Dugmore's The Romance of the Beaver

By the time he published The Romance of the Beaver in 1914, A. Radclyffe Dugmore was already renowned as an adventurer and Big Game photographer. Of course, "Big Game" in 1914 meant Africa. So the attention Dugmore paid to beavers in Canada is quite a compliment and because it is, we may as well forgive Dugmore his habit of referring to beavers as little. Dugmore scarcely mentions the beaver as North America's largest rodent. He is much more interested in it as the smallest master of the environment.

There is a biography of Dugmore which I have not been able to get yet so I am not sure how much time he devoted to studying beavers. From the text of his book it is evident that he saw them in Newfoundland and Northern Ontario. He writes with a passion for beavers, deeming the beaver "the most interesting animal to-day extant," even while admitting that the beaver is not a photogenic animal, which didn't prevent him from filling his book with photos.

Recall that Morgan in his studies of beaver took great pains to photograph beaver dams and thought the results significant. Perhaps that only reflected the youth of the art of photography and not the visual significance of the works of the beavers. Dugmore does not minimize the physical and artistic dimensions of the beaver's achievement but time and again he returns to the issue of the beaver's intelligence exhibited by its solutions to problems. Dugmore goes so far as to discern smart beavers and distinguish them from not so smart beavers. Indeed, he suggests that smart beavers might out distance some humans in intelligence. Fortunately this idea of the Uber-Beaver does not get out of hand. Dugmore also frequently strikes the chord that beavers in general make changes in the environment beneficial to many other animals.

I observe beavers in an environment which presents them with what are probably relatively simple problems in hydrology and forest management. Their true intelligence might not shine through. Also Dugmore observed beavers at a time when the pressure from trapping was intense and that may well have effected their behavior. But what I am trying to do here is tell what strikes me as true based only on what I have seen.

The book is divided into five chapters, but is not tightly organized. Much ground is gone over twice which is to the books credit and which is unavoidable because Dugmore always paints a scene in which the beaver demonstrates its ways and beavers are prone to repeat themselves. He begins by describing preparations for the winter when "the beavers must work diligently and make use of the extraordinary intelligence which they have developed through the thousands of years since they became as we know them to-day." I always bristle when beavers are described in these terms, but, to my mind, Dugmore demonstrates that he has watched beavers in the fall because he also notes as he describes a beaver cutting a tree: "For half an hour this continued. Then as a beaver does not like to work too long on any one task, he shuffled off, leaving the birch tree with its gaping wound gleaming white against the sombre back-ground."

Yet in general the hard working beaver gets the upper hand in Dugmore's descriptions almost to Puritanical extremes. For example, as trees are cut and branches collected, Dugmore insists "Nothing must be wasted." Of course one of the sure signs of beavers' work is all the tree parts left behind. Needless to add, Dugmore believes that in sighting and building lodges and dams the beaver is always right. Like many other writers, he ornaments this point by quoting the fanciful descriptions of lodges and dams by early white travellers. By juxtaposing these poor observations with the beavers' engineering triumph, the beavers are made to seem even more intelligent. Fortunately, like a good story teller, Dugmore keeps going over the beaver's actions and in this fashion gives a good description of how beavers make lodges and dams. I've noticed a few times when the beavers cut long strips of wood. Dugmore says this is done to provide bedding in the lodge, which makes sense to me.

Dugmore also returns again and again to the intelligence of beavers and this can be unfortunate. For example: "The river-bank lodges or highly-developed burrows are frequently subject to disaster through rising water, and may be regarded as the work of beavers whose intelligence is somewhat below normal." He adds that solitary beavers often use these burrows and suggests that because they were stupid they may have been turned out of the colony! I suggest that burrows are often the refuge of intelligent beavers adjusting to facts on the ground, or in this case, in the ground. I've seen beavers, in pairs or more, using burrows to make use of a pond in the spring and early summer before it dried out in the late summer, and also in the winter, affording a much better access to the under ice world than lodges in the same pond evidently did. The fact that beavers can thrive without the classic lodge in the middle of the pond suggests their intelligence even though they forsake one of the icons we exhibit as evidence of their intelligence.

