by Rex Burress


Down the river west from Oroville, California, at a location where the Afterbay water empties back into the main channel, old dredger ponds line the gravel road leading into the Outlet Fishing Hole of the Wildlife Area.

As I was searching for subject material for art with intentions of trying out a new macro lens, I parked and proceeded to go down around the drying beaver swamp before checking on the river and the salmon run.

It was apparent that the cool Delta breeze had activated the wildlife. Tree Swallows were swooping over the crispy meadow, and the minute I parked a swallow chattered and fluttered at my back window. Was I under attack? No. Gnat-like insects swarmed around my warm car, and the bird had found a bonanza, momentarily ignoring my presence.

I plowed through Sticker-Gnat-Bird-Meadow and found myself in a partially dried basin with hundreds of willow trees chewed to the ground by beaver. They had built a teepee home with a great mound of branches and mud, and although the swamp water level had fallen away from the den, the industrious engineers had excavated a channel which guided water, like some irrigation canal, under the heap of jumbled sticks where the rodents were undoubtedly hidden away in the interior. Beaver like water.

Willow trees and cottonwood had been slaughtered - mutilated wood was scattered in random chaos - creating a decaying wonderland full of shattered bark and naked trunks lined with the etchings of bark beetles. Delighted, I roamed through the picturesque maze searching out minute pictures of chewed bark and chiseled branches, and soon I was completely absorbed in the wonder of discovery.

Just turn me loose in a dead-wood jungle or on a churned shoreline where shattered remnants of shrub and stone are eroded into abstract beauty, and I can be perfectly entertained without any commercial embellishments. An apparent wasteland can be a natural art gallery, and a source of exquisite photographs.

What appeared to be utter disaster as if a tornado had flattened the willow grove, was actually the creation of a disorganized type of beauty, and the stumps, whittled by sharp teeth, formed a beaver-sculpture gallery amid crushed bramble and blackberry brier. Beaver paths and tunnels crisscrossed the montage, and even the odor of their rank oil was most noticeable.

It was pure wilderness! I may have been the only human intruder as there was no sign that anyone had attempted to wade through the weeds to reach the stricken swamp. The appearance was of a place where moccasins and alligators might live. Carefully I made my way over the windfalls and through the toppled tangles where toothy monsters had carved fantastic creations that resembled primitive cave paintings even if the beaver's intentions had been purely to feed on the fibrous bark. The willow forest was sprouting anew, as if trying to right itself after a great war. It appeared as if soldiers had fought on a battlefield with nearly the entire regiment laid out for the onslaught of decay.

The new growth was trying to cover the scars of earth and grow green again where evidently a large beaver family lurked ready to pounce on edible produce. Conservation was not a concern in their community but rather an urgency existed to forage on the present to fulfill today's needs. In what some might call a dismal swamp, selective harvesting seemed to be of no importance, and one wonders how they view the shrinking wood and water supply. When would the word be given to abandon ship and seek a new pond? How does a beaver think?

Soon I was down on my knees crawling above cracked mud along an old log that had lovely burls revealed where the bark had scaled away. Loose bark hung like scabs on a wound, and beetles, ants, and spiders scurried to new hiding places when I probed. Remnants of tree fungus ridged the outer surface, lizards dashed into crevices, and tiny frogs popped into the meager pool. I was immersed in a thriving city of life amid a forest of death, and from the abundant possibilities I framed my film.

Around the hacked base of one willow still precariously upright, a wren and a nuthatch flitted close as if trying to decide what that human was up to. Above the stick litter on a snag, three half-grown Western Kingbirds sat close together as if wondering what to do. Was I a danger? Parental opinions soon sent them fluttering away to safer perches. Was there any communication between beaver and bird? The warning calls are undoubtedly recognized by other animals.

As I prepared to leave and seek the challenges of the nearby river, I peered down the slick burrow that disappeared into the beaver lodge. What did those animals feel down in that dark tunnel? Without doubt they wait for night when they can be out in the fallen willows chewing again in a way of life. Only a beaver knows what a beaver knows...

 © 1999 Rex Burress
June 25, l999