Friday, January 30, 2009

Muskrat In The Marsh, Beaver In The Brook

Near where I live, there is a small (and I mean small, like fifteen by twenty feet) retention pond. I have named it “The Ball Swamp”, because it is a repository of balls of every size and description. There is a blue, plastic ball the size of a basketball, a whiffle ball, a yellow and black soccer ball, a big, multi-colored beach ball, a glowing green football and two smallish, red rubber balls, the type that you might throw to a dog to fetch. It is the final resting place of last halloween's rotten pumpkins and assorted pieces of trash as well. The sides are lined with skunk cabbage and fuzzy brown cattails have sprung up in the shallow water. The little marsh sits on the property line between two houses. There is a little man-made swale running into the swampy area, resulting from the builder of the two homes re-routing a natural stream that originally ran through the center of the lots to make them buildable.
The houses are each home to several children and the yards meet at the lowest point which happens to contain the pond, so every ball that rolls to the edge of either yard ends up going down the hill and settling in the muck below. The kids have, no doubt, been instructed never to go near the water, lest they risk falling in and drowning, or at least getting covered in mud. Because of its readily disputable location, I imagine that neither homeowner wants to claim it and thereby admit responsibility for cleaning it up, or at least fishing the balls out. So, year after year, the swamp dries up in the summer, floods in the spring and fall, hosts the periodic hatching of a few frogs and mosquitoes and gathers balls.

Last spring I was walking by this area with Rigby and my husband Mac in tow, and I saw a flash of wet, shiny, brown fur. I focused just in time to see a fat little muskrat navigate down the stream, disappearing into a drain pipe that runs beneath one of the driveways and empties into the Ball Swamp! The little stream runs parallel to the sidewalk less than ten feet from a main road, and one of the yards it runs through is guarded by a trio of scrappy little poodles that walk the fence perimeter most of the day. Despite all this, we have observed the glossy little fellow winding his way down the little stream several times since then. I'm delighted by his presence there and impressed at how life springs eternal and nature thrives in the most unlikely of circumstances.

This past summer Mac and I paused on our walk with Rigby, to gaze down over a little concrete bridge along our regular route. A brook that drains the higher ground to the north flows down through this area and meets up with the Charles River near the southern town line. It was a warm June day and the thick brush around the brook hummed sonorously with the buzzing of bees and other insects. Raspberry cane and tangles of bittersweet lined the banks and tiny, white, wild roses scented the air. Below in the water, small fish darted around beneath the dappled surface. We stood watching them for a moment, until my husband spotted something else floating a few yards away. He pointed out a large, fur-covered shape bobbing in the brook, hung up on a tangle of branches and weeds. It was golden brown in color, roughly the size of a watermelon and definitely dead.

Mac recalled recently seeing a big pile of sticks and branches that looked a lot like a dam, spanning the brook further downstream. He wondered if it could possibly have been made by a beaver. Maybe this carcass was a beaver! I didn't think that was possible. Don't beavers live where there aren't many people? Surely they occupy big lakes and rivers in wilderness areas, not little brooks running through thickly populated neighborhoods in suburbia. It had to be a woodchuck that drowned somehow, maybe hit by a car up on the road and staggered down here to die, swept in from the water's edge.

Later in the year as the leaves fell and the cold winds blew, we were again walking along beside the brook and came to the concrete bridge. As we passed over it, I was admiring the gold and red colors of the leaves all around it and I noticed that the landscape had changed; the entire area around the brook had become filled with shallow water. The banks were no longer distinct, and the whole area was flooded. It had been a somewhat wet year, but this was still surprising. Suddenly, my eyes fell on a sapling that appeared to have been cut a few feet from the ground, just off the road. On closer inspection, we saw that it had what looked like teeth marks, rather than hatchet marks, chiseling the trunk to a sharp point where it had toppled over. All around us we found branches that had apparently been chewed to a point in this way. Mac had been right, as bizzare as it seemed, there was apparently a beaver in the brook.

Then last week as we approached the bridge, with everything coated in heavy snow, we saw it. Now that all the vegetation had died back, the surrounding landscape was all shades of gray and white. The trees looked like black sentinels standing knee deep in the frozen water, and the brook was a sterling silver ribbon, barely moving through the ice. There, no more than twenty five yards from the road was a big dome of sticks, branches and small logs, frosted with white. We stood marveling over this and trying to decide if it could possibly be a beaver lodge, or whether someone simply dumped a huge pile of their yard waste in the water, creating that illusion. I glanced across the bridge to the opposite side of the brook and in the far distance, nearly as far away as I could see, a brown shape sat on the ice. As I watched, it appeared to be cleaning it's face and head. I alerted Mac and we quietly started moving across the bridge for a better look. As our feet crunched on the ice, the animal startled and immediately dropped into a hole in the ice and was gone. Too big for a muskrat, and too aquatic for a woodchuck, too far away to be absolutely certain, but we believe it was a beaver. With the steel-jaw leghold traps now illegal, it appears these critters are now on the come back. While this is thrilling to me, I also know that it will cause problems. Altering the landscape of private properties and turning backyards into ponds will not sit well with the occupying army that has claimed this place for humanity. What about the body we saw bloating in the sun on the brook last summer? Why did it die? I wonder about that, and about what will happen next.


  1. beavers are everywhere, all they need is some running water and the urge to dam takes over. i believe route 16 between holliston and milford has had severe flooding due to the little gnawers. i used to think i would to live up north someday so nature would be closer but if you look around you will be surprised......later, jc

  2. Really glad I found your blog. Very good..
    Thanks for the info...

  3. Goodness Deedee! this sounds like one murky little pond! Does anyone from the community wonder about the maintenance of the retention pond? This seems like a story in the making! Please continue Deedee!

  4. Thanks for checking in, peeps! Clay - You're correct, the Ball Swamp is one grubby little mud-hole, but being on private property I guess only the homeowners have any say about it, otherwise I would have strapped on my wellie boots and raked it out years ago! Thanks for your encouragement-You are an excellent writer and I hope to read more about Cleveland, Gram and you!