In Which Our Man on the Canada Beat Defends the Incomparable Beaver
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It is with regret that I take issue, and square off, with my esteemed friend of many years, Senator for Ontario Nicole Eaton. But I am scandalized by her rude and almost unpatriotic attack on the noble and distinguished national animal of Canada.*
The beaver is an almost incomparably exemplary and original national animal. Eagles abound; Germany’s scrawny black eagle, a panoply of other Alpine, Andean, and Central American eagles, including Mexico’s rampant and belligerent version, Egypt’s somewhat pudgy and suspiciously vulture-like eagle; all compete with the grossly overworked American bald eagle. The official American eagle has been press-ganged into every task from proclaiming a missive from the president to warning the non-paying guests of the Bureau of Prisons of the evils of suicidal thoughts.
No one would take issue with the British lion as a great beast, except that the United Kingdom no longer governs anywhere where the lion is indigenous. The king of beasts (or as the Toronto Zoo calls the lion, the “prime minister of beasts”) is even more majestic when set off against the foil of the unicorn.
Less successful is the French rooster, an irritating creature renowned for waking people up prematurely, and for sexual aggression. The Russian brown bear has been transformed by the improbable alliance of Richard Wagner and Theodore Roosevelt into a more amiable creature than its relative in the national parks of North America, which occasionally becomes shirty with summer tourists each year.
There is a mixture of indistinct ursines and felines in the heraldry of Scandinavia; the Polish wolf is worthy, if less folkloric than Rome’s surrogate she-wolf that nurtured the city’s founders. There is a liberal sprinkling of great cats, gazelles, and impalas in sub-Saharan Africa, where credibility resides in the habitat (unlike a British lion), but not in the formidability of the symbolized country. No one could object to the Chinese dragon, or the authentic tiger and elephant of India, and the Japanese are to be commended for exalting the fragrant chrysanthemum above all eligible creatures.
Australia’s kangaroo, New Zealand’s kiwi (the bird, not the fruit), and Canada’s beaver, like South Africa’s springbok, were naturally authentic, heraldically original emblems of the early Commonwealth, and are amiable symbols over which we do not have to scrap with other nationalities. They initially achieved heroic international recognition when Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa all responded voluntarily and in great numbers to Britain’s wars.
Unfashionable though it may now be to think in these terms, the original Commonwealth presaged NATO’s central tenet of “An attack upon one is an attack upon all,” and the four original dominions responded to the world wars with astonishing numbers of courageous volunteers, even though the home countries themselves were under no threat, (until, in the case of Australia and New Zealand, Japan entered the war and the United States successfully took over the principal defense of both countries). Never in the history of the world have countries volunteered in such numbers and with such strategic impact and so valorously to assist kindred countries. (Some Québécois could be assumed to be in solidarity with France, and in the dreadful summer of 1940, W.L. Mackenzie King and Ernest Lapointe urged Quebec to assume France’s position in the ranks of free peoples and to uphold its “burning love of liberty.” Many did.)
This digression into military history explains how these national symbols became famous and respected, as well as being regarded with some affection in the world. Senator Eaton is perfectly well aware of the historic status of les castors in Quebec history — eccentric perhaps, but fiercely patriotic continuators of the culture of the founding Canadiens.
If the beaver were a contemptible animal, it would never have been adopted and would certainly be disposable now. But it is a remarkably commendable animal, possessed of a formidable work ethic. (I can’t abide rhetorical questions but am sufficiently overcome by inter-species moral outrage to ask if anyone has ever been described as “working like an eagle” or “busy as a lion,” unless they were preying on the defenseless, or, respectively, overcome by lust or narcolepsy?)
More impressive, the beaver is a natural engineer, who not only grasps but by his own adaptive ingenuity, implements the basic principles of irrigation, flood and drought control, and in most of its elements, power generated from water courses. Apart from the honey bee, which was part of the national symbolism of France under the Bonapartes, in deference to the 500,000 Frenchmen who dutifully gave their lives in the great campaigns of Napoleon, the only other national animal that has made a direct constructive contribution to a country apart from the beaver is the elephant of India, often useful in construction and both civilian and military transport.
And in spontaneous actions that have asserted national identity and extended Canadian sovereignty, the achievements of the beaver are without parallel or precedent in the history of the nation state. The present infestation of beavers through much of the United States is not only a triumph in contrast to the demographic dyspepsia that has hobbled most of the world’s nationalities; it is a Canadian takeover, and a reward for the discriminating, relatively hygienic, and industrious life of the breed. The environmental argument against the beaver is completely spurious. The beaver does lightly flood some areas, making them more suitable for inhabitation by ducks and other water fowl by the much sought expansion of wetlands.
This benign Canadian influence is seen by American environmentalists as on balance positive, and the killing of beavers, despite their valuable coats (use of the word “pelts” is a profanation), remains forbidden, though they are sometimes humanely moved.
And there is the crowning achievement of the Canadian national animal in matters of foreign policy, unpublicized in Canada, as far as I know, except by me. The beaver dammed the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., causing its waters to lap the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. Not since the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, when a British shore party (I am trying to authenticate my suspicion that there were Canadians among them and I would be grateful for readers’ help in this) brushed aside the American defenders, occupied Washington and avenged the burning of York (Toronto), by torching the official buildings (requiring the scorched executive mansion to be white-washed, hence its name), has Canada so clearly required the United States to take it seriously. (On the earlier occasion, President Madison fled on foot, having been thrown by his horse, and Dolly Madison hurriedly departed the White House with a painting of George Washington under her arm, and was refused shelter by the angry wife of a recent draftee.)
I suffered glottal stops and other transitory symptoms of mortification when I read in this newspaper earlier this month that many Canadians have morally deserted the beaver, and think of it as destructive of the environment because of its woodworking and engineering skills. Some even think of it as “dentally defective,” and even of being as opprobrious as a rat. If this is a representative view, Canada is undergoing a deep national malaise.
Eagles are not despised for their tenacity, nor lions for their savagely deployed powers of tooth and claw. Wood cannot be chewed and hewn by wisdom teeth nor useful projects of irrigation and conservation fashioned from branches by toothless gums.
Senator Eaton is championing the polar bear. Its status as an imposing animal is not at issue, but it is ill-tempered, dangerous, hostile to humans, indolent, and emphasizes the familiar caricature of Canada as an Arctic wasteland which has not advanced one large paw-step beyond Jack London and Robert Service. And only Dudley Do-Right prevents Senator Eaton’s wrongheaded choice as usurper of the brilliant and assiduous beaver’s status as national symbol from devouring us in our igloos. This won’t do at all. Mme. la senatrice, reflechisse sur ton jugement.
This column first appeared in the National Post
* Editor’s Note: It is also the state animal of New York.