Jeff Baldwin: Associate Professor – Geography


Beaver as Historical Actors: In Theory and Practice

Abstract: The article is in part a response to recent calls in the environmental history literature both to engage more fully with social theory and to re-invigorate an examination of human-environment dialectics. Through a re-visitation of Marx’s work on material historicity in light of recent research on animal behavior, the article provides a theoretical framework through which non-human beings can be understood as historic actors, in and of themselves. That argument provides a theoretical framework to support practical projects which seek to ‘partner’ with non-human actors in efforts to modify and/or restore landscapes and ecosystem services. Treating non-humans as productive of self-directed and self-interested projects has particular implications for the way environmental historians and geographers approach landscapes. The article argues that in the case of North American streams, greater attention to the activities of non-humans in historical landscape analysis would produce environmental histories that might be more useful to restoration efforts and climate change adaptation strategies.

Keywords: Marx and nature, theory of history and nature, beaver dams, stream restoration, climate change adaptation, partnering with nature.

Beaver as Historical Actors: In Theory and Practice

  In the United States various groups spend more than $1 billion each year restoring streams. Those efforts generally seek to reshape stream channels to conform to an archetypal model of what geomorphologists believe a natural stream looks like. However, in a study that very much belongs in the environmental history literature, geologists Walter and Merritt convincingly argue that ‘the model’ is wrong. Their study points out that in the Mid-Atlantic Piedmont, throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries Euro-American settlers built literally tens of thousands of milldams across the streams where much of the modeling has been done. Walter and Merritt concur with modelers that the 1-5 meter thick layers of sediment coating Piedmont valley floors was mobilized by Euro-American land clearance and soil mobilization. However, the authors argue that contrary to ‘the model,’ those sediments were not deposited as part of normal stream function, but are there because they were trapped in millponds. Walter and Merritt go on to clarify that the typical sinuous, incised, single channel stream form reified in ‘the model’ also are not natural. Rather that stream form in the Piedmont is the result of streams breaching milldams after electrification obviated the dams’ usefulness, and then incising a channel down to their new base level.[1]

Stream incision near Lake Tahoe. Here the stream has eroded its bed resulting in lowered water tables and creating a dry grassland in place of a formerly moist, sub-irrigated meadow (US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station).

Stream incision near Lake Tahoe. Here the stream has eroded its bed resulting in lowered water tables and creating a dry grassland in place of a formerly moist, sub-irrigated meadow (US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station).

  Since the middle of the twentieth century, model-oriented geomorphologists have studied those and other American streams and found that most are well characterized by the single, meandering, incised channel archetype. The literature offers numerous papers which seek to explain those forms, taking them as natural and self-generating. While empirical study was extensive and the mathematics impressive, in the Piedmont scientists had overlooked the ability of early industrial humans to change whole landscapes. They did not pay attention to environmental histories evident in the landscape, and as a result significant resources have been and continue to be wasted. Thus the value of an environmental historical perspective: an explicit directive to look for anthropogenesis in landscape production might have revealed this error much earlier. For environmental historians Walter and Merritt’s study recalls the importance of histories recorded in landscapes, but not in archives.[2]

 There is another piece that must be added to this environmental history. Early stream modelers did not confine themselves to the Appalachian Piedmont. They examined streams in the Ohio and Mississippi drainages and particularly in the American West, areas where there were few milldams. Yet they found the same stream forms: single, meandering channels incised 1-3 meters into floodplain sediments. These forms were widely recorded by the General Land Office (GLO) surveys conducted in the 1850s and 1860s prior to, and for the purpose of settling the American West. As Fouty argues, those GLO landscapes were taken to be records of ‘undisturbed’ streams. However, a second error is implicit in that assumption. Across North America, always ahead of the waves of settlement, beaver were extirpated from the landscapes; their numbers were reduced from an estimated 60-300 million to a now slowly rebounding population of 6-12 million individuals. Prior to Euro-American trapping, (depending upon various assumptions) at any one time beaver maintained between 15 and 250 million dams across North America. Continued trapping has kept the number of North American beaver dams between 1.5 and 7.7 million, with a great majority of those in Alaska and Canada. Warren and Baker and Hill estimate that streams had up to 10 dams per kilometer of channel.

A beaver loge in a wet meadow fed by a small stream near Vernooy Kill, New York.

A beaver loge in a wet meadow fed by a small stream near Vernooy Kill, New York.

General Land Office survey map, Iowa land survey map of t082n, r001e

General Land Office survey map, Iowa land survey map of t082n, r001e

  There is some archival record of the magnitude of effect beaver had upon American landscapes in the journals of early explorers and trappers. Those accounts describe valley floors as characteristically difficult to traverse due to multi-channeled streams and dense vegetation covering broad riparian flood plains.[3]

  We now know that beaver dams change landscapes and hydrologies in important ways. Like the milldams on the Appalachian Piedmont they trap sediment. In north central Oregon, Pollack et al. found that in their first year beaver dams trapped enough sediment to raise the stream bed an average of 0.47 meters. Though stream bed aggradation slowed to about 0.075 meters (about 3 inches) in the sixth study year, the area of aggradation broadened significantly as sediment was increasingly deposited across the entire riparian area. Typically, given enough time beaver ponds fill in and become swales and then wet meadows.[4]

  Beaver dams essentially spread hydrologic flows across the entire flood plain. The surface of beaver ponds are typically at or near bank-full, meaning that a small increase in flow quickly expands the pond to cover its flood plain. Thus, high stream flows spread nutrients to riparian communities rather than washing them downstream where they have caused hyper-eutrophication and accompanying dead zones. Unlike incised streams whose surface is far below the flood plain and so drain water from the ground below flood plains, beaver ponds charge those soils and aquifers with water. Westbrook et al. explain that typically about one half of the water that flows through a dam-pool system travels through the soil. There it maintains moisture in wide riparian zones long in to dry periods. Typically water re-enters the stream at the temperature of the soil, a cool 54° F (12° C), conditions preferred by many fish species valued by Americans.[5]

  Finally, when beaver are present, streams tend to have multiple shallow and shifting channels. For low gradient streams, ‘the model’ that conservationists have been working so hard to emulate bears little resemblance to an ‘un-disturbed stream.’ While one may be impressed with the extent of milldams in Appalachia, that anthropogenic environmental dialectic pales when compared to what beaver did, and still could do, to North American waterscapes. Yet very few historians, environmental historians, or environmental geographers take beaver, and other non-human beings to be historic actors, in and of themselves.

  Walter and Merritts’ work clearly shows the problems incumbent upon missing anthropogenic landscapes, and their work clearly fits within the rubric of environmental history. My discussion of beaver clearly outlines the importance of those populations in biogenetic landscape production. Yet, what has/would environmental history do with American beaver? Because the discipline, and Western culture generally, does not consider non-human beings as historical, in the literature, beaver figure only as magnets for frontier exploration and settlement and as valuable pelts in markets in Europe and later in Canton. Yet, beaver have been, and could be understood as so much more, as processes in and of themselves that have materially affected North America in novel ways.

