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Since the moon does not orbit the Earth in a perfect circle, the perigee (the closest point that the moon comes in relation to the planet) changes from year to year.  Tonight (November 14, 2016) marks the largest “supermoon” seen in six decades.  The moon will not appear so large in the sky again until November 25, 2034.

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According to ancient Algonquin lore, the full moons of autumn had various sacred names (well, at least according to the Farmer’s Almanac).  The full August moon was the “Sturgeon Moon” because the great fish came together to mate at that time.  Likewise, the September full moon occurred when the maize ripened and was thus called “the Corn Moon”.  After the harvest, when the weather was perfect for hunting, the October full moon was “the Hunter’s Moon”.  The full moon of November was known as the Beaver Moon, since it was an ideal time to trap beaver, which were out and about putting their affairs in order before winter (indeed the industrious rodents were nearly exterminated by trappers—but that is another story).

Tonight’s full moon is thus the Beaver Super Moon.  You should go out and appreciate it!   For who knows what the future will hold?  There may be clouds on the night of November 25, 2034 or maybe you will be on a floating Venus colony with me. Maybe cruel Empress Ivanna will have you chained up and working underground, mining the last seams of coal to feed the Earth’s final sputtering machines.  Maybe you will just be busy sending pointless administrative files to people.

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Enjoy the Beaver Super Moon! Then later this week, in honor of the season, we will get back to talking about turkeys!

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OK, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, my idea for today’s blog post did not work out.  I was going to write about Gothic mascots—a perfectly serviceable mashup of two favorite Ferrebeekeeper tags—but, when I got home from work and started researching gothic mascots the pickings turned out to be exceedingly slim—a Simpsons gag (the Montreal vampire), a bunch of troubling Lolita cartoons, and those godawful “Capital One” barbarians who are trying to sell you some sort of credit card (are they even Visigoths? Is “Capital One” even really a real credit card?).  Apparently nobody wants any sort of gothic mascots except for predatory lenders.

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Oh no!–what if Capital One destroys my credit rating for making fun of them? [collapses laughing]

So I ended up looking with increasing desperation at past mascots for anything of any interest and this line of inquiry lead me back to that Simpson’s joke about the Montreal vampire.  Montreal is a francophone city—beautiful and evocative—yet prone to making choices which are different from the market-driven choices of other places.  What was the mascot of the 1976 Montreal Olympics?  And, Bingo! suddenly I had today’s blog post.

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This is Amik the beaver.  Amik means beaver in Algonquin—so this character (which looks like it was designed by somebody who just spilled an entire bottle of India ink) is really named “Beaver the beaver.” Anik appears with a red stripe with the Montreal Games logo on it or sometimes with a pre (?) pride rainbow strip.

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I am making fun of poor Anik because I don’t think beavers lack faces.  Nor are they the unsettling pure black of absolute oblivion.  Maybe I found my Gothic mascot after all—in the most unlikely of places—Montreal, 1976!  I will write a better post tomorrow. In the meantime enjoy the strange juxtaposition of nihilism and naivete which was seventies design.

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From time to time, Ferrebeeekeeper indulges in a theme week.  Last Halloween featured Greek Monster Week, which highlighted the mythical spawn of Echidna, the great serpent mother of classical mythology.  Other theme weeks have included Tree Week and Small Furry Animals Week (which described the groundhog, the pika, the hyrax, the rabbit, and the wombat).  In order to combat malaise in the world construction markets, Ferrebeekeeper now presents Builders Week, five posts dedicated to great builders and the edifices they have created.  To start off the week, this post is dedicated to the beaver, the most accomplished and tireless builder of the animal kingdom–save perhaps for corals, termites, and humans.  Not only is the busy building beaver a keystone species to ecosystems around the Northern hemisphere, the furry rodent holds a key place in American history.

Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) photo by zooadmin

There are two species of beaver, the North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber).  Although similar in appearance and habit, the two species are not genetically compatible and, when mated, do not produce living offspring.  Like the other giant rodents (capybara, nutrias, etc) beavers are semi aquatic and spend nearly as much time in the water as on land. In order to get around on land and water, beavers have webbed clawed feet and a flat, hairless paddle-like tail.  Their ears and nostrils clamp shut under water and a special membrane snaps over their eyes.  In order to keep warm in harsh northern winters, beavers have a layer of subcutaneous fat as well as a dense coat which they waterproof with oily castoreum (produced from a scent gland).  To round out their special features, beavers possess formidable upper and lower incisors with which they gnaw down trees. Adult beavers can weigh up to 30 Kilograms (about 60 pounds) and attain lengths of 1.3 meters (about 4 feet).

North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)

Beavers are intelligent animals which form close family bonds. According to the website Beaver: Wetlands and Wildlife:

Wildlife rehabilitators find beavers to be gentle, reasoning beings who enjoy playing practical jokes…. Beavers mate for life during their third year. Both parents care for the kits (usually one to four) that are born in the spring. The youngsters normally stay with their parents for two years, and the yearlings become babysitters for the new litter. After weaning, their favorite foods include water lily tubers, apples and the leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen and other fast-growing trees.

