'The Beavers of Popple's Pond'


WEST BRATTLEBORO -- Apparently, the way to a beaver's heart is through its stomach.

Armed with a supply of poplar, a favorite food of beavers, Patti A. Smith showed up at Popple's Pond one night six or seven years ago, inspired to get to know the beavers who lived there.

Put at ease by her calm approach and drawn to the poplar she brought, the beavers took her in.

"They decided I was non-threatening, which I consider to be an honor," said Smith. "We would enjoy the evenings by the pond together.

In the intervening years, Smith has gotten to know several generations of beavers who build their dams and live their lives in the area near her home. She has chronicled their doings, their triumphs and tragedies in many of the "View from Heifer Hill" columns she writes monthly in the Reformer.

Now, Smith has turned those stories into a book, "The Beavers of Popple's Pond," published by Green Writers Press, a Brattleboro-based company whose mission is to give voice to artists and writers who will make the world a better place, and to publish their work in the sustainable, eco-friendly ways.

On Thursday, Next Stage Arts Project hosts a book release party at 7 p.m., at Next Stage in Putney, featuring Smith, Vermont poet Leland Kinsey, whose book, "Winter Ready," is also being published by Green Writers Press, and publisher Dede Cummings.

Audiences will also get a chance to get to know the beaver Willow, several members of her extended Popple's Pond family, and many of the other creatures whom Smith has gotten to know during her years as a naturalist and sensitive nature writer.

"People think it must take great patience to sit by a pond, but there's always so much to watch and listen to and wonder about. Questions arise," said Smith, who explained she was inspired to get to know the beavers there after reading the book "Beaversprite" by Dorothy Richards, who built a sanctuary for beavers in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.

"I never realized how fascinating and interesting beavers are," said Smith. "We like to think of beavers as being very busy, but that's seasonal."

In the spring, they certainly are busy, rebuilding their dams, socializing, scent-marking and mating, after a winter spent mostly hunkered down in darkness. This winter was different, as two of the beaver families saw their dams go out and had to scramble to make repairs.

"It doesn't take them long. It's amazing to me how much little rodents with stubby little hands can do," said Smith.

In the summer, beavers like to do what we wish we could do -- laze around.

Smith's book not only chronicles the beavers, it also introduces readers to representatives of most of the other mammal species native to the area. Beaver ponds are magnets for all kinds of creatures. The book gives us Terrible Jack, the lonely moose; Henri, the civilized goose; and the myriad small creatures that populate the night forest. Follow the trail of a bear cub through the moonlight, enter the low-roofed world of the snowshoe hare, or stand in the midst of a mêlée of flying squirrels.

Readers will experience the beaver community's joy of the birth of beaver kits -- "the arrival of new babies is always exciting," she said -- and the sorrow when some of those kits inevitably don't make it adulthood -- "the whole family acts distressed."

Mostly she hopes to convey a sense of the pleasure of sitting by a pond in the quiet of an evening and making a deep connection to the natural world.

"I would encourage anyone to do it. I think there will be a world of beaver-addicts and pond-sitters if only people will give it a try," she said. "It could be part of restoring the earth if people can have those kinds of experiences."

A word of caution: While Smith's experience with beavers has been rewarding, she urges people to be cautious when interacting with animals; beavers are good candidates because they are social and rooted to their homes. Smith has had the same good fortune with porcupines, as readers of her columns about Fretful will recognize. But wild animals are wild animals.

"The animals' welfare has got to be put above your personal interest in making friends," said Smith.

Smith said readers of her columns will recognize most of the creatures and the stories. For those who haven't read her column, "The Beavers of Popple's Pond" is a chance to get to know the work of a writer described by ecology author Janisse Ray as "a shining wonderment."

"I'm sure everyone who ever writes a column has people who come up to them and say 'You should write a book,'" said Smith, who was skeptical anyone would ever buy such a book.

Then, fate intervened.

"Dede (Cummings) approached me in a stairwell and said 'I'm going to publish your book,' and I said, 'Really?'" Smith recalled. "I think Dede did a lovely job with it."

"The Beavers of Popple's Pond" is the work of a life-long naturalist. Smith grew up in West Brattleboro and Guilford and spent much of her formative years outside in the woods.

"I just always felt like the woods were an extension of home. ... I was always just fascinated by the lives of wild creatures," she said.

She is currently a naturalist for the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center and has devoted a lot of time to rehabilitating injured and orphaned animals. While talking about her book Monday, Smith also had her hands full, hand-feeding baby squirrels she is caring for. Right now, she has 12 in her care.

Like many of us, Smith is deeply concerned about the state of the environment, but she opted to give her book a different focus.

"I kind of left most of the bad news out of the book, with the intention of it serving as a restorative," said Smith. "It's so easy to forget what a mess the world is in when you live in Vermont."

Still, "The Beavers of Popple's Pond" might awaken, from a place of love, deeper commitment to stewardship.

Citing studies that indicate that Vermont will be susceptible to development pressures in the coming decades, Smith said that balancing development against preserving habitat and wildness remains a key issue.

"I think an important thing that people can do around here is be advocates for good land use policy," she said.

The national release date for "The Beavers of Popple's Pond" is May 12, but pre-release copies will be available at Thursday's event.

Also on hand Thursday is seventh-generation Vermonter and poet Leland Kinsey, whose book, "Winter Ready," his seventh collection of poems, is also set for national release from Green Writers Press on May 12. "Winter Ready" is a 96-page collection of new poems drawn from Kinsey's observations and the physical landscape of the Northeast Kingdom which contain universal meaning and, at times, a painful acuity.

Thursday's event is a benefit for Next Stage. Donations of $10 will be accepted at the door.

For more information on Green Writers Press, visit www.greenwriterspress.com or call 802-380-1121.


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