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Academic & Professional Books  Mammals  Insectivores to Ungulates  Rodents

Eager The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

By: Ben Goldfarb(Author), Dan E Flores(Foreword By)
287 pages, 8 plates with 30 colour & b/w photos; 3 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Chelsea Green
Revelatory and beautifully written, Eager reveals just how big an impact beavers have on landscapes, and what we lost when they fell victim to the fur trade.
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  • Eager ISBN: 9781603589086 Paperback Mar 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Eager ISBN: 9781603587396 Hardback Jul 2018 Out of Print #240926
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About this book

In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that everything we think we know about what a healthy landscape looks like and how it functions is inaccurate a historical artefact produced by the removal of beavers from their former haunts. Across the Western Hemisphere, a coalition of "beaver believers" – including scientists, government officials, and farmers have begun to recognize that ecosystems with beavers are far healthier, for humans and non-humans alike, than those without them, and to restore these industrious rodents to streams throughout North American and Europe.

It s a powerful story about one of the world's most influential species, how North America was settled, the secret ways in which our landscapes have changed over the centuries and the measures we can take to mitigate drought, flooding, wildfire, biodiversity loss, and the ravages of climate change. And ultimately, it s about how we can learn to co-exist, harmoniously and even beneficially, with our fellow travellers on this planet.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Revelatory and beautifully written
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 28 Jun 2019 Written for Paperback

    I cannot deny that the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing this book was Leslie Nielsen’s slightly smutty beaver joke in Naked Gun. Shame on me, as environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb presents a serious, incisive book that shows just how important beavers and their dams are for biodiversity, ecosystem health, and hydrology. If humans are now said to be a geological force to be reckoned with, birthing the term Anthropocene, our persecution of beavers led to the loss of another geological force.

    Eager mixes equal measures environmental history with reportage on ongoing conservation and wildlife reintroduction programmes. To understand how we got to where we are, Goldfarb recounts the heydays of the American frontier times, when white settlers fanned out over the USA, killing, trapping, and hunting anything that moved. Bison, wolves, and the passenger pigeon are some of the better-known examples of animals that were virtually extirpated, but there was an equally lively trade in beaver pelts. This sad chapter in history is explored more in-depth in Fur, Fortune and Empire and Once They Were Hats, but Goldfarb gives a good overview of the scale of the onslaught as trappers caught beavers by the tens of thousands in mere decades.

    To understand why this was such a loss requires Goldfarb to invoke the specter of shifting baselines, which he poetically describes as long-term amnesia: “every year we lose more and remember less”. I have mentioned this syndrome before in my review of Vanishing Fish and All the Boats on the Ocean, but it does not just apply to overfishing. People simply forgot that beavers once roamed the landscape, forgot how their dams created meandering rivers with regularly flooded wetlands that are havens for diverse forms of wildlife large and small. Forgot how their dams maintained healthy groundwater levels, prevented flash floods, and tempered erosion. The denuded landscapes left in the wake of the ravages of the fur trade rapidly fell victim to overgrazing and trampling by cattle, the attendant erosion causing streams to rapidly cut through landscapes down to the level of the bedrock, lowering groundwater levels in the process. The impact of shifting baselines has been so pervasive that even some 19th-century biologists fell victim to it, which greatly hampered reintroduction efforts in for example California, as the prevailing opinion (even amongst academics) was that beavers had only existed in isolated pockets, and never at high altitudes.

    Europe, which Goldfarb explores in chapter 9, fared even worse. Remember where all those frontier-immigrants came from in the first place? Centuries after Europeans had already hunted and trapped most wildlife out of their continent did they continue these lucrative but destructive campaigns overseas. Against this dark history, Goldfarb paints an uplifting picture of a current-day ragtag army of self-styled Beaver Believers: conservationists, landowners, environmental managers, even some cattle ranchers and farmers, who are fighting to reintroduce beavers and let them take over stream restoration.