  My goals in writing this paper are first to suggest that non-human beings can be understood as historical actors, and second to show how that could contribute to environmental history. I suggest below that through Marx’s theorization of historical materialism, non-human actors may be interpreted, in light of on-going research, as historical beings. While I focus upon beaver, the article provides evidence of various non-human beings acting in accord with aspects of Marx’s historicity. Finally, I suggest some ways that people could partner with beaver to change streams into processes that function more like the environments that North American biota have co-adapted to. I point out, that at the same time beaver streams might provide ecosystem services useful in dealing with climate change. This matters for a number of reasons. First and foremost, most of the at least partially biogenetic systems referred to as ‘eco-system services’ are in decline globally. Western political-economy has understood those ‘services’ instrumentally and as fungible with industrial capital. It is not clear that the result has been optimal. Perhaps if the living processes behind ecosystem services can be understood as active in their own right, as partners, better policy and science and histories might ensue.[6]

   Placing non-human historicity in environmental history.    This paper addresses the intersection of two recent calls to action in the environmental history literature. In reference to McNeill’s careful review of environmental history, Sqautriti suggests that environmental historians have avoided social theory. Donald Hughes in addressing future directions for the discipline, echoes that sentiment and exhorts environmental historians to engage more fully with social theory. A second call also arises from Hughes review article in this journal. There he recommends three fertile areas wanting theoretical development and research. The first of those lines is a re-examination of the nature-culture continuum, and further examination of the dialectic relationship between humans and the rest of the biosphere.[7]

  While some environmental historians have joined the wider theoretical critique of a radical separation between humans and environments, they have not transcended more widely circulated arguments. As McNeill observes, several environmental historians have worked to re-conceive nature as more than a Braudelian stage which constrains humans play. Asdal, for example argues that nature is alive and active, that nature is a co-creator of history, that history is touched by nature. However, she concludes that because nature cannot speak, it should be taken as a given, as without agency. Asdal does observe that as humans interact with the world, nature is not a simple instrument or tool. Indeed, human projects commonly produce unintended consequences. However, that discussion is only an echo of work by post-constructionists Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour who, in the early 1990s observed that human inter-actions with non-humans often go awry. Granting some limited sense of autonomy, they characterize the world (not only nature) as a recalcitrant trickster or mistranslating mediator. Against hyper-separation of humans from nature, Schatzki argues that humans are also embodied animals, that humans entrain nature in their projects, and so nature is a part of our “arrangements.” While progressive, Schatzki’s work reflects but does not transcend the hybridity framework developed earlier by Whatmore. All of these lines, though, fail to address the idea that non-human beings interact with each other, that they have full existence without humanity.[8]

  This paper directly responds to Hughes and Squatriti’s calls for new theoretical understandings and frameworks. My primary aim here is to show that non-human beings may be understood as historical actors, in and of themselves. Radkau states as much in his assertion that “nature has a life of its own and is by no means only a component of human action, or the topic of human discourse.” He further observes though, that with their focus on humans as uniquely historical actors, historians only attend to nature when it plays a part in human histories. In accord with Hughes, Radkau warns that if environmental history accepts the thesis that history is wholly defined by the realm of past human actions, their contexts, and legacies, the discipline will remain limited by a widely held but problematic construction of humans and nature not so much as dichotomies, but as binary categories in which the first is defined by possession against the second which is impoverished by absence of some desired quality. Such binary categorizations obviate the possibility of a human-nature dialectic which requires nature act rather than simply reflect. McNeill clearly states that for the good of the discipline, environmental historians must be open to new categories and categorizations—the discussion that follows offers precisely that.[9]

  In his ontological theorization of historical materialism, Karl Marx provides one way past these human/nature binaries—a way to conceive of non-human beings as engaged in their own histories and geographies. The following discussion departs from the work of green Marxists such as Ted Benton, John O’Connor, John Bellamy Foster, and Paul Burkett. That line of eco-Marxism emphasizes the importance of the use-value that people take from nature, and its role in capital circulation and expansion. This article departs radically from that line of argument. Instead it builds upon insights from Marxist historian Joseph Fracchia into Marx’s ontological discussion of the creation of use-value, historicity, and materiality—three inextricably related concepts. Marx clearly did maintain his own human/nature binary, as I detail in Section Three. However, just as Marx (and Engels) sought to include the latest developments in the natural sciences, I argue that contemporary understandings of non-human beings allows an argument that living nature performs all the elements of historical material being as Marx’s theorized it.[10]

Section II Historicity in Marx’s Material Ontology

  As with many complex processes, Marx’s theory of historical materialism is difficult to describe in the linearity inherent in writing. It is not as if one thing leads to another. Instead Marx asserted that several mutually constituting conditions must be present simultaneously. My strategy here is to decompose Marx’s discussion into elaborations of historicity, materiality, use-value, and objectification with the caution that none necessarily precedes another in time or importance.

  Historicity  For Marx, historicity is central to realizing both personal potential and what he referred to as our ‘species-nature.’ For Marx, lived historical being is central to being fully human. In The German Ideology Marx asserted that novelty was the key to historicity. Without novelty, things are as they always were; with novelty tomorrow is different from yesterday, and so there is history. Of course, that is not all there is to it. Marx elaborated several inter-related conditions necessary to historicity. Marx observed that like all living beings, a significant portion of people’s life-activity was dedicated to producing what they need. He argued though, that in order to act historically, creativity must occur in the absence of physical need, that “man produces even when he is free of physical need and only truly produces therefrom.” Marx further stipulated that to be historic, creation requires self-reflection—it requires full consciousness. He referred to things created under those conditions as works.[11]

  Marx underlined this requirement in The Grundrisse. There he insisted that human labor in itself was not sufficient to historicity. He argued that when humans are made to produce without freedom and reflection they are essentially made “inactive”, i.e. if their labor is reduced to mindless effort, as “in the relations of slavery and serfdom” … people stand

not in relation whatsoever to the objective conditions of [their] labour; rather, labour itself, both in the form of the slave and in that of the serf, is classified as an inorganic condition of production along with other natural beings, such as cattle, as an accessory of the earth.

  Thus, production that occurs without consciousness and invention are not historical. Novelty, freedom, consciousness, and creation are engines of history.[12]

  Materiality.    Just as a concept so familiar as history takes on a highly particular meaning for Marx, so does materialism. It is important to remember that Marx’ life-work began in part as an ontological project, as a characterization of human existence. In that regard, Marx was interested in undoing the primacy of idealism (argued diversely by Descartes, Kant, and Hegel among others), and prioritizing material being. As Fracchia points out in his analysis of Marx’ German Ideology, in developing his materialist ontology Marx parted first from Hegel’s idealism and then from Feuerbach’s, though the second departure is more subtle. In accord with Feuerbach, Marx constructed all things as existing in material dialectic. He observed that all things, animate and inanimate, are partially constituted through their effect on others and the effect of others upon them. Humans are first and foremost sensually acting subjects, that is to say as agents who are in material interaction (or dialectic) with the objects and subjects of the world, with nature. Marx’ innovation here was his claim that historicity was not described first by abstract principles such as democracy and liberal economy as idealists maintained. Rather, historicity occurs in the realm of material being, production, and interaction.[13]

  In The German Ideology, Marx offers a succinct argument that ties historicity and materialism together in four concurrent conditions of life. He begins with the observation that the first concern of all life is the meeting of material needs for food, water, shelter, and clothing; i.e. essentially the subject of economy. In working to meet need, Marx asserted that people create matters that are useful to themselves and often to other people. He categorized all matters that are valuable to people as a result of human effort as “use-value.” Marx argued that among humans, that first material condition leads to a second historical condition. He wrote that “the satisfaction of the first need …leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act.” It is precisely through the conscious and free creation of novel and useful matters that humans are historical actors.[14]

