AT HOME WITH THE BEAVERS
By Lillian M. Gask
The air was as warm as summer, and the murmur of the big brown
velvet Bee that hovered over a purple flower made Phil think of the
garden at home. A tiny Humming-Bird, gleaming against the willows
like a spot of fire, flashed quickly past him, and lingered for a
moment on a swaying branch; she had travelled nearly four thousand
miles on those small wings of hers to reach her summer quarters,
and even now was not at her journey's end.
Phil turned his head to look at her, and as he did so he found to
his great joy that his stiff white collar had disappeared. So, too,
had the drab serge suit and the clumsy hob-nailed boots that had
hurt him so. Instead, he wore a single garment of some soft brown,
the colour of earth, girdled by a broad green belt that felt like
velvet. His feet were bare, and as he buried them in the thick
grass on which he lay, he sighed with pleasure.
"Good morning," remarked someone in rather hoarse tones close at
his elbow, and one of the quaint animals he had seen the night
before shuffled awkwardly towards him with what was evidently
intended for a pleasant smile. "Mother Beaver," Nature had called
her, he remembered, and he had a dim idea that she had offered to
take him under her care until he knew his way about the forests. He
sat up now so that he might see her better, for in the daylight she
looked stranger still. Her body, nearly three feet long, was
covered with glossy hair; her tail was paddle-shaped and smooth,
while her strong white tusks would have given her quite a fierce
expression but for her twinkling eyes. These were very bright and
most inquisitive, as if she found him quite as curious as he did
"Good morning," she repeated with friendly emphasis, as Phil tried
in vain to think of something to say. "Where are your manners,
young man? Haven't you learnt yet that it isn't polite to stare?"
"I beg your pardon," said Phil, smiling shyly at her. "I never knew
that animals could speak until last night, and it's rather
startling at first, you know. Do you mind telling me where I am?"
"In North America, on the banks of one of its swiftest rivers," she
returned, proudly. "You are coming to school with me, I hear. I
hope you are quick and industrious—we have too many idlers
already, and there's any amount of work to be done before the
"I dare say you're as bright as any, if the truth were told. Can you
Phil nodded joyfully; an old sailor had taught him during a long
happy summer he had spent by the sea, and had been quite proud of
"Not that it would matter if you had never learnt," said Mother
Beaver, struck by a sudden thought, "for Nature has made you an
exception to all her rules. What is an exception? Well, you must
wait until Father Beaver comes if you want it properly explained,
but it means that while you are Nature's guest you will be able to
do all those things that a small boy wouldn't be able to do
in the usual way; such as breathe under water, for instance, as you
will in a moment, when you come to my winter home. You will change
your size, too, without knowing anything about it, just when and
where it is most convenient, so that you can sit in nests, or run
down burrows, as easily as the creatures to which they belong. And
you'll never feel hungry, unless there is something near that you
can eat, or thirsty, unless you are within easy distance of a
stream. In short, my dear, Nature has been particularly kind to you
for this one year; after that you'll be just an ordinary boy
Phil was rather bewildered; it sounded much too wonderful to be
true, but Mother Beaver, seemed quite in earnest.
"Are you ready?" she said. "Then follow me. We're going to my
winter lodge, where my young ones are still waiting for me. Their
father and I only left it this morning to look round, for spring
comes suddenly here in the north, and a day or two ago it was quite
cold. The flowers are in bloom, the Bees say, before they have time
to notice their buds, and the trees spread out their leaves in a
single night. The winter has only just gone."
Phil followed her to the water's edge through clumps of rushes, and
saw before him a cluster of dome-shaped houses, like giant
thimbles, in the centre of the stream. Many were some feet above
the surface of the water; they were covered with a smooth coating
of hard mud, and so far as he could see they had no entrance.
"Did you make those?" he asked, as she led him on to the dam, so
that he might get a better view of them. He was amazed that such an
insignificant creature as the beaver could build such fortresses.
