words by willow defebaugh
Beavers may be busy, but for good reason. What can they teach us about progress both personal and collective?
“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
Progress. I’ve developed a complex relationship with this word, one of love and hate, longing and anguish. On the one hand, it feels so capitalistic to me, this obsession with improvement and linearity, as if progress could ever be a straight path from one point to another. Like a stream, life meanders. On the other hand, what are we doing here if not building a movement? On scales both big and small, are we not constructing more sustainable and progressive ways of being? For answers, this week I turned my attention to one of nature’s most beloved builders: beavers.
Beavers are some of the largest—and most inventive—rodents on Earth. Using their powerful jaws and front teeth, they fell towering trees and combine them with surrounding twigs and mud to engineer their signature dams across streams. They can be anywhere from 30 feet to over 1,000. The longest dam in the world is found in Alberta, Canada and comes to approximately 1,640 feet. But beavers do more than construct individual dams; they architect entire ecosystems.
Despite common misconceptions, beavers don’t actually live in their dams; rather, they build them so that they can create a safe home nearby. The dams they make stop the stream of water, causing a pond to form. In the center, using more twigs and mud, they construct lodges for their families to live in—ones that can often only be accessed by underwater tunnels. The surrounding pond water provides an additional barrier of protection from predators such as wolves and bears.
The ponds engineered by beaver dams provide a home for more than just the beavers; they form the habitats of other wetland species, including many birds, fish, and insects. That’s why beavers are a keystone species—as animals that significantly alter their environment, they serve a critical role in the web of life. Their architecture and artistry—any progress they make—serve not only their families, but those that extend beyond them. They may be busy, but for good reason.
In the environmental movement, it can be easy to feel like progress isn’t being made. We face strides and setbacks, and it can feel difficult to keep the score. Are things really getting better? What can this even amount to? I wonder if beavers ever doubt what all their work is for, never knowing how it benefits the world. It can be overwhelming to be aware of all the problems that exist on Earth. Nature reminds us that movements are built holistically: not by grand design, but by each of us doing our part. Progress is shaped by the messiness of mud, one twig at a time.
The same is true for our individual healing. As Georgina Johnson offered in her essay for Atmos this week: “I don’t want to feed the noise of keep on and be strong, because for those that are already so deeply underserved the very definition of strong is already void. Why do we collate productivity with strength as if these two are the default states we should be able to activate with immediacy? No. Fall down, cry aloud, scream and shout, do it alone or with people you trust, talk whatever it is through—and then talk it through again—until you break those synapses.”
You are building a home. A container for life. You will develop tools for survival and safety, even when sustainability feels so far downstream. Your ponds will run both deep and shallow. You will learn to build boundaries, walls to protect your wellbeing. Sometimes they will, other times they will isolate you. You will come to recognize the difference. Inevitably, days will arrive when you cannot stop the flood, when all your scaffolding will scatter and all your precious progress will feel pointless. And on those days, you will learn to build again.