Above all, the beaver is a masterful builder capable of cutting down large trees and moving them into place to serve as the foundation of a dam.  Reinforced with mud, and “planted” with living green shoots (which grow into the structures and thus add stability), beaver dams curve backwards against the current and are capable of holding immense volumes of water. Not only do beavers fell trees and create timberworks and earthworks, the creatures also excavate canals to provide a quick escape into the artificial lakes produced by their dam building. Within these lakes the beavers build lodges as escape shelters and winter homes.

Cross-section of a Beaver Lodge (DEA Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library)

Such lodges can only be entered through hidden underwater entrances.  Crafted in sprawling mounds from logs, branches, and mud, the structures contain rooms for dying off and rooms for habitation.  Before winter the beavers coat their lodges with mud which freezes into a hard coat which makes the structures impervious to bears and wolverines. Beavers harvest tender shoots from their favorite softwoods and embed them deep in the mud of the coldest deepest part of their lakes.  In winter when the top of the lake is frozen, the animals can dive down and retrieve food from their underwater refrigerator.

The Largest Known Beaver Dam Photographed from Space

Beavers are ambitious in their work. To date the largest beaver dam discovered was over 850 meters in length (2,790 feet)–more than twice the width of Hoover Dam. Located in the forests of Alberta in Canada the huge dam was spotted from space via Google Earth.

The flooded lands formed by these dams provide a habitat for waterfowl, turtles, frogs, and other aquatic creatures (as well as protected nurseries for salmon fry). Additionally the dams alleviate flooding, allow the water table to recharge, and act as filters which soak up nitrogen and chemicals.  Some writers have (poetically?) described beaver dams and related lakes as the kidneys of a watershed. Since beaver dams are depositional environments, they silt up into rich bottom land when abandoned by their builders. This process is vital to forests and rivers in North America and Europe, where soft quick growing trees have evolved to deal with beavers’ appetite and industry. However beavers have caused disastrous flooding and environmental mayhem when furriers introduced them to areas (like Tierra del Fuega) where trees do not coppice.

The Fur Trade

Furriers have a long dark history with the beaver. Eurasian beavers were over-harvested to the point of near extinction by medieval trappers for their lustrous coats.  When the New World was being conquered and colonized by European nations, the valuable fur of North American beavers was one of the first economic incentives for exploration.  Trappers, traders, and runners-of-the-woods traveled deep into North America for the pelts of all manner of creatures: but they sought beaver hides foremost.  The dense fur was ideal for making the fashionable flamboyant hats of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (additionally beavers were classified as fish by the Catholic church and their flesh had special allure for hungry devout French trappers during Friday fasts). Competition between French and English fur traders for the pelts from the territory between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi combined with long brewing national conflict to start the French and Indian War which in turn determined the course of civilization in North America.

Coppicing

Yesterday I wrote about beheading as a theme in gothic art.  It’s a chilling subject because if a person (or other vertebrate) is so fundamentally cut apart…well that’s pretty much it for him or her except for obsequies and obituaries. However this weakness is not universal among organisms.  Many invertebrates like worms, jellyfish, and sponges can be cut apart and continue to thrive. The animal world is not really the direct subject of today’s post though. Certain plants are particularly good at regenerating despite trauma.  A large number of common forest trees can be entirely cut down and still regrow from the stump. This fact formed the basis for coppicing, a practice of woodland management which involved harvesting certain trees by cutting them down for firewood or timber and then waiting for the living stump (which foresters call a stool) to regrow.

This method of forest harvesting/maintenance was most effective when different parts of a wooded land were kept at varying stages of regrowth.  Certain areas of trees would be cut back to ground level.  Other trees would be back to full mature size.  Most trees were somewhere in between.  The cycle depended on the location and the sort of trees being harvested but it was apparently a favorite way for communities to have their woods and burn them too.   Chestnut, hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash and oak were all frequently coppiced.  The process was extremely common during medieval times but seems to have fallen away as mercantilism (with its emphasis on shipbuilding) and industrialization took hold.

This is a shame because coppicing was not as environmentally devastating as clear cutting. To quote an online article at The Great Escape Treehouse Company:

Coppice management favours a wide range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. Often brambles also grow around the stools. Woodpiles (if left in the coppice) encourage insects, such as beetles to come into an area. The open area is then colonised by many different animals such as nightingale, nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows up, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again but, in an actively managed coppice, there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.

Forests that can survive and thrive despite coppicing probably evolved to do so in conjunction with animals.  Beaver are infamous for cutting down forests both as food and as building materials.  Deer and related artiodactyls are also hard on forests (though not like elephants—African and Indian trees must be hardy indeed).

Woods which never had to deal with any of these animals are susceptible to vanishing when tree-cutting invaders appear.  When beavers were introduced to Patagonia they caused an ecological crisis, both from flooding caused by their dams and from cutting down trees with their teeth.   The local trees could not survive coppicing and quickly vanished before the onslaught of the industrious rodents.

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