  Marx continues with the observation that all of this can only happen in a certain mode of dialectic relationship. His third condition of human material historicity is that these novel gestures of recognizing and satisfying new needs are fundamentally social. In the Manuscripts of 1844 he argues the basis of material dialectic succinctly: no being or object exists of itself, that all matters are enmeshed in inter-relations, with each affecting (changing) and being affected by others. Marx observes that humans are no exception. In The German Ideology Marx explains that our essence lies in material relations with others, in what he calls ensembles of social relations. Marx uses the basic act of producing a family to illustrate the need for more than one person to work together with others. Indeed, Marx identifies cooperative social relation as the forth condition of human material historicity. Because the production of historical ‘objects’ requires freedom and reflection, he reasoned that historical materialism cannot exist amid exploitative relations because they inherently disallow freedom. Marx imagined that human societies were once characterized by a social division of labor which produced communal interests; from those co-operative relations, a certain social power arose; and he further specifies that any mode of co-operation is a “productive force.” Like exploitative relations, cooperative relations produce a political form that is also economic. For Marx, this ability to relate cooperatively, historically, and materially together distinguished humanity from other animals as social beings. For Marx, a cooperative political economy was essential to the realization of human species-being. This is in stark contrast to ‘great man’ and ‘state centered’ theories of history.[15]

  Objectification.    In The German Ideology, Marx called the material result of these free, conscious, and creative efforts ‘objectification.’ As Fracchia stresses, Marx’s use of objectification has not been fully appreciated. Marx defined objectification as human efforts which are historically affective, i.e. activities which usefully affect other subjects and objects in novel ways. The most familiar form of objectification is the one the Marxist tradition has focused upon and involves the creation of ‘things.’ In this mode of historically material action a person “appropriates the external world, sensuous nature” and produces a thing in which added human labor is congealed. The thing, in a sense, embodies or carries the life-activity (or value) expended in its creation. This mode of objectification is especially useful in Marxist analysis because it invites one to understand that commodities have complex histories and geographies which often entail various forms of exploitation (uncompensated taking of value). Though widely used in Marxist critiques of capitalism, Marx considered this to be only one mode of objectification.[16]

  Marx asserted that people produce two additional modes of objects: symbolic and relational. The term ‘object’ may seem strange in these instances unless one remembers that this discussion is part of Marx’s construction of a materialist and dialectic ontology. Objects, in this sense, describe ways that people, through their efforts, materially affect other people and their wider worlds in novel and useful ways.[17]

  Symbolic objects are the product of mental labor born of need to interact with other people. Language may be understood as a “practical consciousness that exists for other men” (i.e. other people), and because human life is irreducibly social, symbolic/semiotic objects (words, metaphors, similes, etc.) are vital to human life activity and its material historicity. Though Marx’s discussion of semiotic objectification is very brief, Gadamer provides a convincing and far more detailed discussion of how ideas and literature may function as historically affective objects. Literary works, for example, once they leave the hands of their authors may go on to change the thoughts and material practices of many other people.

  Marx observed that in seeking to meet existing and new needs, people also produce useful relational objects. Like semiotic “objects”, relational objectification does not necessarily involve reification, the production of physical things. Obligation, friendship, love, reciprocity, contracts, institutions, customs, rhizomes/connections/networks which involve two or more people are all examples of relational objects. Relational objects are understandings among people that motivate patterned and often cooperative behavior. Again, Marx’ discussion of relational objectification is brief. James Scott’s development of “moral economies” provides an elaboration of this sort of objectification, as do the literatures focused upon relational ontologies. Clearly, if one is willing to question liberalist assumptions of competitive atomism, the claim that people often do work to build social relations has recently seemed to be somewhat obvious. In that case, these relations are central and necessary to a fully human life. Objectification is the gesture of need and desire, and their satisfaction, which is always a social process. At its base, objectification may also be understood as the process of creating use-value, always with others.[18]

  So, history is humanity’s agency working cooperatively upon the world with novelty, freedom, and self-consciousness. In historical materialism Marx provides a counter to liberalist atomistic socio-ontologies. He imagines an ontology which is a priori social. Through cooperative and inventive labor, humans become historical in their production of novel use-values. New useful objects (things, meanings, relationships) are the material evidence of historicity. For Marx, that material historicity constitutes nothing less than the fulfillment of human species-nature, our historicity is central to our being fully human.

   Marx and Nature.     So where is nature in this schema? As several Green Marxist scholars have made clear, Marx appreciated the role of nature in human economy. Of human-nature relations Marx asserted that “nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous intercourse if he is not to die.” Elsewhere he wrote that “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values… as labour.” However, Marx qualifies these statements in two ways which illustrate his insistence upon human/nature binaries.[19]

  First, Marx understood nature to be largely an artifact of human historicity, to be what he called ‘dead labor’—value produced by people at some earlier time, available as value now, but not currently in circulation. For Marx, domesticated animals and agriculturally useful seeds are in fact “not only products of, say, last year’s labour, but the result of the gradual transformation continued through many generations under human control, and through the agency of human labour.” Thus, to Man “nature appears as his work and his reality…He contemplates himself in a world that he has created.” In this light, nature is a fetish of dead human labor. And, when people take up matters (dead labor in Marx’s terms) from this ‘second’ anthropogenic nature, they are also cooperating with others across time.[20]

  A second important qualification lay in Marx’s conceptualization of value. In the opening passages of Capital he explains that value lies in usefulness to humans. In support of that claim Marx cites Locke who wrote that: “The natural worth of anything consists in its fitness to supply the necessities or serve the conveniences of human life.” Thus, Marx explicitly excluded the possibility of value outside of human sensibilities. Nature, though productive of matters valued by humans, do not produce use-value, as he put it: “The original conditions of production . . . cannot themselves originally be products – [i.e. the] results of production;” and nature is never “directly given in a form adequate to the human being.” Labor, defined as “practical human activity”, is understood as necessary to produce use-value (italic added). Humans may value natural matters, but these matters are not “use-value” until acted upon by a human through labor.[21]

   In an argument that again echoes Locke, Marx characterizes “Nature’s production” as arising without prior claim. He writes that of the soil, fish, “water, timber which we fall in a virgin forest … all those things which labor merely separates from immediate connection with their environment, are objects of [human] labor spontaneously provided by nature.” On several occasions Marx refers to stores of soil wealth and natural fertility as “gifts”, value without previous claims to or need for compensation. In his discussion of those gifts, Marx is addressing what have become known as ecological or environmental services, the portion of biospheric activity produced largely by non-human beings and communities which humans value. For Marx, nature might be a source of value, but there is no value without humans/labor.[22]

  As Marx constructed a binary which exceptionalizes humans along an axis of ‘valuing,’ he draws another binary along the axis of historicity. In accord with the most progressive biological science of his time, Marx characterized non-human beings as governed by instincts which he characterized as unchanging and deterministic and so did not permit reflection, new needs, or historicity. As Marx exalted in the human ability to create works, he dismissed historicity among all other beings claiming that non-human sensibility could respond to and produce only “what it immediately needs” for itself or its young. As I explain below, this is a rather impoverished understanding of non-human life.[23]

