In my new series of blogs I am giving some background to the process of arriving at the poems in my pamphlet Vanishings, to be published later this year by Palewell Press.
So I am going to tell you about beavers. There’s been a wild beaver trial in Devon for the last few years which has now arrived at its conclusion. Devon Wildlife Trust has been at the forefront of this and Exeter University PhD students have been helping with research and theses. If you want to know, here is more info. All the reports have just been delivered to Defra and it is hoped that during this month beavers will be given protected status and be allowed to stay where they are.
They have already colonised miles and miles of the River Otter since 2015 when two colonies were created. Now there are thirteen separate colonies. If you walk along that river their presence is obvious: bitten-off sticks of willow abound the banks. I don’t live near enough to do this walk often but apparently one particular (biggish) beaver keeps showing up and is unafraid of people.
To write the poems, I wanted to experience the creatures for myself as it makes a different kind of poem to one I have just researched online. Needing a beavery encounter of some kind I asked DWT for help and Jake offered to take me one summer evening to beaver-spot. He took me to a pool up a tributary where a female beaver had set up home a couple of years ago, swimming 35 kms as a youngster and on her own to found her own territory.
The place was loud with the sounds of running water in every shade of trickling and gushing imaginable. A pool was thick with water plants where ducks and moorhens dabbled and conversed amongst it.
We sat on a bank while midges feasted on me. We kept sitting and waiting. It was lovely among the wateriness and the lush vegetation and willows, alders grew low beside the water, looking rather like mangroves. A moorhen had made a nest like an albatross’ throne on the edge of mud and pool. There were little avenues between the rafts of plants and Jake explained in a whisper that the beavers had made these. The moorhen and the ducks with ducklings were swimming up and down them. Anticipation grew. My heart jumped a bit once or twice: but it was just a second moorhen picking its way through the waterplants.
We waited in silence as breezes ruffled the willows opposite. Voices grew annoyingly loud and then retreated. I began to lose hope (always a good sign). At that point there was a crack like a gun shot. I thought it was someone shooting and the wind gusting. But then Jake trained his binoculars on the opposite bank on a waving branch. The willows were definitely shaking and it wasn’t wind. I saw something brown among the dark stems and sticks. I took a photograph and it flashed to my horror. I thought I’d messed everything up.
There really is a beaver in these pictures and I can see it but assume you can’t! No one believes me.
Soon there was another crack and a branch tumbled. It began to move upstream as if it was Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. A beaver came in sight lugging the willow along the wet edges. She was completely beautiful. But it was already too dusky to photograph her and anyway I was worried the flash would frighten her off. I had to curb my photo-greed. She disappeared into a gap between the alders and by degrees the branch disappeared into the den. Jake said she definitely had kits as he had seen she was lactating and that, by that time of summer, they would be needing to eat leaves and twigs and she was bringing them the willow branch for them to chew on. They might still be too young to come out through. She came out by herself a couple more times and went this way and that. She seemed oblivious to our presence.
When it became almost too dark to see well enough across the water Jake walked upstream to see a dam. What an incredible construction it was, built cleverly on a ruined sluice-wall and holding back a deep pool of dark water. Little birds had come there to roost. There was hardly any watery sound, only a low trickle. Jake said it probably took them only one night to build this because this beaver would still have her last year’s youngsters living with her and so there’d be a small family group doing the jobs together as a team.
On the way back to the car park my beavery eyes had been opened and there was another smaller dam in another stream but I could see Jake must have been fitting in under-dam pipes to let the water through to prevent the paths being flooded as the stream was still running. I expect they’d have stopped that overnight again.
For Christmas, I gave our son an adopted beaver and he was laughing his head off as he opened it and I thought it must be just what he wanted! ( bingo) The next present under the tree was the adopted beaver he was giving me!
Here’s the poem, which was published to my great delight in the beautiful and lovingly curated Finished Creatures (oh, and Jake gave it a thumbs-up, phew):
Extinct for 800 years, but
in the gathering of waters
among gaffling ducks
sappy cresses and scorpion grass
we jabble and work it
moulding its flow
to our needs
we feel currents and eddies
in whiskers in skinwebs of feet
we must stopitup
dam it with sticks
saplings trees stalks
and with fixings and joints
we halt it pool it
hold it back
in the quiet of still water
we wrap ourselves
in the dark of safekeeping
we keep it back
keep it in
keep it quiet keep it
culled from your language
no folk words survive
stripped of fur and scent glands
now you only catch
our tail-slap in names
of rivers and valleys
where still waters