Figure 1: A beaver on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.
Gift giving may be the most basic form of exchange, though hardly simple. In our hearts, we like to imagine that gifts are given with “no strings attached.” Of course, this is rarely the case. Instead, gift exchange is weighted by complex, rarely articulated social expectations. I am reminded of these expectations whenever I find myself staring at a distant relative’s wedding registry, calculating how much I should spend so I don’t appear uncaring or cheap. Yet, as anthropologists have shown us, a gift is more than a gift. Gifts circulate through practices of reciprocal obligation. When we give a gift, we get something back in return – whether it is an actual gift, social recognition, or just a good feeling. When we receive a gift, we are obliged to reciprocate in some way. I fret over distant relatives’ wedding registries because twenty years ago I received wedding gifts from relatives I barely knew. Gifts bind us to others and honor those obligations.
Here, I consider what I learned about our obligations to beavers, while participating in the Landscaping with Beavers Workshop, held at the Bamff Beaver Project on the Ramsay family estate in Perthshire, Scotland.
Figure 2: Beaver sculpture, with additional offerings by Laura Bissell, Laura Ogden and Jamie Lorimer.
Beavers transform their worlds by chewing, felling and dragging the trunks and branches of their favorite trees around. In their wake, they leave woody debris, often crafted into fantastic and awe-inspiring forms: hour-glass shaped stumps, curiously upright and balanced, though nearly gnawed through at the middle; pointy spears, honed to a sharp edge; horizontal logs marked by a tracery of teeth. In Scotland, while spending time at Bamff, I began to think of these forms as artistic offerings – a beaver’s version of a sculpture garden.
At the Bamff Beaver Project, I watched tourists photograph each other while standing in front of a fantastic example of beaver art (seen in figure 2). Watching the tourists, I was reminded of Paul Nadasdy’s brilliant essay entitled “The Gift in the Animal.” In it, Nadasdy asks us to take seriously widespread practices of animal-human reciprocity that occur within Indigenous North American hunting societies. In these societies, animals give themselves to hunters as gifts. In exchange, hunters are obliged to perform specific ritual practices. Anthropology’s theories of exchange, Nadasdy argues, have been limited by Euro-centric ontologies that treat the gift of the animal as an Indigenous “belief” rather than a social relationship bound by human-animal reciprocal obligations.
We are so used to viewing beavers as utilitarian workers, the epitome of industry (“busy as a beaver”). Yet, as a thought experiment, what happens if we think of beavers as artists and their statuary as gifts? Taking this a step farther: If beavers are gifting us their art, then what are our obligations to them?
This proposition, in part, led Laura Bissell, Jamie Lorimer and I to imagine ways of offering reciprocal gifts to Bamff’s beavers. Doing so forced us to consider what would please the beavers. Gift exchange, as a social practice, requires us to be empathetic and open to another’s needs and desires. One would never bring a copy of Moby Dick to a child’s birthday party, for example. What we know from beaver behavior and physiology led us to stage several edible offerings to the Bamff beavers. These beaver offerings had the feel of temple shrines, composed of fresh tree limbs, apples and flowers. We assembled the offerings along the river, with the hope that they would cheer and sustain the beavers as they travelled beyond their homes at the Ramsay estate.
We completed our beaver offerings on the last evening at Bamff. The next morning, knowing our time together was ending, we awoke and wandered off to the river as a group. As we walked, I was nervous to discover if the beavers had accepted our gifts. It turns out, most of the offerings remained undisturbed, like gifts that didn’t quite hit their mark. Then, a sweet surprise at our last offering. This one, which Jamie built, was composed of several bendable sticks, like child-sized fishing rods, that arched toward the river bank. At the end of each stick, Jamie affixed a piece of apple (figure 3). Beavers love apples! It would be hard to overestimate the giddy joy I felt when we figured out that a beaver had nibbled on the sticks and apples. This was a little success, a bright moment of multispecies reciprocity. And that joy was the real gift in the beaver.