Befitting a chronicler of the Big Game hunts, Dugmore makes much of the beaver's predators, especially man. It becomes a case that no matter where the lodge is, its placement is an intelligent ploy by the wary beaver. Placing the lodge on the north or northwest side of lakes and streams gets heat from the sun leading to early thawing. Placing the lodge in dense alder thickets or among the spruce, helps conceal the lodge from predators. In one pond I watch, perhaps the coldest, the beavers built two lodges underneath a fifty foot cliff that forms the south shore. The sunny northern side of the pond is without a lodge. Other beavers, after being born and raised in an exemplary lodge smack in the middle of the pond, proceeded to build two lodges on the shore (north shore in this case) and one of those right next to a hiking trail, and built another lodge in and a top the dam. Here again in his reiterating, Dugmore does allow that beavers do adjust to individual conditions, and that is another exhibition of his intelligence.

In describing lodges, dams and canals, Dugmore provides excellent drawings and informative photographs. His map of how a beaver placed a lodge on shore of a swift river right where there was an eddy in the current, and then built canals to save having to take branches against the current, is quite eloquent.

Of course Dugmore cites this as a surpreme use of intelligence. I see it as an example of the beaver's instinctual sensitivity to flowing water. In other drawings Dugmore tries to demonstrate how beavers make a series of ponds so that water backs up on the higher dams and help strengthen them.

That may be, but I've seen too many examples where the water doesn't back up in a way to provide any support.

Like all the older books about beavers, this one intersperses Indian and trapper lore. One of the more interesting is this: "From Indians and trappers, I have been told that immediately before the young are born or about that time, the prospective mother eats a small amount of spruce, pine or other conifer bark, which they believe to have some medicinal property." This observation introduces a section which extols the beaver's intelligence in taking down trees, though Dugmore discounts the idea that beavers bang their tails before a tree falls, or always know where the tree is going to fall. He suggests that beavers often girdle large trees and let them stand before cutting so that the sap runs out leaving the trees drier and more workable. I have my doubts about this, but am quick to admit I am at a loss to explain how beavers go about picking the trees they harvest. Dugmore painstakingly describes the process and how beavers get branches to the lodge and dams. Of course, he thinks just about every thing a beaver does to facilitate this is an example of its intelligence. Canals are the surpreme achievement: "These canals, I venture to say, are a demonstration of the highest skill to be found in the work of any animal below man. It is even doubtful whether man in his lowest form does such extraordinary constructive work, and with such remarkable success."

Far be it from me to cast apersions on beaver canals, but I think Dugmore gets carried away when he writes: "Their comprehension of the entire problem of water supply and control is so altogether wonderful as to be almost incredible, and even so some people claim that they do not reason." Alas, I have seen too many ponds go dry even after a wet season when much much more water could have been stored while it gushed. A key observation for Dugmore's contention is that beavers always complete their canals before they harvest wood. I find this hard to believe as I often see beavers eating bark off trees before they move the branches.

Dugmore's second chapter describes the "Life of a Beaver Colony," beginning with a timid female yearling who cowers while her whole family is lost one winter to "the steel trap." (Dugmore never addresses the question of why beavers aren't intelligent enough to see through the tricks of trappers, which, he assumes is primarily making a cut in the dam and trapping the beavers that come out to repair it. However, most of the dams I watch leak all winter, much to the advantage of beavers who can then operate in airy galleries between ice layers.) The young female leaves in the spring and soon enough a young male comes to the ill-fated pond which he avoids because he senses it has been a place of death! Fortunately, in real life beavers do reoccupy ponds keeping them vital at least for a season. Then the male goes off and eventually catches up to the female.

Well, there is no sense in being too critical of another beaver lover's romantic tale. But a few remarks: "Even in its rough condition, the lodge was quite suitable for a summer home, but as a precautionary measure, a second tunnel was made to enable inmates to escape rapidly in case of emergency, and they could never tell at what moment an otter might make his way in. They are unwelcome visitors and are so quick and strong that the beavers, notwithstanding their powerful teeth, are usually unable to cope with them. In water they are the only four footed enemy that beavers dread." I've read enough in old books about the otters ruling over beavers that I'm beginning to think that the old corps of otters was decidedly tougher than they babes in the woods that I see. Suffice it to say, in the encounters I've seen between beavers and otters -- in which otters always outnumbered the beaver, the beaver quite held its own or the animals ignored each other. Once I saw two beavers give up a lodge to three otters but there was another (and better) lodge near by which the beavers went to.

