Damming Loss

Returning to forsaken lands
you cautiously rebuild
your island homes;
every log, branch,
and mud pile
pressed on with the
precise hesitancy
of re-colonised dreams.

Across pond, marsh,
and wet meadow you
erect your recently-living
edifices –
damp monuments
that cling desperately
to the receding waters.

Deep pools form between
the creases of
your artificial contours,
lubricating the vice
that seeks to choke
the grateful occupants
of these forest oases.

A beaver dam in the Cascade Range (Image Credit: Gerhard Huber).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that beavers may help amphibians threatened by climate change.

Beavers were once abundant in the Pacific Northwest but were hunted nearly to extinction during the nineteenth century. Recently however, some land managers have begun to relocate beavers into places that they occupied in the past. This has resulted in the beavers’ numbers slowly recovering and is also having a positive influence on the diversity of certain amphibian species in these regions. By expanding existing ponds and increasing the time that they exist before drying up, beaver dams are allowing these species more time to reproduce and develop.

In this new study, researchers identified 49 sites within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, located in the southern Washington Cascade Range of the northwest United States. By looking at study sites that did and did not contain beaver dams, the researchers found that sites with beaver dams contained almost three times more variety of species than the undammed sites. They also found that certain types of amphibians, particularly those that develop more slowly, such as red-legged frogs and northwestern salamanders, were found almost exclusively in the dammed sites. The results of this study indicate that beavers could play a pivotal role in ecosystem restoration, management, and climate adaption, especially in those regions that are expected to undergo significant drying episodes brought about by climate change.


8 thoughts on “Damming Loss”

  1. This is John Romansic, lead author of the beaver-amphibian research described above, which was conducted at Washington State University, Vancouver. I’m struck by how well this poem illustrates the relationships among the key players in this ecological system in a way that conveys its drama and beauty – the very things that inspired the research project but are somewhat hidden in the technical prose of the scientific report. In that report you will read about – if you dig deep enough – a brief bit about the encounter that graduate student Courtney Hendrickson and I had with a cougar who was guarding its kill. But some of the drama got left out entirely. For example, the discovery of leftovers from river otters feasting on frogs and salamanders that had congregated at beaver ponds to find mates. And the exceptionally agility of field assistant Chelsea Osbron, who somehow never fell while doing the surveys, despite innumerable hazards around beaver dams. (Think floating logs, deep beds of silt, bayonet-like stumps of beaver-chewed shrubs, and beaver-built canals, hidden by tall sedges, which I almost suspect were designed to trap humans.) So it certainly is heartening to see the beavers, amphibians, and their shared environment described artistically in Dr. Illingworth’s poetry.

    I think it’s especially interesting that Dr. Illingworth calls the dams “damp monuments”. I have seen hundreds of beaver dams and each one is a unique work of art and engineering with marvelous intricacy and efficiency, and they can last for decades under the right conditions. Perhaps the best thing about them is that they are leaky! Unlike our dams, beaver dams don’t block all the water! Nothing built by humans will ever fully match a beaver a dam’s ability to spread out water on a landscape above and below ground, although the many fine folks who are mimicking beaver dams with “beaver dam analogs” have learned a lot from the beavers’ example.

  2. Thank you to the poet for bringing forth this beautiful translation of the technical content in the paper, thank you to the researchers for finding the funding and doing the field work and writing the paper, and to the Southwest Washington Amphibian Project for including a link to the paper, the poem and the poet’s podcast. All have served to brighten my already sunny Friday afternoon. I will now go out for a walk with your fresh words in my ears to contemplate some beaver dams, ponds and excellent amphibian habitat where I work in the Columbia and Lewis River floodplains. Keep up the good work, all.


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