  In the Green Marxist literature, Marx and especially Engels are famously interested in soil science and productivity, a quality now widely understood as an ‘ecosystem service.’ That engagement is important here for two reasons. First, it indicates that Marx and Engels sought to encompass new understandings of the non-human world and of eco-system services (i.e. free gifts of nature). It is also important because it provides a view into nineteenth century ecology, and into Marx and Engels’ understanding of non-human beings. While a few scientists argued that soils could be depleted of particular minerals, their prescription for tired soils was to import nutrients, whether that entails shipping Guano from Peruvian islands to England, or human waste from London to fields in Essex and Kent.[24]

  Soil scientists in Marx and Engels’ time did not understand the vital role of invertebrate and often microscopic life in creating and maintaining soils. In fact, topsoil that is self-reproducing, nutritionally rich, and resilient to disturbance, that is to say good is largely constituted by organic matter and typically hosts 250,000-400,000 organisms in each square meter. Those organisms digest (and themselves become) organic detritus. For plants, that digested ‘waste’ constitutes a rich nutritional resource. Good soils are made by non-human beings. Human beings cannot make good soils. If the living portion of soil communities is extirpated, people can mechanically and chemically produce and supplement the nutrients and qualities, the value previously produced by the life activity/labor of those billions of non-human beings. The living option is free. However, because it does not require the circulation of capital it does not directly generate ‘surplus-value’ (profits). The mechanical option allows an expansion of capital circulation and surplus-value accumulation. Thus, from the perspective of capital in a Marxist sense, industrially supported and sterile soils are more profitable than soils made rich by non-humans.

Section III: Historicity and Non-human beings

  Marx was keen to understand natural processes. He sought to include them in his theorization of historicity. And scientific understandings of non-human beings have changed vastly since Marx’s time. Given contemporary understandings of non-human beings, I suggest there is good reason to re-visit Marx’s categories of historicity and open them to non-human beings. In the following section I use Marx’s modes of objectification (works, semiotics, relationships) to illustrate ways in which non-human beings perform the essence of materialist historicity. I’m not convinced that Marx would mind.

   Objectification among non-human beings.    Consistent with his peers, Marx did not believe that non-human beings could engage in historicity or social relationships, i.e. in objectification. However, empirically based understandings of the capabilities of non-human beings have changed in ways that warrant a re-visitation of non-human beings’ ability to engage in object, symbolic, and relational modes of objectification, in historical being.

  Though scientists have only begun to look for the reflective creation of ‘things’ among non-human beings, numerous instances have been identified. Notably flexible and inventive tool construction and use is now recognized among numerous mammals and birds at the scale of populations, indicating a form of culture as well as on the scale of species, indicating a genetic ability. The life-activity of some non-human beings suggests aspects which Marx attributed to the exclusively human production of ‘works.’ Male satin bowerbirds, for example, begin building bowers at about six years of age and spend 2-3 months building a new bower each year. Behaviorist Gail Patricelli suggests that over the next three years the birds typically “improve” their technique and comments that “The funny thing is that you can tell, as a human, which are the good bowers. The ones that I like, the female bowers like too.” Such behavior is a performance of complex and reflective learning and suggests something like an aesthetic. Varying degrees of reflective awareness are evident in the production of things that other non-human beings produce in order to further their lives, and interests.[25]

Bower bird nests demonstrate variability in nonhuman works which clearly are not dictated by instinct.

Bower bird nests demonstrate variability in nonhuman works which clearly are not dictated by instinct.

bowerbirds 2

  Perhaps because beaver shape wider environments in notable ways, Marx commented specifically upon those large rodents. Consistent with the science of his time, Marx stated simply that beaver behavior is instinctual and so beaver life-activity is determined and beavers are thus incapable of historic (novel, reflective, cooperative) action. Beaver do indeed have one of the smallest brain-to-body mass ratios of all mammals; however, their behavior is far less determined, or instinctual, than once assumed. Indeed, beavers are not instinctually impelled to build dams. Researchers now understand dam building to be a complex skill which is learned during a two year long childhood/apprenticeship. This was made especially evident through intense beaver trapping in many areas in mid-millennia Eurasia. There, easily located dam-building beavers were almost completely extirpated by the nineteenth century. However, beavers with a ‘tradition’ of building camouflaged bank dens (typical of the homes that all beavers build their first year away from their family homes) survived. Today in Eurasia the ‘culture’ of dam building is nearly extinct and a bank burrowing culture has long dominated.

  American beaver are drawn ‘instinctually’ to the sound of running water. However, what they do once in its presence is contingent on many variables. Furthermore, like bees and spiders and so many other living beings, beavers perform varying degrees of flexibly in seeking optimal settings in order to maximize the benefit, or use-value, they receive from their effort. And like many non-human creatures, as beaver build dams and dens they reflect upon their efforts and craft structures that fulfill their needs. It is important to note that, contrary to popular interpretations of Darwinian selection, tools, nice bowers, and beaver dams and dens are not starvation responses. As any field biologist can attest, the widely circulated idea that scarcity is the first condition of nature, that non-human beings never fully satisfy their first needs and so are incapable of having second needs, is a fallacy.[26]

   Semiotic objectification.        For a very long time, western science measured intelligence in other species by their likeness to humans, the archetype for creating binary categories. Speech, the ability to engage in semiotic production, has long been used to dismiss ‘nature.’ Indeed, as mentioned above, environmental historian Asdal explicitly dismisses ‘nature’ as anything other than ‘given’ precisely because it cannot speak. Over the past forty years, though, some animal behavioralists have abandoned this binary, the belief that communication must look like human communication, and if it does not, then it is not really communication.[27]

Nonhuman language – prairie dogs –

  We now know that prairie dogs, for instance, have created some rather complex semiotic objects. Researchers have found that many species possess various abilities to communicate with each other. Many animals are capable of ‘call production specificity,’ i.e. they are able to produce sounds or signs that are very specific to context. However, as Marler et al. explain, researchers do not consider such symbols as fully ‘referentially specific’—as communication—unless hearers respond variously and predictably to calls. Gunnison’s prairie dogs produce different alarm calls for hawks, domesticated dogs, humans, and coyotes, and for the latter two categories they also communicate the size/shape and, within limits, the color of the interloper. In response, ‘hearing’ prairie dogs respond differentially and appropriately. Referential specificity has been documented among squirrels, tree squirrels, dwarf mongoose, vervet monkeys, and as work by Evans and Evans shows, even chickens. These calls are all examples of semiotic objectification among non-human beings. Clearly populations create novel objects, as with new calls for humans and domestic dogs.[i]

  Even less intelligible to human sensibilities, plants also engage in producing semiotic ‘objects’ intelligible within and even across species. Researchers in Colorado, for example, have observed that when attacked by beetles, certain potatoes emit volatile chemicals. Neighboring potato plants can receive those chemical signals and prepare to discourage and/or survive the beetles. More elegantly, native beetle-eating spiders have learned to interpret the potatoes’ signal as an invitation to come for a feast. Remarkably, these non-human beings established these communicative objects in the relatively short period that nouveau Americans have farmed potatoes in that area.[29]

  Beaver also produce intra and inter-specific semiotic objects. Very simply, beavers are rather famous for slapping their tails against the surface of their ponds to sound a warning. The result is a very loud and sharp report, audible at some distance both above water and through the water of their ponds. I have not identified any contemporary research published on beaver communication, but any dearth of understanding should go towards human unknowing, and not of beaver inability.

