Sunday, May 21, 2017

Beaver: A Model Antagonist

by James M Jackson.

He’s back!

A mile and a half before we get to our northern home, we pass over Beaver Creek. It usually travels through a culvert under the road. As we approached the creek, we saw water flowing over the road. “Expletive deleted,” I said to Jan. “The beaver is back.”

I know this is not the same beaver as the one I battled many years ago for control over this same culvert, nor is it the one whose dam at our lake’s outlet raised the water level a foot. It’s not even the one who materially changed our view of the lake by removing a dozen mature white birch, red maple, and quaking aspen from in front of our house a few years back. This is probably a bachelor youngster recently booted from the family compound who is looking to make his way in the world. Let’s treat this beaver as a reincarnation of previous beavers, all of whom collectively have become my model antagonist.

My favorite antagonists to read about are those who have their own agendas. The antagonist’s conflict with the protagonist arises from the incompatibility of their competing objectives. Each character’s motivations should drive their goals, and their competing agendas should ratchet up the conflict between the parties.

Our young Mr. Beaver has three main objectives: Stay alive, which means preparing his world to make it harder for predators to kill and eat him. Eat enough food to prosper and grow. Attract Ms. Beaver and convince her to lodge up with him. (They form monogamous pairs.) Beaver are safer in water than on land, where they are more vulnerable to predation from various canines and bears. The deeper the water, the safer they are.

Raising the water level gives them more aquatic area from which to safely collect food and allows them to construct canals to more easily gather food and bring it back for storage. To a beaver, flowing water is wasted water.

A satisfactory antagonist shouldn’t be all negatives. A mix of good and bad makes him much more interesting. Our beaver has many good qualities—so many that we even have generalized descriptions we apply to certain humans who are busy as a beaver or eager beavers. The most effective antagonists share both positive and negative qualities with the protagonist—naturally in different amounts.

When it comes to our jointly utilized landscape, I have some objectives as well. I want unobstructed access to my property so I can reach grocery stores and the library and bring my provisions back home. I want to drive over Beaver Creek, not through it. And I don’t want parts of the road washed away by beaver-caused flooding. I want my dock to be a certain number of inches above the lake. I want a mix of trees on my property to provide shelter and food for birds and animals, shade during the summer, and to block the view of the neighbor across the lake. And I don’t want those trees to fall on my house.

Taken alone, the beaver’s wish list and mine each seem reasonable. Viewed together, conflict is inevitable.

A satisfactory antagonist must be persistent. They can’t fold at the first opposition; they regroup and try again.

Piles of "construction material" pulled from
the beaver's culvert blocking project
Last week, after unloading the car and making sure our off-grid systems are all working, I drive back to Beaver Creek, and using a pitchfork I clear the thin coating of sticks and mud the beaver has used to efficiently prevent any water flowing through the culvert. When I am done, water rushes through, overflowing its downside streambed, flooding the area below the road.

I am a veteran of culvert battles and know the beaver is not going to concede me total victory after his first setback. As soon as light arrives the next day, I drive to the culvert and find it blocked. Whereas the first blockage had been minimalistic, now under attack, the beaver has strengthened the blocking materials, weaving a mixture of flexible branches, chewed sticks as thick as two-inches in diameter, grass reeds, and mud into an impenetrable composite twice the thickness of the original plug. I work steadily for half an hour to clear the obstruction.

The beaver has exhibited another characteristic of strong antagonists: adjusting its methods to reach its objective and, relative to the protagonist (that would be me), it has upped the ante. If I am going to keep the culvert clear, I need to commit 45-minutes a day (including commutation time).

Protagonists should have flaws, and an interesting conflict often requires the protagonist to address and overcome his own shortcomings to reach his objective. I prefer to write first thing in the morning; it’s when I feel most productive. Yet, since the beaver works nocturnally, to minimize the damage done by his nightly construction, I need to deconstruct as early as possible to get the water flowing again. I commit to putting aside my writing needs (or at least desires) to defeat the beaver and prevent the road from washing out.

I post on Facebook about my battle with Mr. Beaver. One of my friends gets to the heart of the matter and asks, “Who will tire of their job first?”

Each night the beaver blocks the culvert, and each night he uses larger sticks, more fresh branches, all sealed with several inches of grass and mud. Each morning I undo the work. My back is beginning to object to the strain of pulling resistant material from below my feet to keep the culvert clean. I need to strategize my deconstruction to make sure that in the process I don’t allow any of the beaver’s work to slide into the culvert and cause a blockage someplace where I cannot reach it.

One of my personal shortcomings is a strong inclination to not ask for help. Several lake neighbors and I paid for this larger culvert when an earlier version installed by the local logging company proved insufficient for the task and the road continually washed out in spring runoff and after an earlier beaver attack. Two major logging companies now own much of the property nearby, and they have agreed for one to take primary responsibility for maintaining the road. I remember that there used to be a grate preventing the beaver from plugging the inside of the culvert. Even with the grate Mr. Beaver can still stop water from flowing, but having one eliminates my biggest concern of the culvert plugging somewhere in the middle. People can be seriously injured clearing those obstructions.

The logging company guy in charge of this area is glad to hear from me and agrees to install a new grate that day. He says he will check the culvert as well when he is in the area. By overcoming one of my personal issues, I have gained an ally.

Skip ahead to today (Thursday at my composing). This morning I inspected the culvert and found no beaver activity. If this is a short story, the beaver has decided to move on since Beaver Creek is not working out as a place for him to construct his life. And in that short story, I’ve learned my lesson and will ask for assistance sooner.

