Editor’s Note: To Stop the Sound of Gnawing

I’ve found myself fascinated, lately and distantly, by the accumulation of human action. I like to believe that as our universe expands it makes more space for beauty or good, which has dimensions and mass and density. We see a poet who puts affecting work into the world and we see small bits of beauty settle into once-empty spaces of her readers. It is matter; it matters. It takes up space, but unlike other matter, it can’t be destroyed.

One story[1] of the beaver posits a different perspective on the universe:

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I find myself fascinated with this story, not because of its brevity, and not just because of its apocalyptic vision—what strikes me is a universe built around anger as the constant, and not beauty, or not good, or not anything else that might not be contained by mathematics. I think about us all toppling. I think about the end of ends.

But this is just one story humans have told about beavers.

Another story about beavers is that they hate the sound of running water, hence their famous drive to build dams and lodges—in truth, a trickle triggers an instinctual response, to package a leak in the dam with young willow or the branches of birch. It’s both more simple and more complex than we give them credit for. Hate, it seems, is a human specialty.

Another story about beavers is recorded early by Aesop, famous for his fables: “When pursued, the beaver runs for some distance, but when he sees he cannot escape, he will bite off his own testicles and throw them to the hunter, and thus escape death.”[2] This belief percolates for roughly two millennia, until the 17th Century, when Sir Thomas Browne points out that a beaver’s testicles do not pendulate outside the body, making self-castration difficult.

“In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision; but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish,” writes essayist Amy Leach.[3] Surely anyone who had touched or skinned a beaver must have known the truth, but correcting the papacy  hasn’t always been easy.

We can see here the spectrum of stories about one thing, but also many: some are simply incorrect, some are mischaracterizations, some can be outwitted by science or simple observation, some exist beyond us, some we’ll never be sure of. But my fascination with all of these stories is that each of us readers have space to make our own meaning of them. We get to decide correctness or incorrectness, and someone else can do the opposite. We can react, retell, recast. We can always make beautiful, if that is what we choose to do.

There is much in the world that I believe would make the Great White Grandfather Beaver angry. Lately, this feels hauntingly present, and it all, too, accumulates, in the shape of the thinning pole that keeps up our world. But I also like to believe in an addendum, in a story beyond the story of the “The Gnawing”: It is known that if one goes alone or in a group, in the evening, to tear down the local beaver dam twig by twig, send them all down the newly-made stream, the beavers will stay up through the night to make the necessary repairs. And maybe the Great White Grandfather Beaver might spend a night gnawing through the anger to find a broken pole and a broken world that leaks water or something worse, and that he, like all good beavers, might decide instead to fashion a dam to hold up the world and make it quiet again.

That is a story I can believe. A little more time to tell old stories, and make new ones from the old, and to find ways to convince the Great White Grandfather Beaver that we are worth the work, even if we are terrible, and even if our beautiful isn’t enough.


This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Managing Editor and Tiny Donkey Editor Joel Hans.


[1] From American Indian Myths & Legends, eds. Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes

[2] http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast152.htm

[3] From “In Which the River Makes Off with Three Stationary Characters,” published in her 2012 essay collection Things That Are.