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Geez, Beave

     Animals are superior to humans, of course. Not just morally and physically – that’s obvious – but intellectually too.
     Down along Green River Road a beaver is making a house. Not just a house – it will also be his garden, his ranch, his sanctuary. He picked the perfect spot for it.
     The river bends twice just above his house, widens out a little and gets shallow, with an island in the bend, then deepens again as it enters its channel downstream.
     The beaver chose a sycamore tree just below the island and above the downstream bend. He’s going to drop it across the river.
     It’s a big tree, older than I am. He’s started chewing it on the river side, so it will fall in the proper direction.
     On the upstream side it will be shallow, so it won’t be hard to stuff up the cracks with branches. On the downstream side it’s deep, so the front door will be hard for the beaver’s enemies to find – assuming that beavers have enemies.
     The dam behind the tree will cover up the island, and make a big, wide pool for the beaver and his family to do the things that beaver families do.
     It’s a marvelous bit of engineering for a short guy with no tools but his teeth, his little paws and a big flat tail.
     He had to choose the right place in the river, the right tree of the right size, and make it fall in the proper direction, and he had to do it far enough away that the beaver family upstream won’t get upset and object to the Beaver Planning Board.
     Humanocentrics will object that this is not an intellectual exercise – it’s instinct, they’ll say.
     Booshwah.
     No instinct was ever developed to enable an animal to choose the right place to build a dam in the Green River. Evolution doesn’t work that way. The beaver figured it out himself. Instinct has no more to do with the house and dam that beaver is building than instinct caused Leo Tolstoy to write “War and Peace.”
     Instinct had something to do with both things, but it didn’t determine either one. Humans have an instinct to play – so do cats – and to create what we call art – and so do beavers.
     The beaver might have had just a general idea in mind when he started chewing on that sycamore, but that doesn’t mean his final creation will be a work of instinct.
     Tolstoy had just a general idea in mind when he began “War and Peace.” He wanted to write about the Crimean War of 1856, but to do that he decided he needed to write about the Decembrist uprising of 1825. But to do that, he decided, he had to write about Napoleon invading Russia in 1812, and to do that, he had to write about the peace that preceded it. So he began his novel in 1805 – 51 years before the place he thought it would begin.
     Unlike Tolstoy, the beaver got it right the first time.
     He’s been working on that dam for more than a month now. I see his teeth marks, ever deeper, around the base of the sycamore.
     It took Tolstoy four years to write “War and Peace” – about 5 percent of his life span. Five percent of the beaver’s life span will be about four months – just enough time to build that dam. Maybe his dam won’t be quite the beaver equivalent of “War and Peace” – maybe it will just be the equivalent of one of our modern novels. But let’s be fair to the beaver: if we demanded “War and Peace” from all of our novelists, no one would get any work done at all.
     Every time I run by that bend in the Green River, I check out the progress on the dam. I’ve never seen the beaver, though. Perhaps he holds down another job someplace else during the day, and works nights or early mornings on his dam. That’s the way a lot of novelists do it. As a matter of fact, having written a few novels myself, I think I have a lot in common with that beaver. Not only does no one ever see me do it, and it always takes more time than I planned, but a lot of the time it feels like I’m trying to chop down a tree with my teeth.

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