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'Beaverland' author deep dives into how beavers shaped America

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the next few minutes, we're going to tell you about an animal that has played a bigger role than any of us might have imagined in building this country, and I'm going to describe it the way our next guest does. When they dive, they seem more like marine mammals than land animals. But their four paws look surprisingly like ours, with five fingers and a naked palm. They groom their fur like cats, but their beauty ends in goose-like hind feet and ends with a tail that looks like the result of a terrible accident.

Yes, it's the beaver we're talking about. Before colonists and fur traders arrived, beavers numbered in the hundreds of millions in North America. Their dams and canals created a system of wetlands we can hardly imagine today. They were nearly wiped out by fur traders, but they're slowly making a comeback, one that holds hope for us all, according to a new book. We learn all this in this book called "Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America." And it describes how important the beaver has been to our history and how it could help mitigate the worst aspects of climate change in the future. The author, Leila Philip, is with us now to tell us more. Leila Philip, thank you so much for joining us.

LEILA PHILIP: Thank you so much. I am so thrilled to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for this, because I have to tell you that this book, I could not put it down. And it just seems like - forgive me for putting it this way - like such a weird topic. So I just have to ask, how did you come to do so much reporting and such a deep dive on beavers?

PHILIP: I've always been interested in the way humans interface with the natural world. And then one day I witnessed beavers making a pond near my house. It was really one of the most incredible things I'd ever seen, and that was the start. And then I started learning about beavers and discovered that they literally shaped our country. The first foundations of wealth came from beaver fur. It wasn't just our economies. As I studied them, I began to see how beavers literally, as you pointed out, shaped our continent - the land, our watersheds, our geology, all influenced by beavers over the millennia. And I just came to realize, if I may, that, you know, this weird rodent now has this very important role to play because they can help us with the greatest crisis of our generation, which is climate change.

MARTIN: So how did it make America?

PHILIP: Well, first of all, the first great fortunes of this country came from beaver fur. So the first corporations were set up to trade for our first American millionaire, John Jacob Astor started trading beaver pelts on the wharfs of New York. Then he started trading furs with the Hudson's Bay Company and other Canadian companies up in Montreal and shipping furs to London. This robust transatlantic trade started based on beaver pelts, and it grew from that, of course. There was timber and other things. But beaver fur was the beginning. And beaver was the draw. Explorers came looking for North America, looking to come here because they heard there was beaver here. And beaver fur was very valued in Europe. They had wiped out the beaver by the 1600s throughout Europe. They needed beaver fur. And when they found out that it could be found in North America, boy, did they set across the ocean fast.

MARTIN: I know. I loved that the beaver's kind of a little jerk.

PHILIP: Yeah. It's interesting because in woodland cultures, the beaver's depicted as rather mischievous because there were a lot of beavers. But in the Black Teeth nation, you know, there were prohibitions against harming beavers because it's an arid environment. And it was well understood that the beaver were critical to preserving water resources that the bison needed because the bison relied on grass, and the people relied on the bison. So there's this very sophisticated environmental awareness that in many ways we're catching up to as we understand, I think, the folly of only looking at the environmental world in this extractive way.

MARTIN: Has the fur always been sort of highly sought after?

PHILIP: Yeah. Well, in the day, beaver fur was the Gore-Tex of its time. There was nothing as waterproof and warm as a hat made out of beaver felt. And so something like a postage stamp size of beaver's fur has more hair in it than on a human head. It's an incredibly dense, lustrous fur.

MARTIN: For more than a hundred years, beavers have been reintroduced in different areas.

PHILIP: Yes.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about that? Why is that, and what can you tell us about that?

PHILIP: Well, it was really at the - you know, 1905 was one of the first projects, and it was in New York State. And then different states in the east introduced beaver and came to Connecticut in 1914. And they quickly repopulated and thrived in the eastern woodlands because that was just the time when farming was changing, and woodlands were taking over abandoned farms. So there was - while the east had been deforested as part of colonization, those forests were - a lot of them were growing back. So there was habitat. And, you know, they were initially returned as a hunting resource.

But I think now the economic value of a beaver in terms of what it can do for environmental restoration is so much higher than the - what the pelt could bring. I think people really are shifting the way they think about beavers and need to because they're this great resource. You know, we are going to be facing more devastating floods and fires, not to mention periods of extreme heat and drought. And the beaver can help us with all these problems.

In the book, I talk about some work being done in the Chesapeake that was really pretty fascinating where they were using harnessing beavers to do river restoration. What happens is with the beaver wetlands, they don't just slow the water so that it builds up and you have this great reserve like an underground sponge of water that you have and when you need it in times of drought. But they're like coffee filters, so they filter out sediment, and they filter out pollutants. So the Chesapeake Bay is really struggling to clean up its water. And so the more they can use beavers in this natural way to clean the water going into the Chesapeake, the better they are. And there's real money to be saved.

I was pretty amazed and surprised - and I write about this in the book. There was one beaver pond I stood next to, it was about 10-acre beaver pond. And without blinking an eye, the project manager overseeing it said it would have cost a million dollars to build that same water storage in an engineered means. So it's a pretty low cost and pretty great solution. I think the average calculation is that beavers can create water storage in many cases a hundred times cheaper than an engineered solution.

MARTIN: Wow. That's amazing. That's Leila Philip. She's the author of "Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America." Leila Philip, thanks so much for talking to us.

PHILIP: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.