Essays - Winter 2017

Good Neighbors

When beavers came between us and a farmer down the road, we knew something more was at stake

By Tamara Dean | December 5, 2016
Design Pics Inc/Alamy
Design Pics Inc/Alamy


One Friday in June, our neighbor Rod, who farms the parcel north of us in western Wisconsin, pounded on our door. Just back from a run, I was stretching on a mat. I didn’t want to get up, but when I did, I was glad to see Rod on our stone walkway. We had always enjoyed talking, and our visits were too infrequent. Yet that morning, his expression was stern. His cheeks flushed scarlet. He shifted from leg to leg, as if the ground were rippling.

“David there?” he asked.

“I’ll get him. Would you like to come in?”

Rod looked away. “Out here’s fine for me.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The beavers again.”

“We trapped them.”

“Well, they must have come back to life!”

I had never seen Rod angry, or even irritable. If not exactly friends, we’d been friendly since my partner, David, and I moved to the country 11 years ago. We were the kind of neighbors who would help each other out of a ditch, even though we might not call each other first in an emergency. Whenever we met Rod or his wife, Margie, on the road, we stopped and talked. Most often, Rod talked—about his time in the army, the raccoons in his corn, his acres of walnut trees planted as an investment for his children and grandchildren. His demeanor was gentle, his voice as soft and mumbling as a pleasant stream.

But that morning Rod was furious about the beavers. They had undertaken an engineering project of human proportions near our shared property line. Where a creek entered our land from across the road, they had woven a stick-and-mud berm that paralleled the road for 100 yards. The berm interrupted the creek’s path to the river and had created an oblong, chest-deep pond. Spring rains caused the pond to swell. Water crept northward into the lowland acre where Rod planted corn.

When David came to the door, Rod gave me a formidable look. I understood that our neighbor was counting on a man-to-man talk and wouldn’t address me, even though I owned the property and the beavers were officially my problem. I disappeared into the house.

After 10 minutes, David came inside, stunned. He recounted his conversation with Rod as best he could, but already, it had become a jumble of accusations and epithets.

Rod had shouted, “Do you know where that water comes from?”

“Yeah, the spring across the road.”

“And now that clear spring water is full of algae. You must like swamps!”

“Well … we like nature,” David had said.

“Oh! So you’re a nature-loving hippie!”

Rod threatened to take us to court. And he could have. Wisconsin property owners are liable for lost productivity if beavers on their land cause a neighbor’s field to flood. David offered to pay for any losses, but Rod refused our money. He only wanted to farm that land as he had for the past 60 years. Planting season was nearing an end. It was almost too late to put in corn.

“How am I supposed to get any work done with water up to my ass?” he yelled.

Even without excess water, in perfect weather, Rod’s corn grew lank and largely barren. Its leaves bloomed gray with mold before harvest. We had considered suggesting that he give up farming that low-lying acre, not only because it was poor ground but also because he was 79 years old and we thought he deserved to work less. But we knew better. Like our 86- and 82-year-old neighbors to the south and west, Rod had farmed all his life. Farming was his life. Men like him still form the basis of the nation’s agricultural economy while younger people favor more sedentary, urban jobs. The average age of farmers and ranchers in the United States has increased steadily over the past 35 years. Now, for every farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older.

Meanwhile, on our side of the fence, 80 previously tilled acres were accumulating weeds and becoming useless—from a traditional farmer’s perspective—while I considered what to do with them. To me, responsible land stewardship meant factoring in the health of the soil, water, plants, and animals, but I couldn’t decide where that led. Pasture? Hay? Sunflower seeds for biodiesel? Fortunately, I didn’t have to earn a living by farming. High-speed Internet service allowed David and me to work from our rural home.

“We’ll fix the problem,” David assured Rod.



Rod shouted, “Our family had a picnic spot on the riverbank when I was a boy. I was going to make it a picnic spot again, but I can’t even get in there to mow!” Then he climbed into his orange pickup and drove away.

By this point in David’s telling, I was baffled, too. “Something’s not right with him,” I said.

“Yeah. This isn’t just about the beavers.”

