I just happened upon an old photo of Leila Philip and me standing on either side of a graduate student whose master's committee we served on years ago. It was a timely glance—I'd just read Leila's most recent book, Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, and put it on a bookshelf alongside her two earlier works. Teaching in that graduate program for several years, we spent two summer weeks on campus, where I bought one of her books when she joined the faculty.
I expected A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family to resonate with my memories. Not only had I written a book on family and place set in western New York, but I also had researched the Hudson River for a potential travel memoir (never completed) comparing it with the Rhine. Here she records the challenges and the processes of researching family history "in search of the story or stories that could set the record straight," discovering "who these people were who had kept these files, those unsmiling faces on the walls, this place that always whispered, 'This is who you are.'" Her book is both conscientious and thorough.
Her earlier book, The Road Through Miyama, is an account of the two years she worked as a potterer's apprentice in the southern Japanese village of Miyama. I had become familiar with Japanese wood block prints from exhibits in the Art Institute of Chicago and owned guides to early 19th century works by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The black and white reproductions of such art in Philip's book, together with my appreciation of A Family Place, spurred me to acquire this book. In retrospect, I imagine it prompting her family memoir of place, as if her thorough blending of research and narrative experience in foreign surroundings innately modeled an application of that skill to a more personal enterprise. I envied her experience in Japan and valued her recording of her time there.
It had been years since I'd seen her, but those two books still anchored one end of a bookshelf mostly filled with work by Scott Russell Sanders, Patricia Hampl, and Joan Didion, essayists and memoirists who also modeled intimate examinations of particular places. I'll admit to being initially hesitant about acquiring a book about beavers—my biases tended toward birds and trees—but other recent texts had shifted my perspectives not only on other creatures but also on many elements of the natural world to which I'd given little attention. Day by day accounts of weather and climate—shrinking rivers and drying lakes, melting glaciers, rising seacoasts, habitat losses, species extinctions—made me more cognizant of how important it was to acknowledge what was happening to our world and to consider how little we'd invested in trying to preserve it.
And Leila Philip's first two books had been pretty absorbing reading. The depth and range of her research combined with her artful narrative skills promised a rewarding read with Beaverland that was quickly confirmed from the start. She's a writer you want to wander with, whose conversations with ecologists and environmental researchers you appreciate overhearing, whose discoveries of unexpected landscapes makes you more alert to the ones around you. The scale of her research into the history of the beaver in North America is impressive, and the book opens with a description of the beaver's surprisingly varied features and the assertion that "one million years ago, beavers the size of bears roamed North America."
Having seen a beaver in a nearby pond with a beaver dam and then not seeing it anymore, Philip makes up her mind to learn whatever she can about beavers and visit sites where her understanding of their habits and history will be enhanced. She will learn of beavers' relationship with Indigenous peoples across the continent, their eventual extinction through European alteration of the landscape and exploitation through voluminous fur trading, their eventual return thanks to conservation advocacy. She will visit sites in the Northeast, the Northwest, and the Midwest and learn about sites in Alaska and Europe. She will attend fur trade auctions and beaver sanctuaries. She will report on ways to manage beaver-caused flooding problems through nonlethal methods (like installing pond-levelers and culvert fencing). In one photograph of 64,000 charred acres from an Idaho wildfire, she calls our attention to one large green patch which has been preserved by the lifestyle of beavers.
Beaverland is richly informative, thoroughly thoughtful, and convincingly argues our need to value beavers and their lifestyle. While enlarging our understanding of our continental past, she expands our sense of what we might need to do for our future. Each of her books enriches its readers, just as the writing of it has enriched her own understanding of what she experiences.
Notes: Philip, Leila. The Road Through Miyama. New York: Random House, 1989.
Philip, Leila. A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
Philip, Leila. Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America. New York: Twelve, 2022.