"Of course we did," she answered in matter-of-fact tones.
"Yes—they took a long time, but we worked together, and worked
with a will. The walls, you'll notice, are more than six feet
thick. They have to be very strong," she added mysteriously. Phil
wanted to ask her why, but she seemed so troubled that he said "How
do you get in?" instead.
"Take a header and see," she told him, splashing from the dam and
diving straight down, with Phil behind her, until they reached the
deep projection, or "angle" as it is called, beneath which lay the
entrance to her own particular home. It was very near the bed of
the river, where the frost would not be likely to reach even in
"Here we are!" she cried, shaking the water off her tail as she
scrambled through. Phil noticed that she was as agile in the water
as she was clumsy on land, and that two toes on each foot were
Inside the winter house were three young Beavers, all very wide
awake and covered with brown and glossy fur. Their three little
beds were nicely arranged along the side of the wall, while two
vacant ones, somewhat larger, and belonging to Father and Mother
Beaver, were on the other side. The centre of the chamber was left
free to move about in, and was so beautifully clean that Phil was
sure Mother Beaver would be as particular about muddy boots as the
matron at school. He was very glad he had left his behind him—bare
feet were much more comfortable.
"Yes, my children," Mother Beaver was saying, as she patted each
affectionately, "the time has come for us to go to the woods. Your
father is exploring now, so that he may know where you can find the
juiciest roots, and how far it is safe to venture. He will meet us
She busied herself in smoothing their fur, while they stared hard
at Phil. Under their shining chestnut hair was a thick soft coat of
greyish brown, and Mother Beaver seemed very anxious that this
should lie quite flat.
"They're very thin," she said, regretfully, "but then it has been a
long winter, and our larder is nearly empty. We live on bark
entirely when we are down here," she explained to Phil, as she made
sure that all was straight before she left. "We find it very
nourishing and tasty, though you might think it dry. Before the
frosts come we lop off branches of willows and other trees, and
sink them under layers of stones close to our houses. Last fall we
laid in a larger supply than usual, for we knew the spring would be
late in coming; but our neighbours had such enormous appetites that
it soon went. Our neighbours? Yes—they live on the other side of
our lodge; but we don't visit—it isn't our way."
With a last look round she left the winter house, and though Phil
swam more quickly than he had ever done before, she and her young
ones were first on the river bank.
"But we're good friends," she went on (Phil shook himself as she
had done, and noticed with pleasure that his brown coat was dry in
a moment), "and always work together in building or repairing our
dams and houses. That's why they call us 'Social' Beavers. Some
cousins of ours (there are not many of them, I believe) live quite
The young Beavers had a fine time of it that bright spring day.
Phil found them most amusing play fellows, for when they had
satisfied their hunger on succulent roots and tender shoots they
were quite ready for any game that he suggested. They were all in
the highest spirits when Father Beaver came on the scene.
He was thinner than any of them, and much more serious. Phil was
inclined to be frightened of him at first, but soon found him as
kindly as the rest. He smoothed Phil's hair for him as if he were a
son of his own, and asked to look at his teeth.
"H'm," he remarked thoughtfully. "They won't be much use for
felling trees, but I daresay you can help us in other ways. We must
set to work in the early summer," he continued, turning to Mother
Beaver, "for there is a lot of rebuilding to be done this fall."
"Rebuilding?" echoed Phil. He had loved his bricks, and to make
castles in the sand; building those dome-shaped houses must be
"Certainly," replied Father Beaver. "Our dam must be enlarged, and
a new lodge put up. We shall want all the help we can get. Later
on, when we have got up our strength, we must begin to cut those
Phil was feeling rather tired, so, while the young Beavers started
another game, he sat with their parents, trying to understand what
they meant when they spoke of "IT."
"I feel sure IT is somewhere about," said Father Beaver moodily. "I
came across ITS traces two or three miles away."
