In Praise of Beavers

06/10/2009 4:00 AM |

Do beavers act on instinct, or do they build with human-like planning and intention? Canadian artist Maura Doyle’s book A Guide To Beaver Architecture, Sticks and Mud Reconsidered considers this question, leaning toward architectural accomplishment, while occasionally attributing great creative prowess to the beaver. Well, sort of. Her concept of The New Age Beaver supposedly provides a means to side-step the inquiry over innate versus calculated behavior by envisioning a beaver who builds with discarded cultural goods. For some reason, the animal has access to infinite information, though we never see that idea fleshed out enough to know what it means. Still, readers on the “beavers create through instinct alone” side of the fence will likely find the beaver investigation amusing in its goofiness, even if it’s clear Doyle takes the subject a little more seriously than they do. She may be in on the joke, but she goes to the trouble of researching six chapters worth of beaver production.

Generally speaking, the book finds its greatest success when proving unexpected arguments plausible. This occurs throughout the guide, albeit with irregularity. Artistic context alone, for example, produces the connection between material innovation within the art-making practice and the adaptive building habits of the beaver, a nutty concept that might have been explored more. To her credit though, when Doyle outlines instances in which beavers use coal, mud and even t-shirts to create their dams, the artist goes to the trouble of creating a re-enactment (based on one such account). The act walks the line between contrived absurdity and hilarity.

Interestingly, it would seem there is a thin lineage of artistic beaver renderings and recorded encounters imagining human-like families and abodes for the animals. Included in the book is a drawing by Grey Owl depicting beavers lining their lodge with sweet grass, first published in the 1935 book Sajo and the Beaver People. Past an example of architectural variation though, no significance is noted. The same goes for an illustration of a beaver mansion, based on an account by J.C. Beltrami in 1828. I suppose this is fine, but it gives the book an anthropological feel Doyle makes no claims to in the preface. Consistency in intention at times interferes with the guide’s success.

Overall, the book is enjoyable and well-researched. Certainly, Doyle’s highlight – her ferrying of a beaver log through the man-made, possibly beaver-inspired Panama Canal – stands alone in its unique charm. So too does the artist’s interpretation of a mud-and-stick-encrusted lantern, the one-time work of a beaver discontented with a light intended to prevent its dams. Appropriately, a bright, round, happy-faced illustration of one of those guys closes the book.

Maura Doyle’s
A Guide To Beaver Architecture: Sticks and Mud Reconsidered can be purchased through Paul Petro Contemporary Art.