If this is a novel, the beaver moves on and takes up residence on my lake, the head of which is about 1,600 feet from the site of the culvert battle. Soon the lake level will rise and trees in front of my house will be under attack. Then I’ll need to face the more existential crisis of whether my rights as a human property owner are greater than his rights as North America’s largest rodent—and whether the battle can be resolved without involving the beaver’s death.

I’m hoping for the short-story ending.

[But as of the time of posting, this will be at least a novella. The beaver renewed his energies. On Thursday night he stopped the flow aided by 3" of rain had water running over the road. As of Saturday evening, I had drained enough water from the marsh to eliminate water coming over the road. Unfortunately, Mr. Beaver does not believe in resting on the Sabbath -- I'll let you know in the comments what I find Sunday morning. ~ Jim]


  1. When I first read the blog, I thought, "Ah-oh, Jim's going bonkers--the beaver has driven him round the bend." But you make good points and have assessed your fight with (evidently) a worthy adversary. Fight on! May the best male win. (Perhaps you could introduce him to a desirable female beaver who lives across the lake.)

  2. Can't wait for today's update! Can you trap and transport the beaver? Erect a fake beaver's predator? They're clever and tenacious.

  3. EB -- I'm glad my sanity is no longer in question -- at least on this issue.

    Margaret -- One would need a permit to live trap a beaver. Around here beaver problems are resolved either by the beaver giving up or by shotgun or trapping.

    And this morning's update: at 6:15 I visited the culvert and saw Mr. Beaver swimming in the area. I did not evoke a tail slap this time and he swam away. He had blocked the culvert and water was weeping over the road. I cleared the culvert and the water is rushing out. Unfortunately, we are expecting rain today, which will add to the marsh's supply.

    ~ Jim

  4. Man Vs. Nature - the eternal battle. Perhaps you could think of this as a summer blockbuster movie and build a team of differently gifted super heroes to thwart the evil foe, er, beaver.
    Good luck - keep us posted!

  5. Surely this could show up in your writing, Jim.

  6. Shari -- I think my using superheros would be cheating, don't you (blockbuster not withstanding) -- perhaps Aquaman could catch Mr. Beaver and Superman could fly him to his own pond, far, far away. (Oh, what i could do with a Start Trek transporter).

    Warren -- should it fit a story, the beaver shall return again.

    ~ Jim

  7. Ah Jim, the pleasures of country living. Love the way you related it to writing! Perfect. We had a similar problem in Maine. We built a cage over the culvert end. Not a flat cage, but an extension cage, of metal grating. The front was hinged and had a pull chain attached for those times when you couldn't loosen the blockage with pitchfork or prybar. The pull chain had to be operated by the winch on a pickup, of course. It worked quite well.

    Good luck with the beaver battle!

  8. Kait -- Interesting solution for your beaver issue. And did it finally go away?

    ~ Jim

  9. I can well sympathize with you about your beaver problem. We have a small lake in our community, and the beavers are forever felling the trees. The people who benefit by improving their view of the lake think the beavers' work is great. However, the rest of us aren't as happy with the beavers' activities. We've had to wrap the larger trees with chicken wire to deter the beavers, whose lust for trees never seems to end. Good luck!!

  10. If Mr. Beaver does migrate to the lake, I'll need to remember the chicken wire approach to protect the few birches and maples I have left directly in front of the house from the previous rampage. Thanks, Grace.

    ~ Jim

  11. Jim, I always wished I lived where there was a babbling brook or stream. Now I'm glad I don't. In a small lake near where I used to live, I was frightened by what I thought was a rifle shot as I approached it one day, and then I saw the little head moving out there and realized it was a beaver smacking its tail. Further down, I think it started damning up that creek below the dam, but I never walked down to check it and see. Then there's a paved trail called The Greenway Trail. When it's finished will go from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. Most of it is done now. I used to walk there pretty often. There's a stream near there where beavers have built a dam and a stick home, and took down quite a few trees before they moved on, or were trapped.Once I found a chewed up short branch a Beaver had gnawed on near a beaver damn where I was camping once. I took it into my classroom and put it in my science center for my students to examine.

    The critters that give me the most problems are chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels and raccoons.
    But in spite of being annoyed with them at times, I'm glad I have wild animals around. Well, maybe not the fact that a huge influx of rabbits last year ate everything in my vegetable garden except the tomatoes, even the annuals I planted. This year I'll have to find out where they managed to get under the fence that goes around my garden. I haven't seen any recently so maybe hawks or coyotes got them. Certainly, not my collie, who loves chasing them, but would never harm them.

  12. I use corrugated flexible plastic pipe around all my smaller tree trunks, to prevent the deer from stripping the bark off. I wonder if the beavers would chew right through it?

  13. Gloria -- you need to have a discussion with Maggie about your rabbits! You are right that the tail slap can resound like a shotgun discharge.

    Margaret -- flexible pipes around the deciduous trees is another interesting alternative -- maybe even combined with chicken wire.

    Now that I think of it, the first time I knew we had beavers working the lake that year was when I arrived in spring and saw the devastation. We need to have them file an environmental impact plan before they move to an area to let me know ahead of time to prepare my defenses.

    ~ Jim

  14. A worthy antagonist!

    Every once in a while we get a beaver dam on one of the "runs" in the area. Unless the summer is particularly wet, they usually move on when the run dries to a mere trickle.

  15. Great post, Jim. Good luck with the beaver.