Three Colonies


100_2507A Canadian high presssure area with cool, fresh winds and brisk air from Ontario and beyond blows in from the northwest.  People tell me it is my imagination, but the invigorating air always lifts my spirits, and not just because of the cooler temperatures.  During my many trips to our northern neighbor I have discovered that not only is the air crisp, cool, and pollution free, but so are the majority of the inhabitants of this great nation.  In my travels I have never encountered friendlier and more helpful people.  The majority of Canadians seem more free spirited than we Americans.  Perhaps I am seeing their country through rose colored glasses.  After all, I am of Canadian descent.  My grandfather was a curious mix of French Canadian and Abenaki First American and came from a long line of horse thieves, but that is another story.


These high pressure areas yield bright, blue skies and fresh, cool winds.  It is doubtful that the temperature will get higher than 65 degrees.  I am very happy in brisk, cool weather.


On this morning I am about to take a short hike to a 30 acre beaver pond that I have been visiting for more than 35 years.  In recent years the beaver have built the dam higher and I am curious to see what the edge of the pond will reveal on this day.


It is a short drive to the pond.  My truck springs squeak as I find each and every pot hole in the dirt road.  On the way to the beaver pond I drive through a camping area where weekend tourists find their way to a small man-made pond to get away from the city.  It is too early for most of the campers to be up.  The travel trailers that are parked on the camping lots near the pond are quiet as I drive by.  The pond, which is the main feature of this camping area, is about 14 acres in size.  It has a small beach, a large dam, and is not very deep.  The sun easily penetrates the water to the bottom in most areas so aquatic vegetation would abound if it were not for the aquatic nuisance vegetation control that they use on the lake.  This, in reality, translates into using chemicals to kill the weeds so that it looks good for the tourists. 


I look ahead on the dirt road.  There is a little pull off spot on the left hand side.  Here I can park my small pickup truck and start my trek to the beaver pond.  After parking my truck I start off through the hardwood forest.  The trip in is slow as there are many, many trees and tree tops lying on the ground from last winter’s great ice storm.  I slowly navigate my way downhill, walking around some trees and climbing over others.  It is like some sort of puzzle through which I have to navigate to get to my prize.


On the way in I stop by a very large black cherry tree.  While surveying the best possible route ahead of me I lean against the tree with my hand.  I feel something crawling over my hand and realize that it is an ant.  I stare at the tree and see a whole line of ants, all taking the exact same route, towards the top of the tree.  Upon closer examination, there is another line of ants, all on exactly the same path, going down the tree about 10 inches away on the large trunk.


Ants are amongst the most fascinating creatures in our natural world.  One ant is not very smart, but a colony of ants borders on genius.  Dr. Deborah Gordon of Stanford University has been studying ants for years.  She compares an ant colony to the human brain; “A colony of ants is analogous to a brain where there are lots of neurons, each of which can only do something simple, but together the whole brain can think.”  She is comparing one ant to one neuron.  One ant can not function in any organized way just as one neuron cannot function in any organized way.  An entire colony of ants seems to function as one living organism with all the skills for surviving.  A group of neurons working together can do complex tasks, which certainly has helped the human climb to the top of the survival heap. 


Ants live in large colonies that are dominated by females.  The queen, usually a single fertile female capable of flying, is responsible for laying eggs and thereby continuing the colony.  There are also a few males whose only responsibility is to breed with the queen.  The males usually don’t last too long once they have served their only purpose.  The third type of ant in a colony are the infertile females, or working ants.  These ants make up most of the colony and are responsible for patrolling, foraging, nest maintenance, care taking of the premises, and nest defense.  One worker can fill several different roles depending upon the need of the colony.  A worker can be doing nest maintenance, switch over to foraging, and may be called to battle if intruders are located. 


Ant behavior is curious.  We know that they communicate by the use of chemicals.  For instance, pheromones are laid down by the ants that patrol for food so that the foragers can locate the food source.  Depending upon how much food is available, a few individuals, or nearly the entire colony can engage in harvesting the food.  How do they know when the they have collected enough food?  There is no one individual that has the task of organizing this.  Somehow the colony knows what needs to be done, how much there is to do, and what resources it will take to do it. Perhaps this “collective intelligence” is nothing more than one organism that is comprised of many individuals that are completely connected, in all ways, to provide for the good of the whole.  No doubt there is some trial and error involved, but such is life.


