Castorologia

my review of the 1892 book about beavers in Canada by Horace T. Martin

This is a well written, though old fashioned, book by a fellow of the Zoological Society who may not have ever seen a beaver. If he had, Martin doesn't make much of it. The premise of the book is that the Canadian beaver will soon be as extinct as the dodo or the European beaver, and it behooves a Canadian naturalist to write a popular account of the animal and its influence on Canada. As much as a scientific man in the late 19th century can, Martin tries to make the beaver worthy of the legends and myths surrounding it by integrating a concise natural history with what passes for beaver lore. Like many at his time, Martin assumed that the Indians were also doomed to extinction through complete assimilation into white society. And a final chord to the retrospective tone of the book is Martin's lack of any regret for the passing of the Canadian way of life as represented by the fur trade. Poems and engravings embellish the book.

"The name of the Indian village, Hochelaga, visited by Jacques Cartier in 1536, is an Algonquin word, signifying 'beaver meadows,' and as colonies of beavers were not unusually found in the immediate vicinity of the Indian settlements, we may reasonably infer that much of the present site of the city of Montreal, was then occupied by them." With such tidbits Martin tries to engage his readers, who he assumes will principally be Canadians. Of course, what Cartier noticed around this village was not beaver meadows nor beavers, but rows of corn. The idea that beavers and Indians usually made a point of living next to each other is fatuous. But Martin does not aim to critically examine the lore of the beaver, save for some fun he has at the fabulous accounts of beavers perpetrated by white travellers.

I've read Castorologia twice, each time seduced by the hope that the book would give me a better handle on the role of the beaver in Indian mythology. As in so many books about the beaver, the role of that animal is writ large. On the otherhand, in books about Indian creation myths in general, the beaver is sometimes not mentioned at all. Briefly put, Martin has the Indians believing that Manitou used giant beavers, otters and muskrats to pile up the mud that made the earth, and that the mountains, caves, lakes, etc., were made by the giant beavers. These animals could talk and eventually bad-mouthed their way into Manitou's bad graces. He shrunk them and took away the power of speech and "man came forth as the spirit of the departed animal, and bore henceforth a likeness in character to the animal from which he sprang." Martin finds this idea touching and contrasts it to the grotesqueries perpetrated by early white travelers that beaver lodges were five story buildings.

Returning to the Indian myths Martin describes how, in 1828, the British scientist, Charles Fothergill, went in search of the remains of the mammoth beaver in part out of a conviction that the Indian legends about giant beavers had some basis in fact. Martin assumes he was also inspired by the discovery of giant beaver remains in Europe. Of course, during the 19th century many remains of giant beavers were found in North America. Martin lists the finds, provides a photograph of three skulls, muskrat, beaver and giant beaver, and moves on to an examination of the European beaver.

He prefaces the discussion with some stanzas from Drayton on the beavers of the Tivy river:

....Being body'd like a boat, with such a mighty tail

As served him for a bridge, a helm or for a sail,

When kind did him command the architect to play,

That his strong castle built of branched twigs and clay....

and then the discussion is unfortunately brief. Martin describes the beavers having been abundant and then disappearing before waves of civilization. He cites a German edict of 1103 mentioning the right to hunt beaver; a bull of Pope Lucius in 1182 giving a monastery rights to beavers; a beaver reserve in 16th century Poland; and Prussian royal edicts of 1714 and 1725 protecting beavers. Beaver bones are found throughout Britain and beavers were hunted to extinction because of the value of castoreum in the Middle Ages. The last record of a beaver in England was made in 1526.

After a brief chapter on "The More Important American Rodents", Martin essays the life history of the beaver in suitably flowery late Victorian language. As with Morgan, Martin weaves in Indian lore. For example, they set "great store on a fat 'Ah-wa-nesha,' as the Indians call the beaver kitten." Then he addresses the geographical distribution of beavers by describing the progress of trapping through the continent, concluding "as to the ultimate destruction of the beaver no possible question can exist...."

One of Martin's longer chapters is on the "engineering feats" of the beaver. He eventually turns to the researches of Morgan but not before generous quotes from an 18th century traveller name LeBeau which Martin enjoys poking fun at. LeBeau described what he saw when he snuck up on beavers as they were at work:

The most amusing part to me was to see two seated on their tails, solely occupied in watching the workers and in preventing any advance on the side of the tree which they were cutting ought to fall. Several others a little farther off, seemed to me to act as inspectors or overseers to direct the work, it might be in hurrying the idle, or helping to roll away stones or take away the cuttings which sometimes impeded the workers too much, or in reloading those who let the mortar fall [off their tails], while others finally who represented masons, prepared this same mortar mix with rich earth which others had brought to them from the bottom of the river, and a little gravel collected on the bank.