    We meet Mike Callahan, a former physician-assistant at a methadone clinic who invented flow devices: low-tech beaver-proof structures of pipes and fences that partially drain a beaver pond to prevent catastrophic flooding of nearby roads and properties, now highly in demand throughout the US. There is Nick Weber, a scientist who has been imitating beavers by constructing artificial dams that have beneficial effects on the hydrology of landscapes and are not infrequently colonised be returning beavers, giving them a leg-up when re-establishing themselves. Or Heidi Perryman, whose non-profit Worth a Dam has been ceaselessly campaigning for the benefit of beaver-dom, dispelling many myths and misconceptions in the process.

    Goldfarb spends time with these and many others who are passionate about what well-known naturalist George Monbiot has called rewilding (see his book Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life). This is the idea of not just reintroducing species, but restoring functional ecosystems – not by micro-managing them, but by letting them run their own wild course. Speaking of Monbiot, Goldfarb touches on the viral YouTube video about the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park for which Monbiot provided the narration. This hotly contested video makes it sound as if wolves have single-handedly changed whole ecosystems. Many ecologists accuse it of simplifying matters or of just being outright wrong, whereas others defend it. It is not unlikely that beaver reintroductions have played an important but overlooked part in this story, and I am happy to see Goldfarb bringing up the controversy around this video.

    But above all this rises the beaver – the unmistakable heroes of this book. Though it might seem as if Goldfarb is imbuing them with near-mythical powers, beavers are a keystone species – one that has an outsized effect on an ecosystem. This is clear from the environmental history that he so meticulously documents here, where the removal of beavers changed and destabilised whole landscapes. But it is equally clear from the spectacular results of current reintroduction projects. Beaver dams and their slowing down of rivers and streams have tremendous positive effects on both the biotic and abiotic landscape. Which is just academic shorthand for saying that they create environments suitable for living creatures (fish fry, amphibians, insects, birds, mammals, and plant species), but also have a positive impact on its geomorphology (e.g. the shape of landscapes, and rates of erosion and silt deposition) and hydrology (e.g. groundwater levels).

    Though I have always had a superficial mental image of beavers as those dam-building rodents, I found Eager to be a revelatory and very interesting book. The regular castorid puns and rich alliteration might not be to everyone’s taste, admittedly, but overall my feeling was that the prose flowed off the pages into my eyeballs. Eager is clearly far more than a dry, scholarly treatise on the subject. In my opinion, Goldfarb here successfully advocates the beaver’s cause while also writing a beautiful book.
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Ben Goldfarb is an environmental journalist who covers wildlife conservation and marine science. His work has been covered in many publications including the Guardian, World Wildlife Magazine, Scientific American, VICE, Audobon Magazine and Mother Jones. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

By: Ben Goldfarb(Author), Dan E Flores(Foreword By)
287 pages, 8 plates with 30 colour & b/w photos; 3 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Chelsea Green
Revelatory and beautifully written, Eager reveals just how big an impact beavers have on landscapes, and what we lost when they fell victim to the fur trade.
Media reviews

"This book lodges itself among the ranks of the best sort of environmental journalism."
The Boston Globe

"Eager is a revelation! If we only let them live, beavers are the solution to many of our nation's ecological problems. Ben Goldfarb's wonderful book will make you an even bigger fan of these intelligent, inventive, resilient rodents than (if you have any sense) you are already – and might just tail-slap a politician or two into realizing how much we need them to restore our critical wetlands."
– Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus and coauthor of Tamed & Untamed

"Beavers are easy to caricature, and they're a bit comical. But they've got their serious side, too. European settlers who cut, plowed, and shot their way west also trapped the country nearly clean of mammals. Almost killing off beavers – the continent's major water engineers and dam builders – caused widespread problems for wildlife and people. Now, though, beavers are on the rebound, and the how and who of that story, as told in Eager, will give you a new and completely different concept of the continent."
– Carl Safina, author of The View From Lazy Point and Beyond Words

