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book review

Author Frances Backhouse details a thorough account of the tirelessly industrious beaver’s past, present and possible future.

The standard thumbnail narrative of the North American beaver says that Castor canadensis, as the species is officially called, was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century, when beaver-pelt hats were that day's must-have equivalent of a Hermès bag. Then, when fashion shifted to silk, the gratefully neglected beaver rebounded. End of story. Unless, that is, beavers have felled a tree on the road and you can't get to the cottage. The beaver is either a "symbol of the sovereignty of Canada," as Parliament decided in 1975, when it enshrined the animal's lofty stature with the passage of Bill C-373, or a destructive nuisance emblematic of its kinship to the unloved rodent family.

If you teach English to Canadian newcomers, as I do, you will inevitably get around to the beaver. When you introduce the subject of money, the beaver will come up. When you discuss Canada's most iconic symbols, the beaver will come up. When your students have been to the CNE and eaten a flat, deep-fried, sugary confection traditionally topped with granulated sugar and cinnamon, the beaver will come up. The beaver, as surely as the maple leaf, First Nations people and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will come up.

"A traditional knowledge of the beaver is the birthright of every Canadian." This observation of Horace T. Martin is the epigraph to Frances Backhouse's fascinating and smartly written Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. Backhouse, an author and journalist whose previous books include the gold-rush story Children of the Klondike, successfully shares that birthright with interested Canadians of every stripe in a thorough account of the tirelessly industrious beaver's past, present and possible future – from the animal's prehistoric ancestors to its potential role in mitigating the mounting effects of climate change.

First, to that business of the hats. Yes, the appetite for beaver pelts did cause a precipitous decline that nearly eradicated the North American population, once estimated to be at least 60 million, and possibly as large as a mind-boggling 400 million. The Europeans, who had already hunted their own, slightly different species of beaver to the verge of disappearance, were happy to have discovered a fresh supply of fur. But the silk hat's role in stemming the extermination is complicated, since the declining availability of beaver pelts was already a factor in the need for alternatives.

Once They Were Hats adopts the narrative strategy of previous single-subject books on salt, sugar, coffee, cod and so on. Touching on almost every conceivable facet of its subject, the book tells us how beavers have evolved from prehistoric origins dating back as far as 37 million years, and how their patterns of habitation have influenced the geography of North America. The pages brim with information and interesting tidbits. The beaver's 1937 debut on the Canadian nickel, for instance, is only the latest manifestation of its status as currency. In the 19th century, the Hudson's Bay Co. started issuing a redeemable token, called a Made Beaver, for every pelt trapped during the winter. Also explored are the many applications of castoreum, a glandular secretion that has been prized since ancient times for medicinal and other purposes.

Backhouse plots an absorbing itinerary that takes the reader on a tour of beaver habitats, as well as stops at a fast and furious Toronto fur auction and a visit to Smithbilt Hats, the legendary Calgary maker of western headwear. Among Smithbilt's creations is the "Gus," worn by Robert Duvall's character in the series Lonesome Dove. Today, you can buy a wool version of the Gus from the company's website for $110, but the highly prized, incomparably durable, full beaver model will run you $1,000. Sounds steep until you consider the guarantee that, "Once you get one, you'll never need another."

While an active participant in the story, Backhouse never allows herself to become its subject, which is one of the book's persistent virtues. Even when she lends a hand with the dressing of a beaver pelt, the focus remains on the minutiae of the process, rather than whatever squeamishness she might feel about it.

Most importantly, Backhouse identifies the beaver as a "keystone species." By that definition, the beaver is "central to how a particular ecological community functions." As such, its "effect on other animals and plants is disproportionately large." Looking forward, the beaver's positive impact on hydrology and water conservation could lessen the impact of drought caused by climate change. While not presented as a panacea, a strong case is made for how a "détente" between Homo sapiens and Castor canadensis can work to the benefit of both.

In that sense, Once They Were Hats couldn't be more timely. According to a recent Statistics Canada survey, only 16 per cent of Canadians successfully named the beaver as the country's national animal. Backhouse, at least, has done her part in staking an even greater claim to the beaver's place in our minds, as well as our hearts.

Vit Wagner is a Toronto writer who also teaches English to Canadian newcomers.

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