Mother Beaver sighed. "There is no use in borrowing trouble," she
said. "We must just keep a sharp look-out, and get our work done
quickly. I'm glad now that we made those extra holes in the bank,
though it did seem rather unnecessary at the time."
"Those holes, my son," said Father Beaver, in answer to Phil's
inquiry, "lead to the deep tunnels in which we take refuge when we
are pursued by our enemies. There we are comparatively safe, but in
the open country or in the woods, owing to our clumsy movements on
land, we are at their mercy."
His voice was gloomy, and it made Phil sad to think that such
gentle animals as beavers had enemies.
"If they catch you, do they swing you up high, and make you all
sick and giddy?" he asked, with a vivid recollection of the terrors
of the barn.
"Worse," said the Beaver, shortly. "The hunters trap and kill us
for our valuable fur, and IT—the Wolverene—actually eats us! This
is why we go to so much trouble to make our houses secure, so that
when the frost has hardened the thick layer of mud which we place
each fall over the thatch of stones and driftwood, neither teeth
nor claws can penetrate the hard surface."
Mother Beaver had shuffled off to her young ones, who were making
up for the short commons of the winter by eating all the green
shoots that came in their way. Their father, settling himself
comfortably in the shelter of a low bush, invited Phil to sit
beside him and have a chat.
"You want to learn our ways," he said, looking at him indulgently.
"They are easy to understand, for though we are more skilled in
building, perhaps, than other creatures, it is chiefly for our
industry that we are noted. Nature has taught us to think ahead and
provide for the future. I suppose you know what 'thinking ahead'
"Not ezzactly," said Phil honestly, with a longing look at the
young Beavers. The smallest of them appeared to have rolled himself
into a round ball, and Phil couldn't help thinking what first-rate
bats the others' broad tails would make.
The Beaver drew back his wandering attention with a light flap of
"One thing at a time," he counselled. "If I take the trouble to
talk to you, the least you can do is to listen…. About
looking ahead. If you had 'looked ahead' and learnt your geography
the other day, instead of making paper boats in preparation time,
you would have known that a continent wasn't 'a piece of land
surrounded by water' and they wouldn't have called you—"
"Don't say it!" Phil entreated, and Father Beaver laughed and
changed the subject.
"The Social Beavers to which we belong," he said, "live in small
colonies, and work together for the general good. A certain number
of us, whom hunters call 'the Idlers,' refuse to help at all, and
are satisfied to live in tunnels instead of houses. These are
usually sorry for their idleness when it is too late, for they are
often captured by fur hunters, who know where to look for them, and
easily dig them out. That is, if IT does not find them first."
"IT?" questioned Phil, snuggling closer to Father Beaver and
speaking in an awed whisper.
"The Wolverene," he amended. "My wife cannot bear the sound of his
name when she is weak from fasting, so we call him 'IT' at this time
of the year. He carried off our eldest daughter last summer. She
was proud and wilful, and would not stay by her mother's side….
She had a lovely tail."
"Don't you think we should be settling in for the night?" asked
Mother Beaver, bustling back to them with a delicate green bough,
from which she had stripped the leaves, as a titbit for Phil. She
was surprised to hear that he was not hungry, until he reminded her
how early that afternoon a dapper Bee in a velvet coat had invited
him to a feast of honey. The Queen of the Fairies might have envied
him that meal, so exquisite were the flower-cups in which he found
"Of course, if you prefer honey to fresh bark," she said
disappointedly. To please her Phil nibbled one end of the bough,
and found it very bitter. He was thankful when her thoughts were
distracted to her young ones, whose coats had to be nicely smoothed
before they went to bed. Ere long they were all curled up under the
thorny branches of a wild brier. Phil crept in between them, and
was soon asleep, while the two old Beavers watched in turn to see
that all was well.
The next few weeks were a delightful holiday for Phil. Day after
day he roamed the woods with the gentle Beavers, making friends
with the Bees and Squirrels, and finding out their haunts.
