In recent months, I’ve had the thrill of discovering that beavers have migrated to our home alongside the Susquehanna and have begun their complex building projects on two ponds near the old Pennsylvania Canal towpath road. I couldn't believe it at first — the pointed stumps of trees, the patted grasses and mud at the pond outlet slowly raising the levels of the water, the discovery of the lodges rising day-by-day in the middle of one pond, and one built into the bank of the other.
The work of the little engineers was transforming the system of ponds and stream, often sluggish, stagnant, and clogged with algae, into something more wonderfully natural and healthy. The flow over the dams appeared clear and fresh and vibrant with energy. Here was a natural system developing without the intervention and interference of man and the result was both fascinating and so obviously good and beneficial for oxygen-starved fish, waterfowl, and of course, the beavers.
The water came from the surrounding mountains, passed into the ponds, through beaver dams, into the old canal bed and, a mile to the south, into the Susquehanna and finally, of course, on to the Chesapeake — fresh, clear, oxygenated clean water.
Some distance from the ponds, a sadder and familiar story was being played out, also with consequences for the surrounding wetlands, the river and the Bay. Here, a landowner had decided to clearcut a steep, forested incline between an upper road and a lower road. The 5-acre area had included an old pioneer cabin foundation, a stone artesian well beside which stood a 200-year-old silver maple, many trees of between 60 and 100 years, and two small streams. The loggers must have had to scale the hillside using ropes to reach many of the trees. They drove heavy logging machines over the slopes and dragged the fallen trees through the streams despite very wet ground and rainy weather. The artesian well disappeared beneath the debris and mud; the ground cover was reduced to muddy soup, and the streams ran brown. The water crossed beneath the lower road and emptied out into a large wetland with a moving flow that gathers and empties into the Susquehanna another mile to the south.
As the beaver pond stirred my heart with the joy of unencumbered nature, a healthy ecosystemand wonder at the beaver’s work itself, so the devastated and denuded hillside filled me with disgust, sorrow and shame at the handiwork of our species.
Must it always be like this? Can it ever change? Education of the new generation will help, but can we educate the heart? And what if we educate 99 out of 100, but that one doesn’t care, doesn’t get it, and he owns the land? The same landowner is building logging roads into the 40-acre forested wetlands below the clearcut hillside and someone has begun to break down the beaver dams.
Our riverside community was enthralled with the beavers and their good work, but someone is not. Our community loved the old stone well and its ancient tree guardian, but one did not. So with education of the mind and heart, must come laws and regulations strictly enforced, protective of common good. Then perhaps, just perhaps, there yet will be hope for the river, the Bay the beavers and for ourselves.
John M. Flatley