the Understory: Beaverland

This month’s selection is Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America by Leila Philip.

“From award-winning writer Leila Philip, BEAVERLAND is a masterful work of narrative science writing, a book that highlights, through history and contemporary storytelling, how this unusual rodent has played an oversized role in American history and continues to feature in its future. She follows fur trappers who lead her through waist-high water, fur traders, and fur auctioneers, as well as wildlife managers, PETA activists, Native American environmental vigilantes, scientists, engineers, and the colorful group of activists known as beaver believers.

Beginning with the early trans-Atlantic trade in North America, Leila Philip traces the beaver’s profound influence on our nation’s early economy and feverish western expansion, which gave the country its first corporations and multi-millionaires. In her pursuit of this compellingly wonderful rodent, she introduces us to people whose lives are devoted to the beaver, including a Harvard scientist from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, who uses drones to create 3-dimensional images of beaver dams; and an environmental restoration consultant in the Chesapeake nicknamed the “beaver whisperer.”

What emerges is a poignant personal narrative, a startling portrait of the secretive world of the contemporary fur trade, and an engrossing ecological and historical investigation of these heroic animals who, once trapped to the point of extinction, have returned to the landscape as one of the greatest conservation stories of the twentieth century. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, BEAVERLAND reveals the profound ways in which one odd animal and the trade surrounding it has shaped history, culture, and our environment.”