Objection number two is to this sentence: "Nothing of particular importance occurred during the winter months." This whole web site reeks with the enjoyment I've had keeping track of beavers in the winter.

The saga of this beaver family includes an attack by a Goshawk, wolves, and, of course, the steel trap. One point Dugmore makes that I find intriguing is that beavers use cedar for bedding material in their lodges. I have seen cedar stripped near a lodge. Once after I had cut some cedar myself, I went out to see the beavers in the early evening. One beaver that came out made a beeline for me and took a deep sniff.

A librarian in Georgia has put Dugmore's Chapter Three on-line, which I will copy from him and so I can put my comments into Dugmore text. This chapter is on the "Results of the Beavers Work." The librarian uses it to demonstrates that rounded indentations in the earth called Carolina Bays may be the work of ancient beavers, not ancient asteroids. Go to: dugmore3.htm The chapter also addresses the need to preserve beavers.

Chapter Four explores the "Beaver and Canadian History," which can be a tiresome topic for those who don't respond to the ups and downs of the fur trade. But not a few paragraphs into the unpromising topic, Dugmore quotes a legend from Wissler and Duvall's Blackfoot Mythology which I will quote in full:

You say you have heard the story of Scabby-Round-Robe; but he did not first start the beaver-medicine, because it is said in the story that there was such a medicine before his time. The story I now tell you is about the origin of beaver-medicine.

Once there was a man and his wife camping alone on the shore of a small lake. The man was a great hunter, and had in his lodge skins of almost every kind of bird and animal. Among them was the skin of a white buffalo. As he was always hunting, his wife was often left alone. One day a beaver came out of the water and made love to her. This went on for some time, until finally she went away with the beaver to his home in the water. Now when the man came home, he looked all about for his wife, but could not find her anywhere. As he was walking along the shore of the lake, he saw her trail going down into the water. Now he knew what had happened. He did not break camp, but continued hunting. After four days, the woman came up out of the water and returned to her lodge. She was already heavy with child. When her husband returned that evening, he found her in her usual place, and she told him all that had occurred.

In the course of time the woman gave birth to a beaver. To keep it from dying she put it in a bowl of water, which she kept at the head of her bed. In the evening her husband came in as usual, and after a while, hearing something splashing in the water, he said, "What is that?" Then the woman explained to him that she had given birth to a beaver. She brought him the bowl. He took out the little beaver, looked at it and put it back. He said nothing. As time went on he became very fond of the young beaver and played with him every evening.

Now the beaver down in the water knew everything that was going on in the lodge. He knew that the man was kind to the young beaver, and so was not angry with him. He took pity on the man. Then the father of the young beaver resolved to give the man some of his medicine-songs in exchange for the skins of birds and animals the man had in his lodge. So one day, when the woman went down to the lake for water, the beaver came out and instructed her to request of her husband that whatever he [the beaver] should ask in his songs, that should be done. He also stated the time at which he would come to the lodge to be received by her husband.

At the appointed time the beaver came out of the lake and appeared before the lodge, but, before he entered, requested that the lodge be purified. Then he entered. They smoked. After a while the beaver began to sing a song, in which he asked for the skin of a certain bird. When he had finished, the man arose and gave the bird-skin to him. Then the beaver gave another song, in which he asked for the skin of another bird, which was given him. Then he went on until he secrued all the skins in the man's lodge. In this way the man learned all the songs that belonged to the beaver-medicine and also the skins of the animals to which the songs belonged.

After this the man got together all the different kinds of bird and animal skins taken by the beaver, made them up into a bundle, and kept the beaver-medicine.

Before turning to the fur-trade, Dugmore explains the importance of the beaver to the Indians relying mainly on Jesuit texts which describe the use of beaver robes in Indian funerals and in gift giving. To illustrate this section Dugmore uses several engravings of paintings and, I assume, he was the artist.

It would be interesting to know where the originals are. His last chapter is a description of the beaver's organs and appendages and some hints on how to photograph beavers. Dugmore made a small breach in a dam and left a trip wire. He warns that with this method most prints will be poor but that otherwise it is very difficult to capture the shy animal on film.

To me the best thing about Dugmore's Romance of the Beavers is not so much what he writes about the beavers, but the excitement of his own engagement with beavers. He communicates this truth well: no time spent watching beavers or examining their works is wasted.

Bob Arnebeck

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