WORKING LIKE A BEAVER
CANADA’S NATIONAL ANIMAL GAVE EUROPEANS MORE THAN HATS. THE BEAVER’S LEGENDARY INDUSTRIOUSNESS WAS PRESENTED AS THE BASIS FOR AN IDEAL SOCIETY.
Nicolas de Fer’s wall map of the Americas, printed in Paris in 1698, depicts a rare and wondrous scene. In the top left corner, no less than fifty-two beavers have gathered to build a colossal dam at the foot of Niagara Falls. A few gnaw at a tree, as real beavers do. But most walk upright like an army of automatons, some carrying lumber on their shoulders, others dragging mortar on their tails. And one has collapsed, exhausted.
Each animal is labelled with a letter keyed to a legend. There are lumberjacks, carpenters, and bearers of wood. There is also an architect who directs a group of beavers making mortar, which other beavers thump firm on the dam with their tails. One miserable beaver has fallen over on its back with “a disabled tail from having worked too hard.” Two neighbours are approaching, but apparently not with concern. Rather they are “Inspectors of the Disabled,” presumably tasked with weeding out lazy beavers from those with genuine complaints and forcing the indolent to work.
De Fer’s beaver vignette is eccentric, to say the least, but such animal fables were not uncommon. Plenty of oddly romantic tales had swirled around most animals since ancient times. For example, it was long believed by many that chameleons lived on air alone, that badgers had legs shorter on one side of their body than the other, and that all hares were hermaphrodites.
While most such fables and fantasies fell by the wayside as naturalists began to take a more serious look at nature, the myth of North America’s beaver labour camps coincides with the beginning of modern science. The fiction was related as fact by some of the Enlightenment’s most illustrious thinkers, including the great George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, whose sprawling thirty-six volume Histoire naturelle became the encyclopedic reference for all animal knowledge well into the nineteenth century. The idea that, somewhere in the wooded wilderness of the New World, hundreds of beavers, beladen with logs and mud, were flogging themselves into action was too fantastic not to be taken seriously.
Most Canadians know beavers as the humble rodents on our five-cent coin. Humpbacked and portly, with an earnest and honest charm, beavers epitomize the Canadian spirit of unpretentiousness, integrity, and industriousness. But the hard-working beaver is not quite what it seems.
It’s not that beavers are lazy animals; beavers certainly do work hard, and evidence of their labours is wildly impressive. Beaver dams usually range from ten to one hundred metres long, but over generations beavers can build magnificent structures. The current record holder, located in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border, is an astonishing eight hundred and fifty metres long, and it’s still under construction. Beavers also diligently store enough food to survive the coldest winters, which puts them in the fabled league of the ever-industrious ant. But for the millennia that humans and beavers coexisted, no one ever remarked on the beaver’s work ethic until Europeans arrived in North America.
Beavers are found throughout North American First Nations’ mythology as skilled builders, healers, and earth-makers, but no myths suggest beavers as being any more hard-working than coyotes or porcupines. Eurasian beavers also have a long and storied history in European folklore, but they were known for something altogether different than busyness.
Ancient physicians believed the beavers’ malodorous scent organs (known as castor sacs) contained a potent medicine, and because castor sacs look remarkably like testicles they assumed they were testicles. And so, according to animal lore, the beaver, when cornered by a hunter, and knowing the value of his medicine, would bite off his testicles and escape with his life. Aesop’s fable seems to be the oldest version of the tale, and the ancient Greek fabulist ensured it would be repeated for centuries by wringing out a pithy moral: “If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free from danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for someone already stripped to the skin.” Early Christian moralists delighted in the fable, praising beavers as models of chastity, austerity, and prudence. But hard work was never part of the Eurasian beaver’s repertoire.
Eurasian beavers once spread from Great Britain to Mongolia and from northern Finland to the Turkish coast of the Black Sea. But from the Middle Ages onwards their numbers were in sad decline. They were killed for their musk organs. Their fish-like tails were eaten by the piously abstemious during Lenten fasts. They were hunted for their fur until there was hardly a beaver left.
And so, when Europeans arrived in North America, they likely had never seen a beaver. When they witnessed the animals’ astonishing dams, explorers were madly impressed with the architectural rodents. They invented a tale of such wonder and charisma that it endures to this day in diluted form. And, perhaps even more bizarre than the story of the hundred-strong beaver workforce, is its persistence for centuries, through various revisions and political retellings. From the forced labour camps of New France, the beaver’s legendary industry was born.