   Relational objectification.   Following Marx’s claim that ‘animals’ cannot enter “into any relation at all,” Marxist have, and continue to, construct a human/nature binary along the axis of social-ability. However, contemporary animal research provides contradictory evidence. Each of the semiotic objects discussed above imply the creation of relational objects. More elegant examples are also available. Conradt and Roper, for instance, have documented what appears to be the functional equivalent of ‘consensus based decision making’ among herding ungulates in Southern Africa. There herds’ ‘decisions’ to leave an area for an apparently pre-conceived other place (a water source for example) are often preceded by “specific body postures, ritualized movements, and specific vocalizations.” When a ‘sufficient’ number of individuals perform their ‘preference’, for example stand and face their desired destination, the entire herd stands and moves in that direction. In laboratory settings, several species of mammals and birds have exhibited quasi-social intra-specific behaviors such as deceit, symbolic economy causal reasoning (which implies awareness of past and future temporality), abstract group relations and theory of mind, and group cooperation, altruism, and sustained reciprocity. These are all indications of relational objectification. While the Marxist contention that no other species is social the way humans are seems tenable, it also seems ever more difficult to accept Marx’s claim that non-human beings are incapable of building relationships.[30]

  There are also examples of inter-community relational objects that have and will significantly affect human projects. As work by Baldwin shows, the beaches central to the national economy of Antigua in the West Indies are the creation of two co-adapted non-human communities. Inland from the beaches, inter-tidal mangrove communities produce low sediment and low nutrient water vital for healthy coral reefs. Reefs in turn scrub energy from ocean waves creating quiet depositional shore environments and are also the source of beach sediment. The beach in turn helps protect easily erodible mangrove soils. In Antigua, resort developers have destroyed the basin mangroves, and since the mid-1990s the beaches have been eroding as the reefs die. Similarly, on the Louisiana coast, wetlands living in cooperation with seagrass communities had infallibly protected New Orleans form hurricane storm surges prior the 1915. It was only after dams on the Missouri began to trap enough sediment to undermine those trans-ecological relationships in the delta that storm surges began to flood the Big Easy.[31]

  Like mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs, beaver also initiate new and unique relational objects each time they construct a dam. As beaver re-colonize American landscapes, people are learning that the effects of beavers’ life-activity vary considerably. Many people find beaver vexing because the landscape begins to do things against human design and desire. It is precisely because they are historical that the creations beaver produce with wider communities are unpredictable.[32]

  As discussed above, beaver dams and ponds create numerous novel hydrological and geomorphological processes and forms—they also invite novel biotic communities. Beaver ponds create environments preferred by aquatic plants such water lilies, duck potato, duck weed, water weed; terrestrial plants such as forbs, sedges, and grasses; and woody species such as aspen, willow, cottonwood, and alder. These are beavers’ preferred foods in order of preference. In a sense beaver cultivate the plants they find useful. They create the physical and biotic conditions preferred by the plants the use, and then harvest those plants. Willows actually increase biomass production in response to beaver forage. Baker et al. have shown that ponds also provide habitat for bird species such as wood ducks and herons, and numerous species of amphibians, many of which are currently threatened with extinction partially due to wetland habitat loss. If stable over time, ponds become eutrophic and slowly fill with biomass and trapped sediment. Eventually a damp ‘beaver meadow’ may form while an ever changing assemblage of plants and animals find rich opportunity in stored nutrients and moisture.[33]

Section IV: Environmental History, Restoration, and New Models

  So how might environmental histories populated by beaver contribute to stream modeling and restoration policy? Walter and Merritts offer a reconstruction of pre-disturbance Piedmont streams which is supported by sedimentological work by others. Their sample cores show that prior to Euro-American settlement, Piedmont streams carried relatively little sediment as they flowed through multiple channels. Those channel bottoms often flowed across ice-age era gravels which are highly porous and allowed sub-surface flows to spread across broad and biotically productive riparian areas. Stream deposited sediment layers were relatively thin (< 0.6 meter) and topped with a dark organic-rich soil layer. The authors do mention beaver, though they do not ascribe significant geomorphological influence to them.[34]

  For restoration purposes, the amount of sediment laying across American landscapes probably should not be moved. While the Elwha, Sandy, and Kennebec rivers very quickly re-established habitat and moved the sediment stored behind dams once they were removed, across the Piedmont, as much as 125 billion cubic meters of soil is currently stored behind milldams. (Across the tectonically active West, relatively high sediment loads are more normal.) Releasing that magnitude of stored sediment and nutrients to the intertidal areas of the Mid-Atlantic coast would choke those waterways in silt and algal over-growth. Beaver re-colonization of the Piedmont might offer a way to reproduce pre-1500 stream forms while leaving the Euro-American sediment in place.[35]

  I base this supposition upon observations made during field work in and around Price Creek in the southern Montana Rockies. There, within an elk exclosure, an area surrounded by a 12 foot fence erected to allow study of the natural response of a stream to removal of all ungulate grazing, a group of beaver managed to build two dams within 100 meters of each other between two survey years in 1994 and 1997. At the time of re-survey the beaver had been recreationally trapped/exterminated. Yet, even without beaver to maintain the dams, in late summer both dams maintained pools whose water surface levels were roughly even with the flood plain so that even a small increase in stream flow would cause the pond to spread across the terrace, spreading nutrients useful to plant life and further charging an already nearly full aquifer. The dams had trapped so much sediment that we were unable to locate a survey stake placed in 1994 at what was then the dry the edge of the flood plain. One dam was built at a natural nick point – a steep drop in the channel—resembling a breached Piedmont milldam. The beaver built a second dam above the first across a narrowing in the incised channel, an environment now typical of streams across the Piedmont (and the American West). If the Montana analog can be extended to Appalachia, beaver dams at breach sites and in mid-reach, would re-stabilize sediment, and re-introduce nourishing moisture across valley floors.[36]

  The capacity of beaver to stabilize Appalachian sediment is well documented. Where beaver have been allowed to re-colonize streams in the American West, landscape changes have been rapid and significant. Fouty identifies a number of studies that document new beaver dams changing streams from perennial to annual flows, causing new riparian areas of more than 8 hectares, and creating new wet meadows and new springs downstream—all within two years of re-colonization. In short, beaver could work to restore the hydrologies and habitats that thousands of species populations had adapted to, and at little financial cost. Beaver could also benefit human communities on wider eco-system scales.[37]

  Across the American West, winter snowpacks are diminishing. This matters because as winter snows in the Sierra, Cascades, Rockies, and other ranges melt in spring and summer, they provide vital summer stream flows in otherwise arid landscapes. To give some idea of potential water storage, beaver ponds store an average of six acre feet of water. In the 2,620 square mile Willamette National Forest in the Oregon Cascades there are currently four high dams. If beaver were to re-populate streams at historic levels, the resulting dams could store up to 157,000 acre feet of water, the equivalent of one additional high dam—and do so in a way that benefits indigenous and threatened salmonids rather than thwarting their existence.[38]

Page 27. Stream restoration in partnership with beaver. “Beaver dams help a stream to progress from an incised trench (a) to an aggraded channel (e–f) by creating a positive feedback loop that changes physical processes and vegetation to improve habitat for themselves and other species. “ From Pollock, Michael, Chris Jordan, Nick Bouwes, Joseph Wheaton, Carol Volk, Nicholas Weber, Jason Hall, and Josh Goldsmith. "Working with Beaver to Restore Salmon Habitat."

