Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time
A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday
February 3, 2023
from Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America
by Leila Philip
“I watch the ensuing parade: big beaver, big beaver, then little beaver, little beaver, little beaver, with the third yearling bringing up the rear. That one pulls along a branch of poplar.”
Leila Philip is the author of The Road Through Miyama and A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family. Our Paragraph of the Week is from her newest book Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America. “In writing Beaverland I discovered the natural wonder of beavers and the powerful ways they restore damaged environments,” Philip explains. “Beavers demonstrate the incredible powers of resilience and healing available to us as concrete solutions to help us meet the urgent challenges of climate change. Beavers can teach us. We can learn.”
The Paragraph of the Week
Now we see small shapes in the water. The kits have arrived, adorable as kittens, and about the same size with their small alert heads and miniature flat tails. Each swims bright-eyed toward the other beavers, then bobs around. They have only recently learned to dive, and don’t try going under the water for corn. They look at us curiously, but keep their distance. Soon the three kits are bobbing around the three yearlings that are trying to get some of the poplar leaves. A blackbird flits over, but the kits keep on mewling and bumping into the yearlings, then diving under them. The timbre and pattern of soft cries sounds remarkably similar to sounds made by human newborns. But these kits are little scamps, for one attempts to dive under a yearling but only gets a little way under before thumping into her side, chirping merrily, then the kit starts pulling at the leaves the yearling is chewing. The yearling is patient and ignores the kit, but now the kit is making a game of swimming into the other yearlings and bumping them while they try to eat. The babysitters have had enough—one grabs a branch of poplar in her mouth and starts swimming back toward the lodge. As if on cue, the other yearlings do the same. The three kits immediately follow them. I watch the ensuing parade: big beaver, big beaver, then little beaver, little beaver, little beaver, with the third yearling bringing up the rear. That one pulls along a branch of poplar.
Beaverland by Leila Philip is packed with carefully researched information about the “weird rodent” that “made America.” Beavers are “weird” because we do not understand them well. When they started making dams is unknown, and how animals with such little brain power can create such elaborate structures remains a mystery. They “made America” because native American tribes worshipped them and the fur trade which defined Colonial America was based on beaver pelts creating the wealth of magnates like Johann Jacob Astor. In the book we learn about the Beaver Lady, Dorothy Richards, who kept beavers in her house, held them in her lap, and created the first reserve dedicated to beavers. We spend time with a contemporary fur trapper, Herb Sobanski, who puts the body of a dead beaver in Philip’s hands implicating her in a process of trapping and killing beavers about which she remains ambivalent. We see the ways in which beavers offer solutions to some of our most pressing environmental problems, and read a reverential retelling of the “Algonquian deep time story of Ktsi Amiskw, The Great Beaver.” All this information, though, is secondary to Philip’s love of the animals. A genuine emotional connection informs every paragraph—including our paragraph of the week. She understands that she, like Dorothy Richards and many others, at times anthropomorphizes the animals, justifying the personal bond she feels by pointing to the research of animal behaviorists such as Frans de Waal and others whose work suggests a neurological basis for our shared empathy with animals. This undeniable emotional connection, rendered without sentimentality, is the driving force behind Beaverland.
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The Beloved Republic
Available at Bookstores and Online
See more at the author's website and check out our video trailers here.
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Thanks to the Brevity Blog for publishing "A Whole Life," the prologue to my new book, The Beloved Republic. It is a defense of the essay collection as miscellany. Click here to read the article. Thanks as well to Solstice magazine for publishing "Two Eternities" in its Winter 2022 print edition. It is a prose ode celebrating, in part, the work of poet Anna Swir.
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Check out Steve's newly revised author site with photos, excerpts, and videos about The Beloved Republic here.
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Announcement: The Beloved Republic
I am pleased to announce that my fourth collection of personal essays called The Beloved Republic is available now for preorder at Amazon here and Barnes & Noble here. It won the Wandering Aengus Press nonfiction award and will be published in February 2023 when it will be available in bookstores and websites. Thanks to the Press for this honor.
What is the Beloved Republic? E. M. Forster, who coined the phrase, called it “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” who “have the power to endure” and “can take a joke.” Pitted against authoritarianism, the Beloved Republic is the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. Taking Forster’s phrase for its title, my book can be read as dispatches from that besieged land.
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Folly Beach is a book-length personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
The Humble Essayist thanks Clipartpal for the public domain artwork of "The Old Man Reading" that is the logo for the site.