Given that our creek, crowded by willows and box elders, is an ideal habitat, beavers undoubtedly lived there long before conceptions of property ownership. Fossil records indicate that Castor canadensis thrived in Wisconsin for about 20,000 years until fur traders nearly extirpated them. By 1903, only three beaver colonies—an estimated 15 animals—were known to exist in the state. That year, trapping was banned. As populations resurged, the ban gave way to limited trapping seasons, but even with the bans and limits, since 1917, landowners have been free to trap “the complaint beaver” at will.

A year before Rod’s outburst, at Rod’s urging, David had bought a body-grip trap, whose steel jaws snap around the beaver’s neck when the animal attempts to swim through, drowning it. We were reluctant to trap but wanted to be good neighbors. Rod had the power of his convictions, plus history, on his side. He knew how it always had been done and should be done, and even after living next door for a decade, we were newcomers.

The day after installing the trap, David called me on his cell phone from the swamp. He had removed a dead beaver and pulled it onto a mud flat.

When I arrived, I saw the bloated body on its back, the long, curving, orange incisors, pink tongue, puddle in the mouth, webbed hind feet with the coppery toenails of an old man, and the wide, flat tail with a chunk missing where maybe a coyote had managed a bite. It was 41 inches long from its nose to the tip of its tail. Its fur glinted cinnamon-red in the midday sun—beautiful to us, but summer pelts, comparatively thin, are worthless to fur buyers. We hovered over it. We stared, guilty and curious.

Since moving to the country, we had become unsentimental about most dead animals. Woodchucks that gnawed away our front door trim met the same fate as the beaver. But the beaver seemed different. It was less opportunistic, like the raccoons in Rod’s corn, than ingenious. We knew its industriousness from watching the dams we hacked to pieces one day reappear the next. Just as David and I had built a house and garage, planted a garden and orchard, and culled trees for lumber and firewood, the beaver had established his own compound. With his regal coat, he looked like a beloved little emperor we had assassinated.

Still quiet, David rigged a rope harness around the beaver’s midsection and dragged its body into a box-elder grove. That night he said, “Let’s not tell anyone we did this, okay?”

Three beavers followed—an adult female slightly smaller than the male, then two kits half the size of the female. On the fifth and subsequent days, the trap snagged a few snapping turtles, which we released unharmed, but never another beaver. We dug notches in the berm and disassembled the lodge. The pond that geese, ducks, cranes, muskrats, turtles, fish, frogs, and songbirds called home remained, but was shallower.

I ran on our country road almost daily. Following the river’s curves, it crossed multiple creeks—gullywashers in April, trickles under lumpy ice in January. Northward, the road took me past the white farmhouse where Rod was born, and the surrounding fields he now farmed. A half-mile farther stood Rod and Margie’s house. I passed them often—Rod on the tractor, Margie in the garden. We waved. Occasionally we chatted. At one neighborhood get-together, Rod said to me, “I know you’re out there, but you’re moving so fast I can barely see you!”—which was a joke, and a pretty good one, given my shuffling, sightseer’s pace.

The day after Rod’s outburst was unseasonably warm, and I had woken early to run. I started slowly, passing the beaver pond, eyeing the stagnant water, the broken trees where eagles perched, the goose-nest mound.

Soon I saw Margie in the distance walking toward me. As usual, she wore a broad-brimmed straw hat and a blue T-shirt appliqued with roses. That morning, though, she turned around and walked away from me. She got into her car that was parked beside the bridge and stared at the river even after I passed her.

The next morning the same thing happened.

Strange, I thought. I guessed that she was shunning me out of solidarity with her husband. But I respected her desire to be alone. We weren’t so close that I was offended.

On the third morning after Rod’s outburst, because of the increasing heat, I woke and ran even earlier, and I was returning, heading south, between Margie and her car, when she noticed me. Nearing, I waved and shouted, “Beautiful day, huh?”

She wagged two fingers, beckoning me closer. I took out my ear buds.

“Did you see the cranes?” she asked.

I pretended I hadn’t.

She pointed to the marshy ground next to our pond. She’d been scouting the property line. “There are two little chicks walking through the grass with their parents. They’re so adorable. Right around the corner. Look for them.”