Page 27. Stream restoration in partnership with beaver. “Beaver dams help a stream to progress from an incised trench (a) to an aggraded channel (e–f) by creating a positive feedback loop that changes physical processes and vegetation to improve habitat for themselves and other species. “
From Pollock, Michael, Chris Jordan, Nick Bouwes, Joseph Wheaton, Carol Volk, Nicholas Weber, Jason Hall, and Josh Goldsmith. “Working with Beaver to Restore Salmon Habitat.”

  While beaver dams could help mitigate the effects of climate change, they could also help moderate the process. Because ponds are nutrient rich they become eutrophic, and as biota dies and decays anaerobically the ponds and meadows trap the carbon embodied therein. Similarly, the wetland soils around beaver ponds also work to sequester carbon. On a landscape scale, beaver ponds both moderate atmospheric carbon loading, and at local and watershed scales they mitigate increased seasonality. These biospheric relationships would, if allowed, respond in significant, novel, and historical ways to anthropogenic changes to Earth’s atmosphere and climate.[39]


  As Asdal suggests, we cannot study nature in the same way we study society. Humans are uniquely literate and create novelty at a rate that far outstrips non-human invention and adaptation. Unlike human histories, non-human histories are often most reliably archived in landscapes. As Histories by Foucault and Reiss suggest, the Modern mode of organizing knowledge employs frameworks based in difference, dichotomy, and binary.[40]

  However, those same histories also identify an eclipsed tradition of seeking likeness. What I sought to do here is to invite an opening of the category “historical” to examinations of likeness, between humans and nature. The above proposition is of course a thought experiment. The categories involved—human, non-human, nature, history—are all constructs, mental tools to help organize thinking. It seems a valid test of this proposition is to examine whether this perspective contributes to environmental history (and historical geographic) studies. In the case of understanding American streams, I think it does.

  Radkau suggests that “[a]n impartial environmental history …recounts the processes of organization, self-organization, and decay in hybrid human-nature combinations.” I would ask to go one step further and pay attention to what the world is doing while we are not looking, and perhaps to ask what does it/they mean to do? This last point finally makes visible an elephant that has been roaming about this room from the beginning. If non-human beings act historically, do they also act politically, with intent? Do they pursue what Plumwood called ‘projects’, as they pursue their own interests. That is an issue which invites on-going investigation, and empirical/historical investigation; and who better to examine this than environmental historians as geography seems to be turning its back once again upon nature.[41]


[1] E.S. Bernhardt, M.A. Palmer, J.D. Allan, G. Alexander, K. Barnas, S. Brooks, J. Carr, S. Clayton, C. Dahm, J. Follstad-Shah, D. Galat, S. Gloss, P. Goodwin, D. Hart, B. Hassett, R. Jenkinson, S. Katz, G. M. Kondolf, P. S. Lake, R. Lave, J. L. Meyer, T. K. O’Donnell, L. Pagano, B. Powell, E. Sudduth. ‘Ecology: Synthesizing U.S. River Restoration Efforts’. Science 308, 5722 (2005): 636 – 637. Robert C. Walter and Dorothy J. Merritts. ‘Mills natural streams and the legacy of water-powered mills’. Science 319 (2008): 299-304.

[2] L. B. Leopold and T. J. Maddock Jr.. The Hydraulic Geometry of Stream Channels and Some Physiographic Implications USGS Professional Paper 252, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC (1953).

  1. G. Wolman and L. B. Leopold. River Flood Plains: Some Observations on Their Formation. USGS Professional Paper 282-C, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC (1957): 87–107. J.E. Costa. ‘Effects of Agriculture on erosion and sedimentation in the Piedmont provide, Maryland’. Geological Society of America Bulletin 86 (1975): 1281-1286. Robert B. Jacobson and Derrick J. Colem. ‘Stratigraphy and recent evolution of Maryland Piedmont flood plains”. American Journal of Science 286 (1986): 617-637.

[3] Suzanne C. Fouty. Current and Historic Stream Channel Response to Changes in Cattle and Elk Grazing Pressure and Beaver Activity. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon (2003). On beaver population see: S. P. Shaw, and C. G. Fredine. Wetlands of the United States: their extent and value to waterfowl and other wildlife. USDI Fish and Wildlife Service, Circular 39 (1971); R.J. Naiman, C.A. Johnson and J.C. Kelley. ‘Alteration of North American streams by beaver’. BioScience 38, 11 (1988): 753-762; Bruce W. Baker and E. P. Hill. ‘Beaver (Castor canadensis),’ in Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Second Edition, G. A. Feldhamer, B.C. Thompson, and J.A. Chapman (editors). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press (2003), 288-310; and David R. Butler and George P. Malanson. ‘The geomorphic influences of beaver dams and failures of beaver dams’. Geomorphology 71 (2005): 48-60. Lewis, Meriwether. History of the expedition of Captain Lewis and Clark, 1804-5-6; reprinted from the edition of 1814. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co (1903); see also: Peter Skene Ogden. Snake Country Journals, 1824-25 and 1825-26. E.E. Rich and A.M. Johnson (editors). London, Hudson’s Bay Record Society (1950); Pattie, James O. The personal narrative of James O. Pattie of Kentucky: during an expedition from St. Louis, through the vast regions between that place and the Pacific Ocean, and thence back through the city of Mexico to Vera Cruz. Cincinnati : J.H. Wood (1831); and John Work. Fur brigade to the Bonaventura; John Work’s California expedition, 1832-1833, for the Hudson’s bay company, edited by Alice Bay Maloney from the original manuscript journal in the provincial archives of British Columbia; with a foreword by Herbert Eugene Bolton, and a hitherto unpublished letter of John Work from the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. San Francisco, California Historical Society (1945).

[4] Michael M. Pollock, Timothy J. Beechie, and Chris E. Jordan. ‘Geomorphic changes upstream of beaver dams in Bridge Creek, an incised stream channel in the interior Columbia River basin, eastern Oregon’. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 32 (2007): 1174–1185; see also Fouty, Current and Historic Stream Channel Response.

[5] Johan Varekamp. ‘The historic fur trade and climate change’. Eos 87, 52 (2006): 593-597. C. J. Westbrook, D. J. Cooper, and B. W. Baker. ‘Beaver dams and overbank floods influence groundwater–surface water interactions of a Rocky Mountain riparian area’. Water Resource Research 42 (2006): 1029-1042.

[6] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC (2005).

[7] J.R. McNeill. ‘Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history’. History and Theory 42 (2003):5-43; Paolo Squatriti. ‘Introduction’. Natures Past: The Environment and Human History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (2007); Donald Hughes. ‘Three dimensions of environmental history’. Environment and History 14 (2008): 319-30.

[8] McNeill, Observations, 14; Kirstin Asdal. ‘The problematic nature of nature: the post-constructivist challenge to environmental history’. History and Theory 42 (2003): 60-74, pages 61 and 73. Donna Haraway. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge (1991). Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1993). Theodore R. Schatzki. ‘Nature and technology in history’. History and Theory 42 (2003): 82-93, from 88; see also Brian Fey. ‘Environmental history: nature at work’. History and Theory 42, 4 (2003): 1-4. Sarah Whatmore. ‘Dissecting the autonomous self: hybrid cartographies for relational ethics’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15 (1997): 37-53; Sarah Whatmore. ‘Hybrid geographies: rethinking the ‘human’ in human geography’. Human geography Today, eds. Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre. Malden, MA: Blackwell (1999): 22-40; Sarah Whatmore. Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures, Spaces Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage (2002); and with Steve Hinchcliffe. ‘Living cities: towards a politics of conviviality’. Science as Culture 15, 2: 123-138 (2006).