De Fer’s vignette was inspired by the writings of Nicolas Denys, a seventeenth-century French aristocrat turned New World officer and politician. According to Denys, as many as four hundred beavers gathered, and each had their appointed tasks. Some chewed down trees. Others gnawed logs into stakes. The oldest beavers with the largest tails used them to carry dirt. Just as de Fer illustrated, there were beaver masons, beaver carpenters, ditch diggers, log carriers, and ever-vigilant beaver foremen who ensured a high standard of construction. If any beavers were lazy or neglectful, the foreman “chastises them, beats them, throws himself on them, and bites them to keep them at their duty,” Denys explained.
Beavers were capable of hard work, but they were not really models of industriousness. They needed an enforcer to keep them in line. After all, this was the seventeenth century, and whipping grunt labour into action was an accepted and expected method of building great public works. Animal fables have a way of making certain behaviours seem natural and inherently good, even self-castration, even autocratic regimes. For Denys, authoritarian beavers offered a parable of a righteous society.
Denys published his natural history of Acadia in Paris in 1672, although he wrote most of it in the New World, perhaps in Nepisiquit (in present-day New Brunswick), one of the many settlements he founded. Denys spent more than three decades of his life in Acadia, first arriving in 1632 and dying in Nepisiquit in 1688. He likely had seen a beaver, if only a dead one, and at the very least he had encountered their phenomenal feats of hydraulic engineering. (Denys actually suggested that most lakes and ponds in New France had been made by beavers.) Struggling to understand how such extraordinary constructions were possible, Denys offered an equally extraordinary explanation: hundreds of beavers labouring united.
The idea of animals toiling for the common good was seductive, but it required one more imaginative leap of logic to become the perfect political allegory. Surely four hundred beavers required some sort of order or chain of command to design and build enormous communal dams. Four hundred humans certainly would. So what political structure did beavers prefer?
Bacqueville de la Potherie, an eighteenth-century chronicler of New France, suggested that beavers were ruled by a patriarch: “His house is so admirable that one can recognize in him the authority
of an absolute master, the true character of the family father and the genius of a skilled architect.” A surgeon-explorer known only by the surname Dièreville suggested that beavers were governed by an aristocracy. In Dièreville’s version, beavers didn’t require foremen, as every beaver gladly assaulted a lazy neighbour: “Justice is everything among beavers.”
In fact, most writers agreed that beavers were authoritarians. Lazy or vagabond beavers were variously beaten, brought to heel, or banished. Their fur was stripped from their back as a mark of infamy, and they were forced to live in holes by themselves, in disgrace.
Building beavers were never just beavers who built. The myth’s appeal was in its social resonance. Whether they laboured willingly or not, beavers were wonderfully malleable actors for thinking about human social relations, at least for those in control.
The historian Gordon Sayre, for example, has suggested that beavers offered a corrective to the ever-looming possibility of colonial anarchy. Throughout New France land tenure was essentially feudal. Large parcels known as seigneuries were granted to military officers, nobles, and clergy, who rented smaller plots to tenants, known as habitants. The habitants cleared the land and built their homes, but it was the seigneurs who took on the investment of building a mill or road. In 1671, the first Acadian census counted 392 people, a few less than Denys’ four hundred-strong beaver labour force (and less than the 484 cows and 524 sheep also reported). With a beaver gulag as its moral guide, a society based on civil obedience and subordination might achieve magnificent, awe-inspiring works in this new-found world.
Outcast beavers also offered a moral lesson for habitants who were tempted to go primitive and become coureurs de bois. Venturing into the wilderness to seek their fortune in furs, coureurs de bois were naturally vilified by the ruling classes and by bourgeois fur merchants. Living like vagabond beavers, they refused the duties of society and acquired a taste for wandering and its associated vices. Repent now, the fable almost warns, lest you end up in a dark and dirty hole with no coat on your back.
But it was François-René Chateaubriand, the father of French Romanticism and namesake of the chateaubriand steak, who transformed the political allegory into a gloriously absurd fantasy. Escaping the violence of the French Revolution and fleeing to New France in 1791, Chateaubriand claimed to have witnessed a village of palatial beaver lodges, a veritable “Venice of the wilderness,” as he called it. Lodges were five storeys tall, with domed, artfully stuccoed vestibules. Beaver society was equally cultured — they ate their meals together, were fastidiously clean, and had an elected government. But beavers, like humans, were hot-blooded animals and often clashed with neighbouring tribes or muskrats. If a beaver was caught marauding on another tribe’s territory, he was brought before the chief and beaten. For a second offence, his tail was cut off. Sometimes disputes were settled by a duel between chiefs or a combat of thirty against thirty. The battles were always vicious and to the death.
Chateaubriand also noted that “the beaver lives chastely with a single female; he is jealous and sometimes kills his mate, if she has been guilty of infidelity, or he suspects her of it.” The detail, unique to Chateaubriand, is especially odd considering he was a notorious philanderer.
