman who has raised an injured beaver releases him into the wild, only to confront the awful possibility that he may not have survived. If it doesn’t make you a little misty, you should probably check your pulse.
So what does any of this have to do with science fiction and fantasy? Well, in recent years we have been flooded with moving yet often depressing tales of the demise of our civilization, the destruction of the environment, and the breakdown of the social order. Gleeful images of our great cities collapsing have become almost pornographic, a trope that makes us yawn no matter how many millions of dollars went into creating the visual effects. My own fiction is guilty of this. It’s easier—and more fun—to destroy than to create.
But watching these animals rebuild each season has made me rethink my approach to the end of the world. I’m less interested in mayhem and more drawn to the stubborn act of reclaiming what was lost, and beginning again with a new way of life. More than any other animal on this continent, beavers are familiar with starting over. Nearly driven to extinction by hunters, their comeback has been vital to rejuvenating parts of the country that would be barren without them. The adorable partnership between the beavers and their former predators makes me think of how different people—and even, different species—will need to cooperate to fix what has been broken. And I suppose that whenever this strange, frightening era in which we live comes to an end, it will require an army of good people to put things back together, and to cement the foundation so that it doesn’t happen again. In other words, we’ve got plenty of despair these days. It was nice to treat myself to a little hope for the future.
Speaking of rebuilding, there remains an angry contingent of St. Bernadette alumni who are desperate to reinstate the beaver as the official mascot. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them referred to the Bear as “The Usurper” at this point.) They blame my generation for “ruining” everything—as if we were supposed to predict that the throwback uniform would be ironically cool starting around the mid-aughts. Then again, the issue may be moot: because of low enrollment, St. Bernadette has joined with nearby Sacred Heart Parish in order to field a full football squad. Their unofficial nickname: the Heartbern. For my part, I’ll have to atone for my role in electing the bears by joining the ranks of those who long for the return of the beavers. Rebuilding, after all, can only be accomplished in small steps.
*Special thanks to Andy Knapp and Kathleen Moran Becker for their help in tracking down images of our former mascot.
Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press and has taught for the Gotham Writers Workshop. He is the author of Mort(e) (Soho Press, 2015), Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles, 2015), Culdesac (Soho Press), and D’Arc—book three in the War With No Name series, available May 9th from Soho Press.