I told her I would. I didn’t say what I was thinking, what she surely understood: the pond, and therefore the beavers, were the reasons for the cranes. Instead I prolonged our conversation by asking questions—“How big are the chicks now?”—just to keep her near, because it felt as if we weren’t talking about cranes but about forgiveness, that the excessive delight with which she described those fuzzy babies was some kind of apology for her husband’s behavior, which she must have known about because what man tends and pressurizes his ire and then lets that anger burst on another man without telling his wife about it? By lingering as if I preferred to do nothing else but hang out with Margie, I hoped I conveyed that of course we understood: everyone goes a little crazy sometimes, and we weren’t the types to hold grudges. It was the longest conversation I’d had with her.

The longest conversation I’d had with Rod was about the soil in our valley the first year I planted a garden. Although I’d collected core samples for analysis, I guessed that he would know more than laboratory data could reveal. I called to ask his advice.

Rod had said ours was a “rough farm.” To reach the tillable land, you had to drive through the river. In spring you risked its floods. He had described the soggy depression that bisected one of our fields, how he used to pull out the neighbor’s stuck tractor now and then. He had told me, in his pleasant, soft mumble, that our county road, the one I jogged on, was once crushed limestone, not tarmac, and he figured that runoff from rain on the limestone helped sweeten the soil.

He was right about the soil’s pH and the field’s low spots, although my tractor had never become stuck; I hadn’t tried plowing or disking there. I was still procrastinating, researching possibilities for the land, figuring I would recognize the right use when I found it, and when I did, I would ask Rod’s advice again.

Beavers chew wood or die. Their incisors grow constantly. By felling trees they’re not only gathering food and building materials but also whittling those chisel-sharp teeth. If beavers were prevented from chewing, their teeth would grow so long that they couldn’t eat. Their compulsive activity results in the reengineering of their environment on a scale that no other animal but man attempts—infuriating man as no other animal can. My father, for instance, who lived on a wide, lazy river in Michigan, cursed and shot the beavers from his deck, although they posed little threat of damming that expanse.

“Beavers are not as controversial as wolves,” Geri Albers, a furbearer ecologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told me, “but almost.” She paused. “Actually, they probably are.”

If a beaver has any value, for most people it lies in the pelt, which currently earns a trapper in our area $25 at best. Ecologists appreciate beavers as creators of wetlands that provide habitat for dozens of species and filter water before it reaches lakes and rivers. Californians beset by drought strategically reintroduce beaver colonies to create catchments for precious water. But more people, farmers in particular, regard beavers as pests that plug streams and cause basements, roads, and fields to flood.

Near our borderland, the beavers’ project included the giant berm that retained the pond as well as a majestic lodge, a network of tunnels, a clear-cut graveyard of young willow stumps, and an eroding riverbank. Yet after Rod’s June visit, David said, “We’re not trapping again.” Dragging away those bodies was grim, but also futile, as a new breeding pair moved in straightaway. Instead, we decided, we would outwit them.

Beavers are driven to build dams where they can feel and hear flowing water. Commercial systems with names such as “Beaver Deceiver” or “Castor Master” promise to limit beaver engineering by masking the sensations of flow. Researching these systems, we thought we had found our solution—until we discovered that they cost thousands of dollars. So David studied the plans and designed a homemade version using flexible drainpipe and woven wire fencing.

For the next week, he spent his free hours in chest waders in the swamp. He dug a trench through the berm and laid the pipe in it. Using rebar and bricks, he weighted and balanced both pipe openings to hover at a constant height from the pond bottom. On the inlet side, the pipe opened to pond water. On the outlet side, water poured into the creek before it reached the lodge. Through the pipe the pond drained silently and steadily, unbeknownst to the beavers.

David installed a tall cylindrical fence around the inlet to prevent the beavers from clogging the opening. Then he snaked two long pieces of rebar through the fence, parallel to the pond’s surface, to act as a rudimentary depth gauge. Photos of his daily progress looked nearly indistinguishable to me: flat water, sticks, mud, greenery, and the odd dozy turtle.

The homemade solution worked. The pond retreated five inches in one day, but the beavers apparently didn’t notice. They left the berm as it was. When I ran past I would look to my left and check the water level compared with the metal bars in the fence. The gap remained constant. Rod’s field didn’t flood.

The next day David found Rod in a barn at the old home place. Rod didn’t turn around when David said hello. When David told him that the flooding problem was solved, he didn’t seem to remember or care about the beavers. In the barn’s half-light, he was examining items—rusty augurs, old milk buckets, hay rakes, lumber—and sorting them into piles. When David said, “Okay then, see you around,” Rod barely grunted.

