waiting for the beaver to emerge

The Heathcote kids and I have just finished another typical day. We played store, in which the kids “bought” raspberries and mint which they picked and ate on the spot. We visited the beaver dam and nearby lodge and had a stakeout, waiting for the beaver to emerge (not today; stay tuned). While in the beavers’ marsh, we identified beaver trails and footprints (huge claws!) and deer tracks, human tracks, muskrat holes and otter slides.

handful of black raspberries for dog food Then we walked about half a mile of road and trail, grazing on black raspberries constantly. I saved a handful to mix into my shelties’ vegetarian dog food while the kids played house at Polaris, the soon-to-be-occupied strawbale group house. Then we all went on a stroll in the woods with my dogs and pygmy goats, ending at my homestead, where the kids enjoyed a couple of rounds on my swings before they turned and continued to Heathcote’s mill without me.

The families at Heathcote, the Intentional Community where I live, are choosing the gift of a pretty amazing childhood for their children. Instead of being plugged into media for long hours each day, these kids spend most of their time outdoors, year round. They have secret “rooms” along the stream where they swim. They have adopted a grove of pet trees in one such area, giving each tree a name. And they established an animal graveyard, where they lay the bodies of mice, baby birds, etc., watching nature recycle.

Heathcoters gather for the labyrinth ritual They’re fascinated with the Heathcote labyrinth, streamside in the woods. They’ve always gone there and invented their own sacred rituals. At our recent quarterly retreat, the kids watched as the adults performed our own labyrinth ritual, one after another, walking the spiral in silence. The children sat and held space for the long service. I wondered what they were thinking…

When I was a child I spent endless hours walking our family farm in Kentucky with garter snakes in my pockets and a Tom Sawyer sense of adventure, exploring barns, ponds, woods and fields and riding ponies (after the long ordeal of catching them). I would come home good and muddy with the understanding that I was an animal, carrying stories I knew the grownups wouldn’t understand. Heathcote would have been a primal paradise to me.

Naturally, the Heathcote kids take an extremely idealist view of animals and nature, as I did. To them, the woods and stream of Heathcote are a peaceful, benign, friendly place, their backyard. They’re not growing up on a farm, learning that your 4H project calf is a pet one season and dinner the next. They’re not on the historic American frontier or a small village in India, where nature is a cougar, wolf or a tiger, after your livestock…or you. For them, in modern rural America, even with snakes and snapping turtles that look like dinosaurs, the woods are a friendly home. The biggest boogeyman is the deer tick, which may or may not give you lyme disease, for which medicine is readily available.

They are growing up on another kind of frontier, though. In community, kids as well as adults work on improving our communication, experimenting with better ways of honesty and listening–No matter how old you are, feeling heard is core. Here the kids have a front row seat for the work the adults are doing. And in Open Classroom, they have a safe container for this essential work of community building. It’s no coinsidence that community and communication have the same root!

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The Mixed Blessing of Beavers

Wren on June 23rd, 2008

As if I weren’t busy enough myself, I’m taking on someone else’s backlog!!! A while back, a family of beavers built a dam on our neighbor’s land, right on the property line with Heathcote Community. The dam is on a part of the stream that humans had dammed back in the 1800’s with an impressive stone wall, diverting the stream for the Heathcote Mill. The mill eventually ceased operation, was later a horse barn, and has been Heathcote Community’s Conference Center for over 40 years. The pond the human dam created reverted back to marshy floodplane, filling in with soil. Bank-retaining trees, such as Japanese fantail pussywillow, have been planted along the winding stream.

The most notable modern feature is that a driveway now runs along the top of that stone wall, accessing the properties of two Heathcote neighbors. Now that beavers have dammed the stream, their pond had flooded that driveway and cascaded over the stone wall, eroding the gravel and asphalt of the driveway and causing our neighbors to have to drive through a new stream when they come and go.

Since the beavers are actually on our neighbor’s land, Heathcoters had several academic discussions about them, but didn’t rush to action. One neighbor did, hacking a huge chunk out of the beaver dam and hauling it away in his pickup. It took the beavers only a few days to repair it, and the water level rose quickly over a few days, again threatening the driveway.

Beavers have a superficial reputation for being highly distructive of the environment, felling numbers of trees and flooding areas with their ponds. However, when you look at their activities in more depth, beavers are actually quite a blessing to an area like ours.

Shortly after our beavers established their pond in the tree filled, marshy area, a family of ducks appeared. Heathcote often has duck pairs pass through, visiting our pond and then moving on to more secluded areas. Now the valley has a safe area for them and I’ve been thrilled to see the babies. Another Heathcoter reports seeing a muskrat at the dam.

As soon as the beavers repaired the dam, I saw a family of otters arrive, including at least 3 young ones! This is more good news, not only because the beaver pond is becoming a habitat for a whole new range of wildlife, but beccause otters make holes in beaver dams (to allow larger fish to pass; easy catching on the other side) thus otter holes help mitigate flooding.

Further, the ponds that beavers create help the water table recharge by slowing down the stream and they deposit enriching minerals in the soil.

So how can Heathcote and our neighbors cohabitate with our beavers and their neighbors–ducks, muskrats and otters? I’ll be meeting with my neighbors in the next few days to discuss solutions I’ve researched. I’ll report back soon. I’d love to hear your experiences with beavers, too!

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