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  • Mj Pettengill

Willow: Marya of the Wood


Willow, Beaver at Marya's Pond

Last week, when my new neighbor showed up, I was both delighted and concerned. I have lived most of my life in Hampshire’s woods, and I am used to sharing a space with many wild creatures. The list is almost too long, but I will provide a glimpse of those that have and continue to live nearby.

Bears, moose, deer, red and gray foxes, coyotes, birds, frogs, insects, spiders, bats, woodchucks, porcupines, skunks, smaller rodents: squirrels, chipmunks, voles, moles, field mice, and more that I will awaken at 3:00 a.m. to remember.

When we lived on our farm during the homeschooling years, we had the creatures mentioned above, plus our farm animals, domestic pets: parrots, lizards, and cats. It’s hard to imagine, but we were quite organized, and the facilities were more than adequate.

At one point, when my oldest son was working at the Squam Lakes Science Center, we were into bird rescue. When injured or abandoned birds were discovered, we were happy to nurture and feed them until it was time for release. We are the kind of family that seeks lessons in most of our experiences. 

As the quintessential mother, a woman of the wood—perennial hermitess, I will say that, over the years, my wild connection has significantly expanded. I am aware of the importance of keeping safe boundaries with my wild friends. I provide food for birds and small furry ones, bringing the feeders in each night and re-placing in the morning to keep the bears in line. 

I have a great deal of patience and wait quietly with nectar in hand to feed the hummingbirds. Over the years, this has been one of my shining accomplishments. Last year on Mother’s Day and this year, one day later, I fed the first hummingbirds to arrive, which were males. I didn’t plan on it, but both times they simply approached and started drinking from the feeder in my hand. What an honor and gift!

During the season, when they are all present, it is usually the females that are trusting. So, I was grateful and excited when, for the past two years, my initial hummingbird interaction was with males.

So, back to my new neighbor—a beautiful, healthy beaver in the pond. This is the first time I have spotted one there, in this sacred place. There is a great deal of life in and around it. 

My first thoughts were that I must find someone to relocate it. Beavers are a nuisance, right? They will destroy the land, flood the property, eat all of the trees and plants. What a nightmare it would be. This is what we have been taught to think. This is our narrative—the perceived experience and rigid outcome to be expected. We quake in our boots at the very thought of such an industrious villain taking up residence on our property.

When I spoke of this to family and friends, the initial responses were all about how awful it was to have a beaver show up. Someone asked me why I hadn’t shot it yet, “do you know how good beaver meat is?” (Just a note, even as an adult, I cry at Bambi and Free Willy.)

Hence, I found myself in a typical quandary, sifting through right and wrong, truth and lore, instinct and disinclination. I plopped down on my sitting tree and watched it sunning on the rock and then swim around to the far side of the pond. Ripples had never looked like that. The rays of sunlight had never before danced as they did that day. There was an enchantment, a sort of shimmering when it glided past me in the water. I had sat by this pond for many years, and never had it been so wild, so forgiving, so clear and dark. 

It was as if I were seeing the muddy banks for the first time. The fiddleheads nodded in agreement, waiting politely for a leafier time to offer more in-depth, genuine insight. That day was a turning point. The light changed, as did I.

Therefore, I did what women of the wood do. I talked to it. I sang a song. I asked if it was wise to be there. And then, I asked why. What message did it bring? What lessons would I learn? My intuition was going against what I was supposed to believe. I knew that I was on the right track. Whenever I attempt to ignore my instincts, my inner alarm goes off. It was all hands on deck. I am older and much wiser. I know better than to ignore such a clear warning.

I thought about giving it a name. I name everything. Then my thoughts drifted to whether or not it was male or female. I needed a book, or maybe two. Perhaps I would be able to determine its sex by monitoring its behavior. Then, I would give it an appropriate name. 

But what was the point? If I were to relocate it, then giving it a name would make me feel worse when it was gone. I looked around at all of the fruit and deciduous trees and imagined myself and others wrestling with a beaver. Then I looked back at the beaver. It was big—too big. 

I posted on the local online community forum, asking if anyone had information about beavers. Most people were helpful, offering the names of people to call for trapping. Then, one person shamed me and asked us all, why not leave the beavers alone? 

That’s what it took to bring me back to my senses, the alarms, the flashing lights. My daily life almost resembles a fairy tale with all of the animals in my presence. How dare anyone think that I am quick to force, manipulate, or kill a fellow-creature? Aha! It was I who had been trapped.

I would love nothing more than to live harmoniously with this beaver. This was a prime example of the effects of wiring in our collective unconscious. In my lectures and books, I talk about this. This is my area of expertise, but the first time I had awakened to it in such a manner, relating to human treatment and perception of particular beings in the wild. My historical research was about to take me into the world of trapping and hunting, trade and commerce, killing, and destruction—a bit different from social welfare.

Throughout history, stories—laced with fear and shame—are passed from one generation to the next, which carry on. Still, the original stories are often lost and almost always edited. As individuals and groups, we become fearful and often unaware of the reason(s) behind it. 

We respond and react to what is wired deep within us. We only learn to change the narrative when we become aware of it—no judgment, simple awareness. When we dare to ask, why am I afraid? Why am I recoiling? Then, with courage and willingness to look into a darkened place, we begin to heal.

In the case of the beaver, it is not only humans that will be directly impacted by allowing them to coexist peacefully in our world. It is the entire local eco-system that will change for the better.  

I was thinking about all of this when I received a phone call from a man I met at one of my book talks. He is an experienced woodsman. His wife had told him of my inquiry. He mentioned that he was now reading a book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, by Ben Goldfarb.

We talked about how, when this country was settled by White Europeans, beavers in North America were almost trapped into extinction. This exploitation, of course, was in the name of money and fashion. We then discussed how beneficial beavers are to the environment. We shared our thoughts about man’s endless attempts to harness and manipulate nature.

We hung up, and I ordered the book. I went online and researched what I could while waiting. We wrapped wire fencing (as instructed) around the base of trees that we wish to protect. I keep an eye on the beaver, that continues to impress me with its unique behavior.

Although our hostility towards beavers is most obviously predicated on their penchant for property damage, I suspect there’s also a deeper aversion at work. We humans are fanatical, orderly micromanagers of the natural world. We like our crops planted in parallel furrows, our dams poured with smooth concrete, our rivers straight-jacketed and obedient. Beavers, meanwhile, create apparent chaos: jumbles of downed trees, riotous streamside vegetation, creeks that jump their banks with abandon. What looks to us like disorder, though, is more properly described as complexity, a profusion of life-supporting habitats that benefit nearly everything that crawls, walks, flies, and swims in North America and Europe. “A beaver pond is more than a body of water supporting the needs of a group of beavers,” wrote James B. Trefethen in 1975,” but the epicenter of a whole dynamic epicenter (Goldfarb 8).

Yes, I have the book. I am grateful to have accepted the beaver into the pond. I named it Willow. We will see what comes next.


Works Cited

Goldfarb, Ben. Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.  

White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018.

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