Comparing notes on our recent encounters with Rod and Margie, David and I agreed their behavior was odd. But we assumed their distractions were as numerous as ours. Rural life in summer meant ceaseless chores. And later, when we saw them outside, they waved and called out greetings as if nothing had happened.

Then, one night in July, our valley filled with smoke. Friends who lived on my running route called and said, “Are you okay? It looks like your house is on fire!” We drove up the road to investigate.

On the riverbank behind the old farmhouse where Rod was born burned a fire taller than the lightning rods affixed to the roof. We smelled tire, plastic, and wood smoke. Through the orange glow we saw the large, rectangular skeletons of what might have been farm implements or furniture, contraptions or comforts. We watched as the fire contorted and leapt. It blackened the flank and singed the topmost branches of a towering poplar. Sparks sprayed heavenward, then went dark. No one tended the fire.

Soon, finding the flames dreary in their relentlessness, we turned around and went home, where we had already sealed the windows against the fumes. David called the sheriff, who said Rod had planned the fire. The local authorities had sanctioned it. The coals smoldered for days.

David continued hiking to the swamp to check his flow-control solution. When the beavers chewed the pipe and ruined the siphon, he patched it. When they stuffed twigs into the fence, he removed them. By August they had built a second berm, between their lodge and the river, to make a second pond, and I helped him install a larger second pipe with a bigger cage around its inlet. The beavers nibbled on that pipe, too. By summer’s end they had constructed another lodge. All the while, though, the pond near the road didn’t rise.

On Labor Day weekend, while David was in Florida with his ailing mother, I attended a party hosted by a neighbor who lived between our place and Rod’s. Under a new picnic shelter, a band of father, son, and two daughters played bluegrass, the teenager on bass looking bitterly bored. Dogs fought in the dust. I accepted a beer from a hospice worker in a Harley-Davidson jacket; then someone whistled to quiet the crowd. The host stood on a stump. With tears and shaking hands, he dedicated the shelter to the memory of his wife, who had died of cancer the previous summer at 55.

In the nine households on our stretch of road, I was aware of seven cancer cases, three fatal, in the previous five years. I was one of the seven. But this tally couldn’t represent a cancer cluster, as most of us had moved to the area recently. And if it’s true that one in three people will get cancer, the tally didn’t even represent a deviation from the norm. It represented nothing more surprising than everyone’s inevitable decay.

Rod and Margie weren’t at the picnic, but another neighbor, Bruce, who knew them well, was. He and his wife were dumbfounded when I described Rod’s outburst. But Bruce conceded that Rod was working himself up to it. Regularly, for weeks, he would say to Bruce, “Did you see how high the water is? See that dam they’ve built?”

“He found a cause,” Bruce said, shaking his head. “But he’s the guy who avoids confrontation! He must have had a drink before coming over.”

Bruce’s wife added, “This is Rod? Who lets any stray cat stay in his barn, even wipes out their little eyes when they have an infection?”

“Yeah, well, he hasn’t been himself lately,” Bruce said. “Can’t piss, can’t poop, and he’s lost a lot of weight. They did a colonoscopy. They’ll get the results this week.”

Then Margie’s evasiveness made sense. Maybe she was sitting in her car and watching the river flow—or acting lavishly, falsely gregarious when she couldn’t avoid people—because she was facing knowledge too awful to contemplate that demanded she do nothing but contemplate it.

The idea that Rod was unwell hadn’t occurred to me. He moved like a jaunty 60-year-old. His hair was glossy white, his eyes bright blue. Aberrational behavior might have been the giveaway. His temper. His raised voice.

The musicians started playing again. Adolescent girls in sundresses sang about lonesome roads. After a while, Bruce asked me, “Do you like bluegrass?” and I shook my head. He responded with relief, “Oh, me neither. I can’t stand it!” We waited a polite moment before walking away from that funerary picnic with its attempts at cheer.

It turned out that Rod didn’t have colon cancer, but a disease that shuts down the body while the mind continues to function. “ALS,” a neighbor to the south whispered when she stopped at our driveway on her daily stroll. Rod quickly lost his ability to walk, to tend his walnut trees, to farm.

