The Wild Writing of Ben Goldfarb
For Ben Goldfarb, a map of North America looks very different depending on where the beavers are allowed to live. The nature journalist’s 2018 nonfiction book Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter charts the rise, fall, and other rise of this engineering animal, which helped shape the continent — both by its presence and its absence.
“They’re really these incredibly resilient animals,” says Goldfarb, based now in Spokane. “They were the first animals to recolonize Mount St. Helens after the eruption; there were beavers hanging out at the Chernobyl nuclear site; there were beaver in the Bronx River in New York City. They’re really good at making a living.”
The story of the beaver isn’t the only one Goldfarb is adept at telling. He’s a featured author at this year’s Bedtime Stories Spokane, with novelists Sharma Shields and Jess Walter, reading new fiction. His next book project is more wildlife journalism, though — about the effect of human-made roads on the natural world.
“I feel like a total fraud next to Jess and Sharma,” he says. “I don’t write as much fiction as I might like, but I try to write a story or two a year. It’s an opportunity for me to explore ideas and themes that my nonfiction touches upon but can’t necessarily confront head-on, in the confines of an article where you’re limited by word count. All of my fiction deals in some way with the natural world, and that’s certainly the case for my Bedtime Stories piece as well.”
Humanities Washington: What’s the most interesting thing about a beaver?
Ben Goldfarb: I understood how vital beavers are ecologically before I began working on the book, but I didn’t fully appreciate the depths of connections they have with other species. There are the obvious animals that live in and around water that benefit from beaver habitats — moose and salmon and waterfowl — but there’s this entire class of beneficiaries I think you wouldn’t expect. Songbirds, for example, that nest and perch in the shrubby willow that grow alongside beaver ponds; bats that swoop down and feed on the aquatic insects that hatch from the water. To me, that’s the great joy of writing about beavers: Every single time you go to a beaver complex, there’s some fascinating new biological interaction to observe.
Humanities Washington: I was surprised to learn that under the right circumstances, beavers make pretty good paratroopers.
Ben Goldfarb: That’s right. There’s a famous story from Idaho in 1948, where the state was trying to relocate some beavers into the backcountry, into what’s today the Frank Church Wilderness, and first tried moving them on horseback. The horses didn’t take kindly to that — I wouldn’t want a big smelly rodent on my back either. So the biologist in charge of that project had the bright idea of trying to airlift some beavers into the backcountry. They dropped 76 beavers into the Idaho wilds, and 75 of them survived. One of them, unfortunately, escaped from his crate in midair and tragically fell to his death. But it was actually a remarkably effective project. I think when those same biologists flew over the next year, they found the beavers had built dams and created ponds in the precise places where they’d been released.
Our vast road network really fragments landscapes and cuts off migration, and cuts off animals from accessing the habitat they need to find food and mates and rearing ground for juveniles.
Humanities Washington: Most people might not know that best practices for beaver relocation were developed right here in Washington. How did that come about?
Ben Goldfarb: One of the reasons I’m proud to live in Washington is it’s really America’s most progressive beaver state, I would say. It has the best beaver laws and regulations, including the “beaver bill” that authorized livetrapping and relocating these animals — which is something that’s functionally illegal in many other states. There are probably eight or so groups around the state that are doing pretty active beaver relocation, and probably the largest and most famous is the Methow Beaver Project, based in Winthrop. They’ve moved hundreds of beavers at this point. They’ve really been responsible for developing a lot of the protocols around relocation, and have had higher success rates than most of the projects that preceded them. Their most iconic protocol is you don’t want to move beavers by themselves — beavers are very family-oriented. If you drop a single beaver right in the stream, she’s going to wander around looking for a mate, and probably get eaten by a bear or a cougar or something.
Humanities Washington: Did essays and nonfiction come first for you, or fiction?
Ben Goldfarb: Before I became a journalist, my dream was really to be a professional conservationist. After college, I had a number of fieldwork jobs — I worked for the National Park Service in Yellowstone doing invasive trout control, I worked for the New York City Parks Department, I tagged sea turtles in North Carolina. I really envisioned going to work for some large conservation nonprofit. But the whole time I was doing those jobs, I was blogging, doing a little bit of freelancing, and always loved to write. While I was in graduate school I started writing for campus publications, and realized I really loved writing more than anything else. And going into nonfiction was a way to tackle those issues that were really close to my heart.
Humanities Washington: You’ve moved into studying the effects of roads on ecosystems. What have you found?
Ben Goldfarb: I think the thing that’s been striking for me, and the reason the next book is going to be a really rich, interesting and maybe challenging one to write, is the diversity of the impacts that roads have. We drive around and everybody sees the roadkill deer or possum by the side of the highway, but what you don’t see is that road acting as a barrier to movement for wildlife. Our vast road network really fragments landscapes and cuts off migration, and cuts off animals from accessing the habitat they need to find food and mates and rearing ground for juveniles. You can’t see that, but it’s very real, and in its own way more destructive than roadkill. We also tend to build roads along riverways, and we’ve cut off a lot of rivers from their floodplain. You’ve got stormwater runoff from all this impervious surface we’ve created. You’ve got roads functioning as corridors for invasive species introduction and movement. For me, the story of beavers is the story of this animal that shaped North America in ways that we fail to recognize, and the elimination of beavers profoundly changed North American landscapes as well. I think that roads are similar.
Goldfarb is reading an original short story as part of Bedtime Stories Spokane, Humanities Washington’s annual literary fundraiser. More>