Down near the headwaters of Lake James the other day I saw lots of beaver sign. I love seeing their trails up and down the mud banks. The webbed hind feet are sometimes six inches from toe to heel. There were a number of scent mounds the beavers made by piling up small heaps of mud, twigs and grass and anointing them with an odiferous scent secretion called castoreum. I smelled one of these mounds. A pleasant, warm, musky, dark brown, leathery, mammalian aroma filled my senses. WOW! Essence of beaver! Quite a perfume.
The best way to see a beaver is to quietly wait near a lodge in the evening just before dark. A beaver’s first task upon leaving its lodge for an evening’s activities is a slow patrol around the pond to inspect the shoreline for intruders – perhaps a potential predator such as a bear, wolf, or other carnivore large enough to risk a beaver’s sharp incisors – or perhaps it could be a bumbling human like myself arriving late for the first feature of the evening beaver show. On a number of such occasions I have been the object of a beaver’s scrutiny. The first time it happened, I’ll never forget. The sun had just set behind a distant mountain and I was sneaking through the bushes hoping to slip behind the upturned roots of a fallen tree near the edge of the pond. I had my binoculars ready and I was hoping to get settled before the beavers emerged. As I crossed a clearing about fifteen feet from the water’s edge, a slowly swimming beaver materialized from behind the stump of a drowned tree. It was CLOSE, and it was swimming closer! I froze in mid-stride, trying my best to resemble a gnarled tree stump (with binoculars). With just its head and some of its back above the surface, the beaver was moving along parallel to the shore. When it came even with me, it paused. Then, like a toy ferry boat, it turned to face me. It swam closer and paused again, staring right at me. It lifted its nose and tried to scent the air. I stared back intensely. I held my breath and did not move. My legs muscles started to cramp. I gritted my teeth and held my position, determined not to even blink. As I stood there like a strained statue, looking deeply into those beady little beaver eyes, I realized that my psychic presence, that is, my stressed-out ego – that part of me that sees myself as separate from, rather than a part of, the environment – was probably much more disruptive to the peacefulness at the beaver pond than my mere physical presence. I knew I could fit in so much better if I could somehow soften the glare of this huge throbbing ego of mine. But how? I released my breath. I relaxed my eyes and softened my gaze. This felt better. I tried to release my thoughts and quiet the excited internal narrative rattling on in my busy little brain. I relaxed my leg muscles and allowed my body to float, ever so slowly, into a more comfortable position. The beaver just kept staring. It seemed like it was playing, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Something here just didn’t quite look right. Then KAPOW!! The tail came crashing down on the surface of the water, sounding like a combination rifle shot and belly flop. I about jumped out of my skin. Water splashed everywhere, and the beaver disappeared in the splash. I was so startled, that I completely lost my balance, and fell over into some brambles. The beaver surfaced a few seconds later. It was out a little further in the pond and it calmly surveyed the shore to see if the scene had changed. Beavers are known for their ability to alter their environment with their dam building and tree-cutting. Here was another way. This beaver had actually altered my psychic environment and my consciousness as well. Not only had it induced me into the beginnings of a meditative experience, but with the help of this furry, buck-toothed psycho-drama coach, I had just acted out a personal existential metaphor — that of a startled being, falling out of control into the unknown. Life seems like that sometimes. This little flat-tailed guru transformed me from a poor imitation of a gnarled tree trunk into an embodiment of my true self, falling into a briar patch. With the help of this beaver, for a few short seconds, I had experienced eternity. I had been living purely in the moment. This living in the moment, or “being here now”, for practitioners of yoga, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines is the goal of years of devotion. This beaver brought me to that place with a mere tail slap. Not bad for a second’s work.