I watch the ants while I ponder all of this.  These ants are no doubt collecting nectar from the black cherry blossoms.  This is a short lived food supply, so it appears a good part of the colony is taking part in the harvest.


After a few minutes of watching the ants I regain consciousness and head towards the beaver pond.  As I get close to the edge I start to move very slowly and quietly.  Beavers are pretty sensitive to human encroachment.  Over the years they have learned to do many of their tasks at night so as to avoid disturbance primarily from humans. 


The lodge is located about 200 yards off shore.  As I look down the shore line I can see many trees in a near dead state.  The new leaflets are struggling to unfold, and the trees are severely stressed.  All of the root crowns are covered with water. There is no doubt that the water level has recently risen; evidence of a recently heightened beaver dam.  This expansion is flooding an area dominated by poplar and gray birch, both trees that are favored by beaver for winter forage.


As I look across the beaver pond I can see a small wake of water travelling from west to east.  Through my binoculars I can see a beavers head at the front of the wake.  The beaver is carrying a bunch of cattails in its mouth towards the lodge.  I wonder if the cattails are being introduced to the young kits as edible forage.


Beaver colonies are usually a single family.  The family is headed by a strong matriarch.  The family typically consists of mom, pop, and several kits.  These kits are usually sent off on their own during their second year.  Occasionally, in a large pond, they will build their own lodge and utilize the family territory.  More often they set out on their own seeking mates and new habitat for raising their own family.


We all know that beavers are natural engineers. They construct sturdy dams and lodges out of nothing more than mud, vegetation, and sticks.  These dams withstand torrential rains, heavy winds, and even an occasional hurricane.  It is beyond my comprehension as to how they know how to build such complex structures.  It is humbling to know that a beaver knows far more about dam construction than I do. 


I walk downstream along the south side of the beaver pond.  The edge is riddled with pointed poplar stumps; evidence of last years autumn forage.  Beavers topple trees by gnawing on the trunks and then trim off branches that contain the prized cambium under the bark.  These branches, along with shrub cuttings, are stuck in the mud, under the surface of the deep water, outside the entrance to their lodge.  They store enough of these to get through an entire winter when frozen ice limits their travels to underwater expeditions to and from the cache where food is brought to the lodge for the family.


As I approach the dam I try to be quiet.  There is no movement but I am hopeful of seeing a beaver either working on the dam or foraging from the colony of cattails that is along the edge of the deep water.  Seeing no movement I walk over to the top of the dam.  The surface of the dam is uneven; sticks, living shrubs, and debris caught during high waters decorate the structure.  If you look closely you can see a narrow, worn, path.  It is just the right size for a beaver, so I guess that the beaver use this for easy access when repairing the dam.  I stand there for a long time.  The cool breeze renews my spirit.  Birds sing in the distance.  A great blue heron flies overhead looking for a place to hunt for food. I am awestruck and feel as if I am the presence of a nearly perfect ecosystem and with this I begin the retreat back to my truck. 


As I pick my way back through the storm debris in the forest, I think about the beaver pond.  Beavers instinctively know how to create an environment that only suits their needs but provides habitat for countless other species.  From otter to turtle to dragonfly a beaver pond is the center of an ecosystem that benefits the natural world.  Although this system is not intentional, the beaver while trying to create a world where it can thrive and survive, provides the setting for an entire cast of other characters that plays out their lives in this beautiful wetland environment.  In my mind this computes to nearly a perfect equation.


As I drive back towards home I pass back through the camping area.  It is now 11 A.M. and the tourists are alive.  Teenagers loudly blast along the camp roads on their ATV’s.  One campsite lights off booming firecrackers and plays loud country western music that masks the quiet sounds of the pond habitat.  There are campfires everywhere and smoke fills the air. Perhaps it just my perspective, but no one seems to notice or appreciate the 14 acre pond where there is so much of the natural world to appreciate and learn from.


I look at all of this and I want to return to the beaver pond where the world makes sense to me.  If this is civilization I’d rather not be civilized. 


Written for in May 2009.

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