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Dam Builders – Scottish Review of Books
by Rosemary Goring

Dam Builders

August 14, 2015 | by Rosemary Goring

THE beaver, writes Jim Crumley, ‘is the animal that gives rodents a good name’. It’s an arresting comment from one of the country’s best known and most prolific nature writers, who has turned his attention to countless birds and animals over the years, from foxes, owls and badgers to swans, eagles and the wolf. His latest book, Nature’s Architect, is a paean to the four-legged lumberjack, but one could easily imagine him moving next to a colourful study of field mice, voles, squirrels or rats and bringing if not equal then sufficient enthusiasm to the job. Perhaps he sees other rodents as destructive, verminous or of little use, but you suspect his one-liner is designed more to appeal to readers’ preconceptions than any indication of his own prejudice.

To the untutored eye, beavers are of course destructive on a grand scale. Therein lies at least one of the problems about their mooted reintroduction. To gaze at a riverbank where they have been at work is to think a hurricane has just passed. For Crumley, however, their building abilities are on a par with the architect Frank Gehry, whose phrase ‘liquid architecture’ might have been coined expressly to describe the edifices erected by beavers. In a tone of unabashed awe, Crumley describes this most industrious animal’s way of laying waste to trees, dragging them underwater to dam streams and rivers, and piling them into messy looking lodges. In so doing, it fashions a waterlogged landscape of pools and canals, littered with matchsticks and wood chippings in which nibbled trees stand sentinel like broken pencils. As an Alaskan beaver expert told Crumley, ‘They create havoc, then they leave it, and nature makes a garden of it, because nature has time.’

The passage of time is a recurring theme in this book. It is 400 years since we hunted beavers to extinction, centuries during which we also wiped out the brown bear, lynx, osprey, pine marten and white-tailed eagle. Soon, Crumley believes, the wild cat will follow them, in their case with no hope of resuscitation. Meanwhile, the Scottish government’s five-year rewilding experiment in Argyll, with a handful of beavers, seems almost insultingly brief and ‘timid’.

Crumley goes to some pains in this passionate, compelling, very personal work to articulate the necessity of taking a long view when dealing with nature. Politicians don’t have time, and nor, he writes, do most of the influential parties with vested interests, those who fish, hunt, or manage the countryside: ‘few landowners and farmers think in the long term’. Rather than look ahead, their objectives are quick results and returns. It takes a more philanthropic, philosophical and enlightened outlook to take an action whose full effect won’t be felt for decades. Great tree planters, such as John Evelyn, had such a facility, but it is something of a lost art, and one that this country would greatly benefit from. The recent interest in rewilding taps into this mood, but by comparison with the reintroduction of wolf and lynx that the standard bearers of rewilding propose, the beaver is surely an easier sell. To read Crumley, however, is to realise that resistance to rewilding, of whatever species, has less to do with fears of safety than with money.

Making no attempt to disguise its author’s disdain for those who remodel the land for economic benefit without a thought for the wildlife they supplant or harm, Nature’s Architect is a deeply political book, and all the better for it. Crumley’s exploration of the beaver takes place, therefore, not in the government-sanctioned Scottish Beaver Project in Knapdale, but on the River Earn, where wild beavers – breakaways or those illicitly introduced – are beginning to flourish. These creatures have been designated ‘the wrong sort of beavers’ by Scottish Natural Heritage. You can detect Crumley’s delight not simply in the knowledge that they have slipped through the official net, and are making Perthshire home, but in the thought of apoplectic bureaucritters, choking over their morning rolls as they demand to know where these beavers came from and what’s to be done about them. He does not need to add that ‘Nature knows that there is no such thing as an illegal beaver’. What is worth spelling out however is his concern over the beaver trial and his ‘acute unease about the fact that one of the partners in the official Scottish Government’s trial reintroduction of beavers in Argyll is an organisation [the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland] that owns two zoos. Somewhere down the line, if Scotland loses its nerve about beavers and caves in to the insistent bellyaching of the usual suspects, then I worry that the temptation will always be there to listen to the siren song of the easy option.’ 

There are many levels to Nature’s Architect, giving it the texture of a quest and a polemic as well as observational reportage. The elation Crumley feels at seeing his first beaver footprint is tangible, and brings a smile to the face: ‘There were two perfect prints that looked like little hands, and overlapping them slightly from behind were two more, larger and deeper-embedded, and apparently webbed because they looked like five toes bursting out of a sock.’ Nor is he tempted to play down the thrill: ‘This was like finding a cave painting or a yard of Ogham script carved into a stone slab in Kilmartin, runes executed by the mark-makers of history.’

