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4 april 2016

I got some smirks when Rachel Poliquin's Beaver arrived and I carried it away from the office mailroom. "Beaver," as Poliquin notes, "is the queen of all fur slang referring to a woman's pubic area" (109).

"Pussy" is commoner, but I guess for that very reason it's not a queen but a lady-in-waiting. Poliquin really isn't interested in a comparative taxonomy of euphemisms for genitalia, though. Her theme is beavers in nature and culture, and along the way she deals with the odd sexual assignment of the beaver in the European imagination. Once believed all to be male on account of scent glands in both sexes that resemble testicles, the beaver became more identified with its pelt than its musk in the early modern period. Once established as shorthand for a bush of hair, "beaver" became street slang for men's beards in the early 20th century, when close shaves superseded the last full beards of the Edwardians. It wasn't long before beards on men became so rare, and the fun of shouting "beaver" at them became so weak, that the term "beaver" was transferred to from men's faces to women's privates.

I think that the term has become rarer since I was a kid (and Jim Bouton told anecdotes in Ball Four of "beaver-shooting" by baseball players angling for upskirt views from the dugout). Poliquin does not discuss Bouton, nor Leave it to Beaver, which is understandable because by the time we get to the Cleavers, "Beaver" is no longer a slang term or even a metaphor, just a rhyming nickname. Yet the somewhat surreal name of Wally's kid brother led Mason Williams to feature "Beaver Cleavers" in his series of Them Poems:

Look at Them Beaver Cleavers,
Ain't they a shock?
Some use a ball peen,
Some use a rock.
Them ever clever Beaver Cleavers,
Hidin' in the leaves,
Beaver comes by,
Gitsa few cleaves.
Surreal indeed and clearly bubbled up from the collective id, but in a way that parallels some of Poliquin's observations about the history of human-beaver interaction. Human beings have ambivalent attitudes towards most animal species: symbiotic, affectionate, exploitative all at once, true love-hate relationships. But beavers – cute, earnest, admirable – have also been among the most ruthlessly "cold-cocked," as Williams puts it, of all North American animals, in ways that parallel bison and passenger pigeons.

Beavers, Poliquin notes, are among the species that most radically transform their environments – at least on the large, visible-from-space scales that we, another of those species, like to think in. One could argue, like Charles Darwin, that earthworms are even more transformative than beavers. But it's difficult to appreciate the work of earthworms because they seem so much a part of the raw material that they create. (Even more inherent and less evident are nematodes and bacteria.) But beavers turn stream-cut prairies into wetlands, with genuine engineering ability that humans can see and even try to emulate. As a result, beavers, especially those that populated wide and "wild" expanses of North America after European contact, emerged from the mythological status they'd held in classical and medieval cultures to become prey, moral exemplum, and mentor to the West.

Their earlier mythological status, as Poliquin discusses with humor and bemusement, was as selfless types who had sensible values. Pursued by hunters for the wonder-working musk in their testicles, legend has it, the beaver would bite off said family jewels and leave them behind to appease the hunter. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and if thy balls become a liability, bite them off. The self-curtailed beaver thus stood for good priorities and cleverness and chastity in the bargain: a sort of natural-history version of the church father Origen.

Not only was this entire story nonsense – no beaver ever did such a thing – but the position of the humans in the story (Poliquin observes) was uneasy. The hunters were emblematic of sin, but they were also quite literal in pre-modern Europe, and they'd hunted Eurasian beavers, for their musk or their pelts, nearly to extinction. A repeating pattern emerges in Beaver with the big mammals featuring alternately as cynosure and hapless victims. They can maintain environments or destroy them (in Patagonia beavers are a pernicious invasive species, killing local tree populations; in North America they've co-evolved with aspens, which basically can't be killed by cutting individuals at beaver pace).

Above all, my takeaway from Beaver is that yet another species is smarter than we are at certain things, mute as it may be in conveying that intelligence. This is humbling and inspiring, and I reckon it's why I read so much about animals.

Poliquin, Rachel. Beaver. London: Reaktion, 2015.