"This witty, engrossing book will be a classic from the day it is published. No one who loves the landscape of America will ever look at it quite the same way after understanding just how profoundly it has been shaped by the beaver. And even the most pessimistic among us will feel strong hope at the prospect that so much damage can be so easily repaired if we learn to live with this most remarkable of creatures."
– Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

"Eager is the stunning story of beavers – so integral to early human landscapes of North America – and their function in support of people and later the American economy. Literally nature's "Corps of Engineers", beavers today play vital roles in restoring watersheds, landscapes, and flood control throughout the continent. To view them just as a cute animal with a flat tail is to trivialize a central player in both history and modern day landscape ecology."
– Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

"Eager brilliantly presents the role of the American beaver in shaping the landscape of our continent and preserving its ecological integrity and diversity – and does so in clear, readable prose. My Native ancestors – before the cultural disruptions of the fur trade – saw the beaver people as a nation worthy of the greatest respect. I believe that any thoughtful person who reads this book will come away with a much deeper appreciation of this sacred being's place in the America of the past and, we hope, the future."
– Joseph Bruchac, coauthor of Keepers of the Earth

"Long trapped for their fur and maligned as pests, beavers are finally recognized for their role in keeping water in the landscape. Goldfarb's spirited, well-researched account tells the story of humanity's relationship with beavers and highlights innovative efforts to ally with them to restore rivers and wetlands and boost ecological resilience. Our winsome, paddle-tailed friends could have no better champion."
– Judith D. Schwartz, author of Cows Save the Planet and Water in Plain Sight

"There are a number of books that focus on a single species, but the amazing story of the beaver, as told by Ben Goldfarb, is in a class all its own. Dear reader, prepare yourself to be awed by a rodent!"
– Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape and Granite, Fire, and Fog

"One of the best things that can be said about a book is that it is both necessary and good. Not many are, but this one is."
– Richard Manning, coauthor of Go Wild

"With the perfect blend of science and storytelling, Ben Goldfarb takes us on a remarkable journey to discover the myriad ways beavers have shaped our landscapes and history – and, if we are willing, could help us fix our broken water cycle. An absorbing and eye-opening book that comes at a crucial time."
– Sandra Postel, author of Replenish

"In Eager Ben Goldfarb demonstrates that beavers are more than just a fascinating and mysterious rodent – they're also an 'animal that doubles as an ecosystem'. Optimistic and exciting, the book suggests a future where rather than destroying nature, or trying to dominate it with heavy-handed management, we collaborate with species like beavers to create a wilder, more diverse, and surprising world. Eager will make a Beaver Believer out of you!"
– Emma Marris, fellow at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; author of Rambunctious Garden

"Beavers do matter. Contrary to the popular image of beavers as trouble-making 'varmints' on the land, these hardworking animals play many critical roles in nature, including rewetting creeks in dry country. That might seem counterintuitive – beavers are famous dam builders after all – but as Ben Goldfarb explains in his riveting new book, the engineering prowess of these mighty rodents is essential to healthy riparian areas. And they do their work for free!"
– Courtney White, author of Grass, Soil, Hope and Two Percent Solutions for the Planet

"An important and engaging book about the nature of beavers, the forces of nature, and the hubris of humans. While I've read many books about how Homo sapiens extirpated species around the globe historically, and how we've wiped out birds such as turkeys and beasts such as bison and elk in the recent past, I had not read a book about beavers. This book is an eye-opening contribution with great examples of the power of beavers to restore ecosystems."
– Fred Provenza, author of Nourishment

"In this beautifully written tribute to beavers, Ben Goldfarb paints a vivid and captivating portrait of two of nature's most fascinating species, Castor canadensis and Castor fiber. Seamlessly combining history, ecology, biology, politics, and compelling stories of those battling over the proper role of beavers in today's anthropocentric world, Eager resoundingly proves that these magnificent rodents do indeed matter a great deal. In so doing, this gem of a book offers hope not only for the beavers' future, but also our own."
– Eric Jay Dolin, author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire and Black Flags, Blue Waters

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