The private life of the Canadian beaver
The beaver is famous as a grafter: hence his adoption as one of the symbols of that industrious people, the Canadians.
In the medieval Bestiary he was associated with castration, on the grounds of a false etymology: Latin castor looks like it should be connected to castrare, and the tradition was that the beaverâs testicles were much sought after as medicine. When threatened with death at the hands of the huntsman, the beaver bit off his own genitals and escaped.
When the Baron de Lahontan published the account of his travels in New France in 1703, he has happier tales to tell of the hard-working rodent.
He describes the dams which they make âmuch more artistically than menâ. The Indians (âsauvagesâ) are convinced that their âespritâ, âcapaciteâ and âjugementâ show that they must have immortal souls. (Various unflattering comparisons with Tartars, Muscovites and Norwegians follow.)
The beavers hold their assemblies, communicating in âcertains tons plaintifs non articulezâ.
They work through the night, using their tails as rudders, their teeth as axes, their paws as hands, and their feet as oars.
He also has a long section describing how the Indians hunt them.
Nouveaux Voyages de Mr. le Baron de Lahontan, dans lâAmĂ©rique septentrionale, qui contiennent une rĂ©lation des diffĂ©rens peuples qui y habitent; la nature de leur gouvernement; leur commerce, leurs coutumes, leur religion, & leur maniĂšre de faire la guerre.(The Hague, 1703) [1052.a.27.]
But the glory is this plate, where we see (anti-clockwise from top): savage hunting beaver with rifle, savage hunting beaver with bow and arrow, beaver dragging a tree on water, the beaverâs dray, beaver caught in nets, beaverâs lake, holes in the ice, savages harpooning a beaver, dog choking a beaver, another dog choking a beaver, beavers going to work, beaversâ dyke, beavers dragging a tree on water, beaver in a trap, beaver cutting down a tree.
Let the ingenious and dexterous beaver be an example to us all.
By Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Collections
Rachel Poliquin, Beaver (London, 2015). YK.2016.a.3542.