[9] Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, trans. Thomas Dunlap. Washington D.C.: Cambridge (2008 [orig. 2002]), 5. On Binary constructions see: Robyn Longhurst, ‘(Dis)embodied geographies’. Progress in Human Geography 21, 4 (1997): 486-501; Elizebeth Grosz, Sexual Perversions: Three French Feminists. Sidney: Allen and Unwin (1989), xvi; Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell (1991), 250; Joseph Fracchia, ‘Dialectical itineraries’. History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 38, 2 (1999): 167-196.

[10] Ted Benton, ‘Marxism and natural limits: an ecological critique and reconstruction’. New Left Review 178 (1989): 51-81; James O’Connor, ‘Red Green Politics’. Capitalism, Nature, Society 2, 3 (1991): 1-12; John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York; Monthly Review Press (2000); and Burkett, Paul. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. New York; St. Martin’s Press (1999). Works by Joseph Fracchia: F Marx’s Aufhebung of Philosophy and the Foundations of Historical-Materialistic Science’. History and Theory 30, 2 (1991): 153-179; ‘Dialectical itineraries,’ 167-196; and ‘Beyond the Human-Nature Debate: Human Corporeal Organisation as the ‘First Fact’ of Historical Materialism’. Historical Materialism 13, 1 (2005): 33-62.

[11] Karl Marx: ‘The German Ideology’. Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton (1972d): 146-202; and ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’. Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton (1972c): 66-125, quote from 76; and Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. B. Fowkes. New York: Vintage (1976), on works, 284.

[12] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin (1973).

[13] Fracchia, Marx’s Aufhebung; Marx on embodiment, Manuscripts of 1844, 111. On idealist history: Francis Fukuyama, ‘The end of history’. The National Interest (Summer, 1989): 3-18; Alan Ryan, ‘After the End of History’. History Today 42, 10 (1992): 8-10.

[14] Marx, German Ideology, 155-157.

[15]Marx, Manuscripts of 1844, 114; German Ideology, 145, and 157-161.

[16] Fracchia: Marx’s Aufhebung, Dialectical itineraries, and Beyond the Human-Nature Debate. Marx, in Manuscripts of 1844, 72 and 71.

[17] Marx, The German Ideology; also Fracchia, Beyond the Human-Nature Debate.

[18] James Scott, 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press. On relational ontologies in geography see; Doreen Massey, ‘Power geometry and a progressive sense of place’. Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change, eds. J. Bird, B. Curtis, T. Putnam, G. Robertson, and L. Tickner. New York: Routledge (1993). David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell (1996).

[19] On nature and use-value in Marx: Foster, Marx’s Ecology; O’Connor, ‘Red Green Politic’; Benton, ‘Marxism and natural limits’. Marx, Manuscripts of 1844, 75; and Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’. Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton (1972b): 525.

[20] Marx, Manuscripts of 1844, 76. Marx, Capital, 287-288; also Scott Kirsch and Don Mitchell,. ‘The nature of things: dead labor, non-human actors, and the persistence of Marxism’. Antipode 36, 4 (2004): 687-705. Marx, Manuscripts of 1844, 76; also Brian Gareau, ‘We have never been human: agential nature, ANT, and Marxist political ecology’. Capitalism Nature Socialism 16, 4 (2005): 127-140. On second nature: Marx, Manuscripts of 1844, 86; also Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space. New York: Basil Blackwell (1984).

[21] Marx, Capital, 126, note 4. Marx on nature and use-value: Capital, 290; Manuscripts of 1844, 76. Quotes from Marx: Grundrisse, 489; Manuscripts of 1844, 116 and 74; see also Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, ‘Metabolism, energy, and entropy in Marx’s critique of political economy: beyond the Podlinsky myth’. Theory and Society 35, 1 (2006): 109-156.

[22] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. New York: Cambridge University Press (1988 [1689]), 25-50. Marx, Capital, 284. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Volume 2, trans. Renate Simpson. London: Lawrence and Wishart (1969), 95, and Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Volume 3, trans. Renate Simpson. London: Lawrence and Wishart (1972), 746.

[23] See Foster, Marx’s Ecology and Ted Benton, ‘Marx, Malthus and the greens: a reply to Paul Burkett’. Historical Materialism 8, 1 (2001): 309-331. Marx: Capital, 283; German Ideology, 156, and Manuscripts of 1844, 76.

[24] See Ted Benton, ‘Marx, Malthus and the greens: a reply to Paul Burkett’. Historical Materialism 8, 1 (2001): 309-331; Jason Moore, ‘The Modern World-System as environmental history? Ecology and the rise of capitalism’. Theory and Society 32, 3 (2003): 307-377; and Foster: Marx’s Ecology and ‘Marx’s theory of metabolic rift: classical foundations for environmental sociology’. American Journal of Sociology 105, 2 (1999): 366-405.

[25] On non-human culture: Jeff Baldwin, ‘The culture of nature through Mississippian geographies’. Ethics and the Environment 11, 2 (2006): 11-43; also Val Plumwood, ‘Nature as agency and the prospects for a progressive naturalism’. Capitalism Nature Socialism 12, 4 (2001): 3-32. Quote from Susan Milius, ‘Will Mr. Bowerbird fall for a robot?’ Science News 158 (2000), 23. For recent research on non-human tool use: on chimpanzees Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani. ‘Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt with Tools’. Current Biology 17, 5 (2007): 412-417; on orangutans Carel P.van Schaik, Marc Ancrenaz, Gwendolyn Borgen, Birute Galdikas, Cheryl D. Knott, Ian Singleton, Akira Suzuki, Sri Suci Utami, and Michelle Merrill. ‘Orangutan Cultures and the Evolution of Material Culture’. Science 299, 5603 (2003):102-105; on New Caledonian crows Gavin R. Hunt and Grey, Russell D. ‘Direct observations of pandanus-tool manufacture and use by a New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides)’. Animal Cognition 7, 2 (2004): 114-120; on female bottlenose dolphin and culture Janet Mann. ‘Behavioral development in wild bottlenose dolphin newborns’. Behavior 136, 5 (1999): 529-566, and   Julio Mercader, Julio, Melissa Panger, and C. Boesch. ‘Excavation of a chimpanzee stone tool site in the African rainforest’. Science 296, 5572 (2003): 1452-1455.

[26] Naiman, Alteration of North American Streams. Alice, Outwater, Water: A Natural History. New York: BasicBooks (1996), Chapter One.

[27] Asdal, ‘The problematic nature of nature’, 60.

[28] C.N. Slobodchikoff, Andrea Paseka, and Jennifer Verdolin. ‘Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors’. Animal Cognition 12 (2009): 435-439. P. Marler, C.S. Evans, and M.D. Hauser. ‘Animal signals: motivational, referential, or both?’ In Nonverbal Vocal Communication: Comparative and Developmental Approaches, H. Papousek, U Jurgen, and M. Papousek (editors). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1992). Judith Kiriazis and C.N. Slobodchikoff. ‘Perceptual specificity in the alarm calls of Gunnison’s prairie dogs’. Behavioural Processes 73 (2006): 29-35.