Sometimes he caught brief glimpses of other creatures, who glanced
at him shyly and scampered off. He learnt to keep a sharp look out
for the dreaded Wolverene, and was so curious to see him that he
almost hoped that he might come. Nature had promised that nothing
should harm him, and he would protect the Beavers.
Father Beaver devoted many hours to his young visitor. He told him
much about woodcraft, and how Nature protected some of her weakest
creatures against their foes by giving them the shape and colour of
their surroundings. The little brown twig on the bough before them,
he pointed out, was in reality a Caterpillar which Birds would have
devoured long since if he had attracted their attention. The small
dead leaf among the vines was a gorgeous Butterfly when he unfolded
his wings, the under sides of which were a dingy brown.
"You will find this wherever you go," said Father Beaver, "Nature
always protects her own."
"How does she protect you and me?" Phil asked him curiously, only
"By giving us our wits," said the Beaver simply. "If you don't use
them it is not her fault. When you grow up strong, and wise, and
fearless, you will be able to protect others as well as yourself.
As for us, it was she who first taught us how to build. But for her
we should be at the mercy of the Wolverene all through the winter,
when he is fierce with hunger, and very strong. There is the Wild
Cat, too. Sometimes we hear her tearing at our roof, and snarling
with rage. It is a horrible sound to listen to on a still dark
"Why didn't you stay in England? There are no Wild Cats or
Wolverenes in the woods at home—only Birds and Rabbits, and
harmless creatures such as those."
Father Beaver gnawed a strip of bark from a young birch tree before
he answered. "The Wolverene is not our worst enemy," he said
slowly. "Beavers were driven from your shores by Man. Yes—" as
Phil gave a little start of surprise—"we used to build in many of
your streams and rivers; in Wales we were well known, and I have
heard that in the time of Hoel-dda, the great Welsh lawgiver, one
hundred and twenty pence—then a very large sum—was offered for
each Beaver's skin. You see we were much thought of even in those
days, though I must say I wish it had been for something else than
for our fur. We are still to be found along some of the large
rivers of Europe, such as the Rhone and Danube, and in many lakes;
but the Rhone Beavers are solitary animals and do not build houses,
dwelling instead in burrows, which go far down into the earth."
"Do those hunters you spoke of often come after you, Father
"Yes, my son," said the Beaver sorrowfully, "for our fur is in
greater demand than ever. In the winter, which is the 'hunting
season,' they do their best to force our houses with heavy weapons,
and if we take to the water beneath the ice, and swim to our
tunnels in the river side, they sound the ice above the banks with
an iron chisel, which tells their practised ears the exact spot
where our holes are to be found. Then they dig us out—and that is
the end of us."
"I'm very sorry, dear Beaver," Phil whispered, stroking the
shining fur that brought such trouble on its possessors. "I'll tell
them all when I leave the woods how cruel it is to hunt you, and
p'raps they won't any more."
Father Beaver smiled mournfully. "There's always the Wolverene," he
said. "His other name is the Glutton. It just exactly suits him,
for he can eat more at a sitting than any other creature of his
size. How does he look? Something like a small bear, with thick
coarse hair of blackish brown. Until he shows his double row of
glistening teeth, you would never guess how ferocious he could be.
His muzzle, as far as his eyebrows, and his large paws (they are so
large that his trail is sometimes mistaken for that of a bear) are
the colour of ebony. His horrible claws are as white as milk, and
the natives use them for necklaces. I wish they had them all," he
finished with a deep sigh. "I can't help thinking he'll pounce on
us some day soon."
But nothing was seen of the Wolverene as time went on, and Father
Beaver became quite gay. His coat filled out, and grew more glossy
than ever; he would be "a portly old gentleman" before long, Mother
Beaver told him; and at this he began to talk of tree-felling, for
he did not like the idea of losing his figure.
"There is a time for work and a time for play," said Mother Beaver,
looking smilingly at her young ones. "The time for work has not
come yet, though it will soon be here. Let them play in the
sunshine yet awhile."