Good Zeal

Consider the Beaver!

Beaver at workConsider the beaver! Yes, that large, furry rodent with those big, cute buck teeth and interesting flat tail. Consider what we can learn from beavers. Or more to the point, consider what we can learn from God’s wise design of these fellow creatures. Even if you’re not that interested in beavers, please indulge me a few more paragraphs.

My mamma taught me to always leave a place better than I found it. That’s being a good neighbor, a good steward, and a “good zeal” Benedictine. My mamma would be SO proud of beavers! They leave a place much better, not worse, than they found it. Let me explain with a brief history lesson.

Before Europeans arrived in North American, around 400 million beavers lived here. Native Americans trapped beavers, but they did so sustainably. When John Jacob Astor immigrated to America in 1784, he built his massive fortune mostly on beaver furs. Astor enriched himself at the great expense of the beaver population, resulting in environmental degradation. Because of Astor’s fur trapping industry, by 1900 the beaver population was down to 100,000. Oh, mamma, he left behind a disaster!

In God’s wise design, all creatures participate in a healthy interdependent ecosystem. That thriving balance was disrupted with the massive loss of the humble beaver. Wherever they lived, busy beavers kept flooding, erosion, and wildfires in check. Unlike humans who clear cut forests which lead to erosion and flooding, beavers selectively cut down only the trees they need for building and food. Their favorite trees such as aspen, willow and cottonwood grow near streams and rivers. When thinned out by beavers, these trees grow back stronger and healthier.

Wildfires have always been nature’s way of preventing overgrowth and replenishing the soil. But the hugely extensive wildfires we see today did not happen, in part, because of beaver technology. When beavers build their lodge dams across flowing streams and rivers, the backed-up water creates a still pond. This new wetland with its surrounding soggy ground and greenery creates a natural fire break. As a bonus, it provides safe shelter for animals that can’t outrun wildfires.

When beavers decide to move on to find new real estate, they leave the place better than they found it – having created a new and thriving, drought resistant ecosystem providing food and shelter for more fish, amphibians, birds, other animals and insects. Beavers’ God-given technology improves water quality in the pond as well as downstream, filtering out contaminants, especially after wildfires. The broad underground water systems they create with their tunnels encourage deep plant roots that stop erosion and soil loss.

Consider the beaver. Of course, they are unwitting do-gooders. We have a choice. The Bible says, “Choose today whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) We can leave the world a better place than we found it, or we leave it depleted and trashed. One last beaver-ism. When beavers spot a predator or threat, they slap their flat tails loudly on the water before diving under to safety. That noise warns other beavers and nearby creatures. I’d like to follow the beaver’s good examples – look after the wellbeing of all my neighbors and leave the world a better place than I found it.

By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB
The Washington Post, KIDSPOST, “Beavers offer natural solution to fighting wildfires” by Ann Cameron Siegal, 10-4-22.
CBS Sunday Morning, “Beavers: A Rodent Success Story,” 9-17-23.
What if Beavers Disappeared? by Anthony Ardely, Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2023.

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