For an accurate description of the beaver at work, Martin uses a memoir by a zookeeper in London who observed the beavers in the zoo at Regent's part in the mid-19th century. A willow tree on the grounds was blown over and the keeper distributed branches to many of the animals. For the beaver, a gift from the Hudson Bay Company, the keeper fixed a 12 foot branch in the ground and watched the beaver cut it down: "The rapid progress was (to all who witnessed it) most astonishing." Eventually Martin quotes some who had actually seen Canadian beavers operating in North America. He chooses a quote from Capt. Bonneville who deflates the idea of the beaver's sagacity: "...at one of our camps at Snake River, a beaver was found with its head wedged into the cut which it had made, the tree having fallen upon him and held him prisoner until he died." Martin follows that with a quote from "Mr. S. F. Baird, one of America's best informed naturalists," who wrote: "In my observations I have never seen a beaver lodge assume the marvelous features usually ascribed to it, and any I have met with can only be described as resembling an irregular pile of woodcuttings."

Yes, perhaps, but as you can see from my photo, there are some beavers living quite comfortably inside that irregular pile of sticks, and in some rather severe weather.

It strikes me that there is a motive in Martin's making much of the inflated legends and the deflating remarks of supposed keen observers. To Martin the beaver is doomed to extinction and so the beaver itself is tangential to his study. He turns to the economic and social importance of the beaver, beginning with "beaver meat" and ending with the beaver's place in medallions and heraldry. The middle of that part of his story, of course, is the story of the fur trade.

Martin strings together some interesting lore. He claims that before they became scarce, beavers were roasted in their skins. Yet, the Indians prized beaver leather before the fur trade. Unfortunately, Martin plays fairly fast and loose with the niceties of ethnography. For example, he writes "In places such as the country of the Hurons, where the beaver supplied all the wants of the tribe, it is but natural to suppose that its leather would be converted into the 'tepee' or tent covering, as in the Buffalo districts where the tents were invariably made of Buffalo leather." However, the evidence suggests that the Hurons did not have tepees, but lived in houses made of cut small trees and bark. Also, the Huron were principally a fishing and corn culture. They traded with northern tribes for beavers. Martin has an illustration from the British Museum of a "beaver-tooth chisel," and that inspires a few paragraphs on the importance of that.

Castoreum, the scent secreted by the beaver, rates a chapter all its own. Martin notes that its medical use was known to Hippocretes in 500 B.C. and he quotes liberally from a 1685 treatise on its medical uses entitled "Castorologia." This medical lore is all European tradition, and Martin does note that the chemical make-up of the castoreum for the Canadian and Russian beaver are different. The style of Medieval and Renaissance medicine is quite different from that of Enlightenment and 19th century medicine. Where the later marshalled an encyclopedia of ideas against disease, the former delighted in funneling a cornucopea of medicines into patients. For example:

'The skin of the beaver is of great utility in colic, in madness, and in spasms; it cures bed sores; and consumption in children.... The fat of the beaver is of not less utility in medicine, and it is efficacious in all maladies which affect the nerves. It is useful in epilepsy, and prevents apoplexy and lethargy; stops spasms and convulsions, and is of great help in giddiness, toothache, asthma, dysentery and strains..." And so on about the blood, hair, teeth and then finally the castoreum: it "does much good to mad people; and those who are attacked with pleurisy give proof of its effect every day, however little may be given to them. Castoreum destroys fleas; it is an excellent stomachic; stops hiccough; induces sleep; prevents sleepiness; strengthens the sight, and taken up the nose it causes sneezing and clears the brain."

Martin attributes the extinction of the beaver in Europe to the demand for castoreum. Then he turns to the cause for its coming extinction in North America, the fashionable beaver hats. Martin describes the process of felting. It was not beaver fur per se that made beaver hats, but the advantages the beaver hair had when put through the processes of soaking, steaming and pressing into felt. Martin devotes a few pages to describing the process. Since I know absolutely nothing about it, I won't comment on what Martin wrote.

After establishing the demand for beaver, Martin turns to the methods of hunting beaver. He personally can't see why some beavers can't be spared to help perpetuate the animal but he describes the methods used by trappers, Indian and white, that simply killed beavers one after another from the dam or lodge destruction methods of the Indians to steel traps baited with castoreum. He quotes a contemporary book on trapping in New York which describes the four generations of beavers found in a beaver pond and concludes with this advice: the trapper's "object should be to take them all."

Needless to say this book is not tightly organized. Between chapters on hunting and heraldry, Martin describes attempts to save the European beaver and the 1874 attempt of the Marquis of Bute to establish a colony of Canadian beavers in Scotland. He quotes liberally from an article by the Marquis's gamekeeper which only affords us more poorly considered observations of beavers, for example, that the beavers have two litters a year and only one birth in each litter. The Marquis failed to establish a colony and other "beaver ranches" fared no better.

As a finale Martin ends in characteristic late 19th century style. On the one hand, after seeming to quote every mistaken observation of beavers that he could get his hands on, Martin quotes the foremost zoologists of the day on the anatomy of the beaver. Then with the beaver nailed down in reality, albeit lifeless on a specimen board, Martin raises it as a symbol and shows how it was employed on coins and seals by great families and nations. The last few pages are an extended quote from Longfellow's Hiawatha.

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by Bob Arnebeck