He is right: the fact that beavers are now living and breeding on a highland river, whatever the outcome at Knapdale, is historic. Even more importantly, their presence promises dramatically to improve the ecology of the surrounding countryside. Perhaps the biggest point Crumley makes is that the benefits of beavers to the ecosystem are enormous. The wetlands they create act as ‘the kidneys of the landscape’, creating a habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna, and improving the quality of life for those already there, such as salmon and trout. Despite the fears of anglers, beavers it seems will actually improve their sport, their pools offering a safe breeding ground for young fish, who can then wriggle through the dams until they are large enough to leap them.

Nature’s Architect is in some ways a model piece of nature writing: based on hours crouching with binoculars, or hugging the riverbank, and drawing on decades of knowledge, experience and contacts, such as John Lister-Kaye and his beaver colony at Aigas in Invernesshire, or the late photographer Don MacCaskill, whose dream of seeing the beaver again in Scotland first ignited his own interest. Crumley began writing about nature long before the ‘new nature writing’ was born, and has trodden his own distinctive furrow. He brings a countryman’s touch to his work, a bit rough and outspoken, occasionally clumsy or overwritten as he strives for profundity — ‘the river is more bloated than boisterous, ill-tempered with its own too-muchness’. These, however, are venial sins, and leave barely a scratch on the vigorous, heartfelt impression he makes, whether he’s talking about a hungry otter on the prowl for a beaver kit, or a swooping barn owl, one of his first tastes of the wild in his boyhood, where he lived on the edge of the countryside in ‘the last street’ in Dundee.

Nature writing has a tendency to make sentimentalists out of readers, and much that is greeted as ground-breaking is nothing of the sort. In Scotland, Crumley has surprisingly, you might say shockingly few competitors or peers – John Lister-Kaye is perhaps the finest, though the more sober Kathleen Jamie is more to this reader’s taste. Casting further afield, he sits in a fine tradition, begun with John Muir, and continued to a pitch hard to better with the likes of Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez and John McPhee. And then there’s Peter Matthiessen. I have yet to find any who can out write Matthiessen, whose taste for the wild went hand in hand with a metaphysical depth that makes his work timeless as well as wise. Crumley is not of that ilk, but nor is he of the latest breed, whose roots are urban, and who see the countryside through a mist of regret and wishful thinking. For all their commitment to the environment, their understanding of the land and how it is worked is thinner than their cagouls. There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, about books by such as Robert Macfarlane, or Helen Macdonald, but they are not nature writers as this reader understands the term. By comparison, Mark Cocker, bird expert and journal keeper, most definitely is, and so too is Crumley. He may not be the most polished or philosophical of observers, but that is not the role he has sought. He is, rather, the guide or tracker most town dwellers and country commuters badly need. His descriptive skills are excellent, his pacing that of a good journalist, his ability to place an animal or a piece of land in context skilfully done. Above all, the honesty of his voice is striking: there is no fakery or faux enthusiasm here. Nor does he care who he offends with his trenchant views, and some of the toes he treads on are among the most powerful and dangerous in the land.

So persuasive is he about the benefits of beavers that I for one am prepared to listen when he writes: ‘The only single innovation that could possibly offer a greater service to nature is to reintroduce wolves…’ After spending 200 pages in his company, I would trust his assessment, since there’s nothing of the fantasist or dramatist about him, other than in his occasional literary flourishes. One of the charms of his writing, in fact, is the aura of good sense he exudes: that, and a very retro – or post-modern – belief in putting one’s trust in nature to sort itself out without our interference.

The credo of this book could not be simpler: ‘Let wildlife manage wildlife.’ Humans, as we all know, mess things up for our own gain, or sometimes out of sheer ignorance. Books like Nature’s Architect help dispel such lack of understanding, and at the same time infuse others with a sense of the fragility and meaning of the wilds. Thus one can excuse the author’s occasional lapses into exaltation, when he grows almost bardic with excitement: ‘these beaver footprints frozen into the snow, are nothing less than the spoor of history, the imprint of a timewarp, symbolic of the march of the beavers of all time across the land.’ The only thing this passage lacks is the soaring accompaniment of Hamish MacCunn’s ‘Land of the Mountain and the Flood’. If Jim Crumley’s dreams are realised there will be far more flooding in future.

Nature’s Architect: The Beaver’s Return to Our Wild Landscapes

Jim Crumley

Saraband, £12.99, 200pp pbk, ISBN: 978-1-910192-06-1, PP200

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