The eighteenth century was a time of political upheaval and societal reform, especially in France, and French writers had a particular affinity for beaver tales. The society of building beavers raised all the right questions for Enlightenment thinkers. How might society achieve its greatest good and happiness? Was a monarchy or an authoritarian regime really the only way forward? Or might an egalitarian society achieve even greater success?
The wandering, erstwhile officer and nobleman Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, claimed beavers had achieved utopia. In his account of his travels in North America, which were published in 1703, Lahontan described beavers as living a good, happy, gentle, and egalitarian existence with peace and harmony as their primary goals. Beavers even had a sort of intelligible jargon of “bemoaning inarticulate sounds” by which they communally agreed on what needed to be done to maintain their lodges, dams, lakes, and the peaceable order of their republic, he claimed.
Lahontan is a fascinating character in the early history of Canada. With the death of his father, he came to his title in 1674 at the young age of eight. He joined the military at seventeen and arrived in the New World in 1683. He spent a decade in New France, exploring the region and learning the languages and cultures of neighbouring First Nations before deserting the army in 1692. Unable to return to France and having lost his inheritance, Lahontan went to Amsterdam, where he published his works including his final and most famous, Supplement aux Voyages ou Dialogues avec le Sauvage Adario.
Based around an imaginary dialogue between himself and a Huron chief named Adario, Supplement aux Voyages contrasted the political corruption, religious persecution, and social inequality he saw ravaging the Old World with the freedoms and justice of North America’s Indigenous nations. His idealized view of humans living in a pure and natural state offered an early expression of the Enlightenment trope of the “noble savage.” Although Lahontan never makes the link explicit, there is much to compare between the utopian societies of Adario and those of North American beavers. In Lahontan’s eyes, beavers and humans shared equally in the bliss of the New World.
Half a century later, the great French naturalist Georges-Louis
ENDOWED WITH AN EVERWILLING, EVER-READY WORK ETHIC, BEAVERS WILL FOREVER BE SYNONYMOUS WITH BUSYNESS AND WITH CANADA.
Leclerc, Comte du Buffon, agreed. In the eighth volume of his Histoire naturelle, printed in 1760, Buffon claimed that what made North American beavers exceptional was their conviviality. No matter how many workers arrived, peace and good order reigned. Beaver dams were “the fruits of a perfected society,” and beavers were the perfect citizens.
As a man who lived through the politics and bloodshed of eighteenth-century France, Buffon was no stranger to the violence of authoritarian regimes, or to utopian rhetoric. Perhaps Buffon was thinking of his fellow French citizens when he contemplated the wretched state of French beavers. Hunted into near extinction, the beavers of the Rhone Valley were “dispersed, forlorn, and timid creatures. There they have never been known to assemble or undertake any common work.” Like men under a despotic government, their spirit had been broken and their talents extinguished by terror. In the peace and plenty of the New World, beavers offered hope for a better future.
But even the utopian tales of Lahontan and Buffon had a dark underbelly. At the very same moment when beavers were being praised for their civility, tens of millions of beavers were being slaughtered to make hats. Early Canada, after all, was built by the fur trade, which is to say, Canada quite literally was built on the back of the beaver. Surprisingly or not, most writers discussed beavers as model citizens and as commodities almost within the same breath. The beaver’s demise was just accepted as the inevitable result of human progress. Even Buffon suggested that European advancement had squelched the natural genius of their continent’s native animals.
The fable of the industrious beaver took a final turn in North American literature. Beavers — this time real beavers building their dams in nuclear families, as beavers actually do — were an obvious symbol for a young nation. By simply living their lives and doing what came naturally, beavers embodied democratic values of industry, prudence, and civic responsibility. Beavers built solid homes for their families. They had the foresight to store food during the summer months. They diligently extracted every goodness nature had to give, which naturally dovetailed with the political belief that industrious homesteaders would guarantee the health and happiness of the nation.
Endowed with an ever-willing, ever-ready work ethic, beavers will forever be synonymous with busyness and with Canada, but for oddly incompatible reasons. Beavers are busy because they build magnificent dams, and beavers are Canada because their deaths fuelled the nation’s fortune. And so, perhaps the last word of advice should come from the society of building beavers: Labour not so industriously that you fail to see your greatest admirer is also your most deadly foe.
This illustration by Herman Moll is an inset from a map entitled A New and Exact Map of the Dominions of the King of Great Britain on ye Continent of North America, 1715. The beaver scene at Niagara Falls was copied from Nicolas de Fer’s earlier 1698 map. Note, on the left side of the picture, the exhausted beaver who has fallen on his back.
An inscription on Moll’s map describes the scene: “A view of the industry of beavers of Canada in making dams to stop the course of a rivulet in order to form a great lake, about which they build their habitations. To effect this, they fell large trees with their teeth ... they finish the whole with great order.”
A beaver castrates itself in this thirteenth-century manuscript.
American Beaver by John James Audubon, 1844.