[29] Dennis O’Brien, ‘Plants may send SOS signals to one another’. Baltimore Sun (August 7, 2005). Jen Waters, ‘‘Minds’ of plants’. Washington Times (July 3, 2003). B.L. Bassler and R. Losick have documented the use of symbolic objects among single celled beings who ‘use’ chemical signals to ‘communicate’ their presence, detect the presence of others (alike and different), and to coordinate their activities (‘Bacterially speaking’. Cell 125 (2006): 237-246).

[30] Marx, German Ideology, 158—for elaboration see Ted Benton, Bumblebees: the Natural History and Identification of the Species Found in Britain. London: Collins (2006); and Burkett, Marx and Nature. Larissa Conradt and Tim Roper. ‘Group decision-making in animal’. Nature 421 (2003): 155. For discussion of: 1) Deceit: Nathan J. Emery and Nicola, S. Clayton. ‘The mentality of crows: convergent evolution of intelligence in corvids and apes’. Science 306, 5703 (2004): 1903 – 1907.2) Symbolic economy: M. Keith Chen, Venkat Lakshminarayanan, and Laurie R. Santos. ‘How Basic Are Behavioral Biases? Evidence from Capuchin Monkey Trading Behavior’. Journal of Political Economy 114 (2006): 517–537; 3) Causal reasoning: Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal. ‘Monkeys reject unequal pay’. Nature 425 (2003): 297-299; Nicola Clayton and Anthony Dickenson. ‘Rational rats’. Nature Neuroscience 9, 4 (2006): 472-474; 4) Abstract group relations and theory of mind: Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2007) and K. Holekamp, , A. Engh, K. Esch, L. Smale. ‘Mechanisms of maternal rank ‘inheritance’ in the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta’. Animal Behavior 60, 3 (2000): 323-332; and 5) group cooperation, altruism, and sustained reciprocity: Jeffrey R. Stevens, Cushman, and ­­Marc D. Hauser. ‘Evolving the psychological mechanisms for ­cooperation’. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 36 (2005): 499-518; and Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal. ‘Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (2002): 1-20. On non-human social relations: Ted Benton. Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights, and Social Justice. London; Verso (1993).

[31] Jeff Baldwin. ‘Tourism development, wetland degradation, and beach erosion in Antigua, West Indies’. Tourism Geographies 2, 2 (2000): 193-218. On New Orleans: Craig Colten. An Unnatural Metropolis: Wrestling New Orleans from Nature. Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press (2005); E. Stokstad. ‘Louisiana’s wetlands struggle for survival’. Science 310, 5752 (2005): 1264-1266; J. Kaspersen. ‘Taking the long view of Katrina’. Erosion Control 12, 7 (2005): 6.

[32] For discussion of reaction to re-colonization see: Cornelia Dean. ‘Return of the Once-Rare Beaver? Not in My Yard’. New York Times (June 9, 2009); and Mark C. McKinstry and Stanley H. Anderson. ‘Attitudes of Private- and Public-Land Managers in Wyoming, USA, Toward Beaver’. Environmental Management 23, 1 (1999): 95–101.

[33] On the natural history of beaver and ponds: R.J. Naiman, J. M. Mellilo, et al. ‘Ecosystem alteration of boreal forest streams by beaver (Castor canadensis).” Ecology 67, 5 (1986).: 1254-1269; Denney, R. N. A summary of North American Beaver Management: 1946-1948. Colorado Fish Game Dept. Rep. 28, Colorado Division of Wildlands (1952); and Baker and Hill, ‘Beaver’, 288-310.

[34] For further sedimentological evidence see Costa, ‘Effects of Agriculture’, 1281-1286.

[35] For discussion of habitat recovery following dam removal see respectively: National Park Service: Olympic. ‘Elwha Ecosystem Restoration’. Downloaded March 20, 2009:; National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics. ‘Marmot Dam Removal: Information Resource Center’. Updated October 26, 2007:; and Natural Resources Council of Maine. ‘Edwards Dam and Kennebec Restoration’. Downloaded July 12, 2009: On Sediment loading see: Butler and Malanson ‘The geomorphic influences of beaver dams’, 55. For past effects on coastal environments see Varekamp, ‘The historic fur trade and climate change’, 596.

[36] For complete quantitative report see Fouty, Current and Historic Stream Channel Response; see also Michael M. Pollock, Timothy J. Beechie, and Chris E. Jordan. ‘Geomorphic changes upstream of beaver dams in Bridge Creek, an incised stream channel in the interior Columbia River basin, eastern Oregon’. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 32 (2007): 1174–1185.

[37] Ibid., 168-169.

[38] On western snowpacks see: Alan Hamlet, Phillip Mote, Martin Clark, and Dennis Lettenmaier. ‘Effects of Temperature and Precipitation Variability on Snowpack Trends in the Western United States’. American Meteorological Society 18 (2005): 4545-4561; and Phillip Mote, Alan Hamlet, Martin Clark, and Dennis Lettenmaier, ‘Declining snowpack in Western North America’. American Meteorological Society –BAMS (January 2005): 39-49. On pond storage capacity see Westbrook et al., ‘Beaver dams and overbank floods’, 1029-1042. On salmon-beaver interaction see: Sean C. Mitchell and Richard A. Cunjak. ‘Stream flow, salmon and beaver dams: roles in the structuring of stream fish communities within an anadromous salmon dominated stream’. Journal of Animal Ecology 76 (2007): 1062–1074.; and Michael M. Pollock, George R. Pess, Timothy J. Beechie, and David Montgomery. ‘The Importance of Beaver Ponds to Coho Salmon Production in the Stillaguamish River Basin, Washington, USA’. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 24 (2004): 749–760.

[39] On carbon cycling and beaver ponds see: T.E. Ford and R. J. Naiman. ‘Alteration of carbon cycling by beaver: methane evasion rates from boreal forest streams and rivers’. Canadian Journal of Zoology 66 (1988): 529-533; Varekamp, ‘The historic fur trade and climate change’, 596; and R.J. Naiman, T. Manning, et al. ‘Beaver population fluctuations and tropospheric methane emissions in boreal wetlands’. Biogeochemistry 12 (1991): 1-15.

[40] Asdal, ‘The problematic nature of nature’, 64; Michel Foucault. The Order of Things: An Archeaology of the Human Sciences. New York, Random House (1970); and Timothy Reiss. The Discourse of Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1982).

[41] Radkau, Nature and Power, 4; Val Plumwood. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge (1993); and Kenneth Goodpaster. “On being morally considerable.” Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978): 308-325.



Jeff Baldwin is an Associate Professor of Geography at Sonoma State University. His research projects have explored various relationships between social systems and environmental communities. In Antigua, West Indies his research showed that tourist resorts were destroying coastal mangroves which in turn caused the degradation of offshore coral reefs and the subsequent erosion of the beaches the resorts so prized. A more philosophical project clarified the effects of US forced bank de-regulation in Southeast Asia which led to 10 million hectares of Indonesian forest burning in 1997-98 and a significant rise in Euro-American stock prices, all forms of wealth. More recent work has focused upon the promise of beaver re-colonization in the drought-stricken American West. Throughout, he has argued that nonhuman beings have their own agency, their own projects, and that we could increase human well-being by cultivating partnerships with our very active biospheric co-inhabitants.

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