Sunday, June 12, 2011

Building Lives, Building Dams

There’s always a message or more for folks to take away from university convocations. And there were several Friday as hundreds of beaming young people gathered at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON to don gowns and make that important walk across the stage.

One message I got as I sat in the audience is the importance of continuing to discover and learn after leaving the campus. I wished deeply that every graduate, no matter what his or her discipline, will find opportunities to learn from Nature. There is no wiser teacher.
A couple of days before the Brock Convocation I went to one of Nature’s classrooms at the far end of the lake where I spend much time. There is a huge beaver dam there, at least 15 metres across and one and one-half metres high. It holds water back to flood a long narrow channel between two hills.
Beaver dams are engineering marvels, constructed stick by stick with trees, branches and dead wood gathered nearby. They are reinforced by mud pushed with paws and tails in an effort that reminds one of the Aztecs hauling stone blocks to build their temples. It all seems so impossible.
Ancient people no doubt learned much about dam building from the beaver.  But once they graduated, they stopped learning. Our modern dams, while producing important electricity, have created some monumental environmental disasters. They have killed the natural life patterns of much fish and wildlife. The W. A. C. Bennett dam in British Columbia killed the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the livelihoods of the native people there. Today, the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River is being blamed for creating one of the greatest downriver droughts in more than five decades.
Humans often see beaver dams as endangering their own engineering efforts, notably roads and railbeds and other things made for the convenience of mankind. Our provincial government still hires trappers to kill beaver along highways where their work might cause flooding.
Sometimes we forget that beaver dams often are the land’s best ecosystem. Beaver dams regulate water flow and create wetlands that filter and detoxify pollutants. We spend millions of dollars to restore wetlands we wiped out because we considered them just dirty, useless swamps on which we could not build things. Beavers are the maintenance crews of these wetlands and they work for free.
Flowers for a grad who worked like a beaver
 The beaver also teaches us about patience, perseverance and commitment to family. It toils tirelessly, almost always on the night shift, cutting, hauling, placing and packing to create ponds in which their offspring can live and learn about life and the world in relative safety from predators.  Sort of like our universities.

Congratulations spring graduates from Brock and the many other universities around the world. I hope you grab opportunities to learn from the beavers and Nature’s other professors.
Surgite! Press on!

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