On that day in June, when he had knocked on our door, he must have felt weakness in his limbs and the first losses of his body’s control. He wouldn’t have needed a diagnosis to understand that he was, fundamentally, failing. But at that time, he could still drive his pickup to our place, stand on our stone walkway, and yell.

In hindsight, I was glad Rod let us have it, that our negligence became his cause and we the targets of his fury. That he didn’t unleash it on his loved ones. Didn’t stopper or temper it, either. If only we hadn’t tried to shunt his outpouring of rage with reason, but instead simply stood witness to his losses and said, “Yes, yes. Okay.”

Rod died three days after November’s full moon, also known as the Beaver Moon because it’s when trappers begin to set their beaver traps and beavers cache their winter stores, man and beast ensuring their survival in the dormant season. Neighbors, the younger men, carried Rod’s casket. He was buried just before the ground froze. His obituary said, “He brought good to everyone he met.”

Like the beavers, David and I were preparing for winter—felling, cutting, splitting, and stacking wood. And in the mornings, I continued to run on the road. I kept an eye out for Margie, hoping we could stop and talk. But I rarely saw her, and then only from a distance. I waved. She waved.

One day I walked up to her house, and she invited me in. We sat in plush blue recliners next to a woodstove in a room that smelled of mothballs. Behind Margie stood a glass-fronted cabinet full of Rod’s guns. We talked about her children, her garden, and the recent knee injury that kept her from her walks. About the land that Rod left her she asked, “What do I do with this? I’m at a loss.” Now she, too, belonged to a demographic trend. The number of American farms owned by women has nearly tripled in the past 30 years, and part of that increase is due to the passing of older men and leaving their widows to manage the business.

Maybe Rod and Margie’s descendants will keep the farm and continue to gather there every Fourth of July. But who will till the soil? Their children have no interest in farming. The same is true for the 86-year-old rancher whose land borders ours to the south. His sons don’t want to succeed him in grazing cattle. As Rod understood, his way of life is disappearing. Newcomers are changing things.

A month after Rod’s death, I decided what kind of farm I would have: from a traditional farmer’s standpoint, an antifarm. Bees and butterflies were in danger, the president had just warned the country. With more than $15 billion in crops depending on such pollinators, the loss of their habitat, partly due to extensive row-cropping and pesticides, threatened food availability and the economy. The government was allocating tens of millions of dollars to pollinator-protection efforts. Upper Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, received an extra $11 million in grant money. Of that $11 million, I was awarded $14,000 to plant an old hayfield to native flowers and grasses.

Finally, I’d found a use for the land that felt right. I liked that restoring habitat was unconventional in a region of conventionally grown corn and soy. It would benefit not only insects but also our soil and water. It would supply food for the honeybees we kept and promote higher yields for our neighbors’ crops. Maybe it would even help protect species such as the monarch butterfly that, like the beaver, had quickly gone from abundant to threatened.

Soon, though, I realized I had no idea how to fulfill the terms of the grant. The government agent who helped me apply for it gave scant advice—hay the field, spray herbicide, buy seed, plant. He only left me with more questions. When? How? With what? Even though I had David’s help, like Margie, I had become one of the nation’s growing number of women farm owners. And like her, I was at a loss, and I could only figure out what to do next by asking neighbors for help.

Friends who had restored prairies, including directors of two local conservation groups, concurred that spraying the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, was the only way to eliminate existing plants and create a viable seedbed for new grasses and flowers. The government agent told me, “I’ve never seen success without Roundup.” But did he know of anyone who tried to restore a prairie without Roundup?

On the day I signed the contract for the grant, the World Health Organization concluded from a meta study on glyphosate’s effects that it’s “probably carcinogenic in humans.” I knew that spraying glyphosate would work. I knew that neighboring farmers, including Rod, had used Roundup on their fields for years. But, as one of the four cancer survivors on our stretch of road, and as the daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter, friend, and neighbor of cancer survivors and victims, I balked at applying a presumed carcinogen to our field. No matter how effective it would be, I didn’t think I could take that step. Instead, David and I would approach the problem of a field of weeds just as we had approached the problem of the beavers—with hope, experimentation, and a lot more effort than others thought necessary.

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