“All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated… and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Walking on snow-pressed flaxen grasses by the Deschutes River, I stooped to touch the peels of red alder bark like coiled bracelets next to bone bare sticks whittled to perfection by a beaver’s sharp teeth. The next day, I remembered a piece of advice I’d heard more than once from the late great bear biologist Chuck Jonkel of Missoula, Montana ,that he called “sitting and whittling.”

His point? If we spend enough time sitting and whittling with folks, we’re likely to find something we agree upon. Relationships take time, listening, and one might argue a shared activity that connects to what sustains us. This might be knitting, shucking corn, pitting cherries, or strumming guitar, but there is something about sliding the edge of a knife down a twig and repeating the motion until the rhythm becomes a meditation. At home, I gave it a try on a manzanita branch. How long has it been since I whittled? Too long, but thanks to the beavers and Jonkel I will pull out the Swiss army knife my Dad gave me when I turned thirteen and inscribed with my name. Not all treasures are meant to be kept safely tucked in a drawer.

Out there by the river in winter sunshine and icy breeze, I stood mesmerized by the tooth-marked sticks and curls of shiny maroon bark flecked in dashes. Perhaps only the night before, a family of beavers feasted on cambium, the soft inner growing tissue shielded by bark. Wary of predators, they cut and dragged limbs to the river’s edge by a deep channel in case they needed to slip away quickly. I could see their pathway leading from the alder thicket and imagine their chubby selves trundling along, paddle tails dragging, and sensitive webbed rear feet picking up vibrations from the earth that could warn of an approaching coyote, fox, or even a bear.

The actions of a tight-knit beaver colony on their home territory offer a lesson that’s different from the typical ecological one. We all ought to celebrate the beaver as nature’s engineer, expert dam builder, and the keystone species that renews the streamside forest, recharges the groundwater, slows and stores water, and provides pools and channels as refuge for juvenile wild trout and salmon.

But sitting and whittling? That may be an undervalued piece of wisdom. In this last year of staying close to home, more of us have come to value the art of slowing down, attending to what’s close by, and dabbling our toes and spirits by creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes, and bays.

Again I return to Chuck Jonkel who knew that grizzly bear survival depended on people finding ways to live with bears and each other. When he passed on in 2016, the tributes flowed in for this gruff bear-like man with his silver hair and beard and rolling laugh, his prodigious knowledge of bears, a legacy of conservation, and his fearlessness in merging science with speaking truth to power, and engaging the spirit. He was close to Salish elder and poet Victor Charlo among other tribal friends and with their blessings helped to renew the tradition of an annual spring Bear Honoring ceremony to welcome bears from hibernation. He knew what it meant to “sit and whittle,” extending that practice to growing flowers, weaving them into leis, and giving the necklaces away at the Missoula Farmers Market– a generous act that came with conversation.

(Beaver whittling, creative commons image)

I have much to learn of the beaver way and the Jonkel way of sitting and whittling, but I’ll honor the little steps of sharing our humanity. Whether there’s a gift in return is unimportant, but often there is one. Recently, while birding along the First Street Rapids Trail in Bend with my friend Gail, we unexpectedly found ourselves mentoring a young couple who had taken up birdwatching. We could have hurried on, and instead we lingered.

Standing there socially distanced in our masks, we witnessed a Belted Kingfisher angle into the diamond sparkle river to emerge with a silvery fish crosswise in her beak and flap pell-mell around the cattail bend. No matter how many times I’ve watched this brilliant dive, I’m always in awe, but on that afternoon? The wonder felt multiplied by ten in the presence of fresh eyes–polishing the beauty to a fine sheen so we all felt the glow.

(Belted Kingfisher female diving. Photo by Pat Gaines)

Returning again to that day among beavers on a quiet stretch of the Deschutes River that I will not reveal, I look at my notes scratched in a pocket journal. While studying the arrangement of peeled sticks as my hiking boots sunk deeper into sodden banks (feeling that recharge of the riparian area from the beavers’ presence), I wrote these words, with a bit of editing now:

“Cut, peeled, and chewed alder sticks form peeled letters, a poetry to decipher. Symmetry. Heed this language of carved sticks by deep currents and glassy flow as a lone kingfisher flutes by and lofts high to the rimrocks. Follow the beaver trail to this place of safe feasting.”

I believe beaver sticks are lucky. I keep a pencil-sized peeled twig between the driver and passenger seat of our car. But here’s the thing. Beavers and rivers need some luck, too, and right now we have an opportunity to be the giver of good fortune for Oregon and for all waterways, because every river and stream protected from human damming and other forms of destruction forms a legacy. Clear, clean, connected, and beaver-shaped rivers know no state or international boundaries.

Let’s all support the addition of 4700 miles of new rivers and streams to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Every one of those miles represents people across Oregon speaking up in town halls and public meetings, in letters and phone calls to put forward 15,000 nominations. Participating in the process felt like more than a civic duty. I found myself studying maps, tracing lifelines of headwaters and streams, and imagining new expeditions, especially in the Greater Hells Canyon region (I serve on the board of the Greater Hells Canyon Council).

While too often speaking up to protect wild places can feel bewilderingly contentious, I felt a coming together of people who love rivers for “messing about in boats” (Wind in the Willows!), for clean drinking water, for protecting late season flows that support farmers, for fishing, birding, wildlife viewing, hiking and replenishment of spirit.

Senator Ron Wyden is the champion and with Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the River Democracy Act of 2021 at the start of February. Whether you live in Oregon or not, please take a moment to explore the nominated rivers and share your appreciation and enthusiasm for passing this legacy legislation.

There’s something more we can do for beavers, rivers, and all wild places no matter where we live. Pause in a beautiful place outside. Stay awhile. If there’s a chance encounter with someone we don’t know and it feels right, then strike up a conversation at that proper social distance. Spend more time listening than speaking. Find the common joy of nature that offers an opening to reach across any divide. And yes–do try whittling a stick. For inspiration, wander the realms of beavers and bring home a lucky twig.

  • To learn more about beavers and for help on coexisting at the river’s edge, please visit Beaver Works Oregon. For amazing night-time footage of beavers eating alder (complete with loud chewing sounds) and other surprises, please see the YouTube channel of Beaver Works Oregon, the results of Pamela Adams’ trail camera diligence and artistry.
  • To virtually experience wild rivers in words and stunning photographs, pick up one of river conservationist and writer Tim Palmer‘s books. For an immersive experience on beavers, check out the High Desert Museum’s new exhibit that will remain open through October 3rd of this year: “Dam it Beavers and Us.”
  • Take action to protect beavers in Oregon.