A Natural History


By Alice Outwater

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An environmental engineer turned ecology writer relates the history of our waterways and her own growing understanding of what needs to be done to save this essential natural resource.

Water: A Natural History takes us back to the diaries of the first Western explorers; it moves from the reservoir to the modern toilet, from the grasslands of the Midwest to the Everglades of Florida, through the guts of a wastewater treatment plant and out to the waterways again. It shows how human-engineered dams, canals and farms replaced nature’s beaver dams, prairie dog tunnels, and buffalo wallows. Step by step, Outwater makes clear what should have always been obvious: while engineering can de-pollute water, only ecologically interacting systems can create healthy waterways.

Important reading for students of environmental studies, the heart of this history is a vision of our land and waterways as they once were, and a plan that can restore them to their former glory: a land of living streams, public lands with hundreds of millions of beaver-built wetlands, prairie dog towns that increase the amount of rainfall that percolates to the groundwater, and forests that feed their fallen trees to the sea.


Also by Alice Outwater:

The Cartoon Guide to the Environment (with Larry Gonick)





A Member of the Perseus Books Group

To Bob, without whose unfailing support and encouragement this book would never have been written, and to Sam, who cannot remember a time when his mom wasn’t working on Water.


This book would not exist without the help of Larry Gonick, the nonfiction cartoonist from whom I learned the art of deep research and terse writing during our work on The Cartoon Guide to the Environment. Vicky Bijur, my agent, showed me step by step how to make a real book; Susan Rabiner, my editor at Basic Books, helped me see what I had to do and never tormented me because of how long it took. Sara Lippincott, my editor in Pasadena, was like a good fairy: she rewove the book into whole cloth.

Thanks to Dr. Penny Chisholm at MIT, who startled me into being far more rigorous, for her review of the material on beavers; and to Dr. George Pinder at the University of Vermont, whose expertise in hydrology was of great assistance. Betty Howlett, of the Joslin Memorial Library in Waitsfield, Vermont, got some hard-to-find books for me, and the staff of the University of Vermont library was unfailingly helpful. Janet Brown provided daily encouragement, Johnny Summers and Charles Fallick kept me in good humor, and Lise Wexler checked my French translations. My sister Anne helped clarify for me the vision of the land that was; my sister Catherine reminded me of the importance of detail; my brother John provided engineering input and helped me think out the material.

Thanks to Dr. Richard M. Blaney of Brevard Community College, in Florida, for his information about estrogenic chemicals; to Donald L. Ferry, for his clips from cyberspace; to Lance Olsen, for his thoughts on forests; and to Reginald Rockwell, whose ideas about “new journalism” helped shape the last chapters.

Many thanks to my father, Dr. John O. Outwater, who has been integrating engineering concepts and the natural world for a lifetime, and to my mother, Dr. Alice D. Outwater, for keeping me close to beavers. And many thanks also to Elizabeth Stanton, who first encouraged me in this project six years ago, and to Anne Fried, my high school English teacher. I hope she doesn’t cringe at all the dashes.


In 1972, the United States passed the Clean Water Act in response to a crisis in national water quality. Its purpose was to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waterways: by 1985, the discharge of pollutants into the waterways was to cease, and all of the nation’s streams, rivers, and lakes were to be fishable and swimmable. Every city was required to build a secondary wastewater treatment plant, and every industry had to install the best available technology to reduce the discharge of pollutants into the waterways. In the years that followed, the stranglehold that wastes had on the nation s streams, rivers, and lakes was eased.

However, stringent discharge controls have not been enough to restore the nation’s waterways: a generation after the Clean Water Act was passed, about a third of the stream miles and lake acres in the United States are still polluted. Obviously, there is a great deal more that we need to do.

This book was born in the bowels of a Boston wastewater treatment plant. I have a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Vermont, and a master s degree in Technology and Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I concentrated on the ecological, chemical, political, and economic bases of water pollution. When my education was done, in 1987, I went to work on the $6 billion Boston Harbor Clean-Up, looking for land applications for sewage sludge, and there I learned that industries, nationwide, were no longer discharging very much of their wastes to the country’s wastewater systems. Because part of my job was to assess sludge quality, I had to track down where the contaminants in sludge were coming from, and in the course of this work I examined municipal sludge reports from all over the country. What I found was that the nation s industries had cleaned up their act. The chemical profile of most municipal sludge looks a lot like the soil and manure that grew your food, with a bunch of toilet paper thrown in. The sludge is smelly all right—but it has very low levels of chemical contaminants.

I had been trained to think about water pollution in terms of the end-of-the-pipe. But for each day that water spends in pipes, it spends perhaps a decade in the natural world. Water is the blood of land—always in motion, from the rain to the mountaintops, through the forests and plains to the sea, and so to the clouds again. And yet, on the North American continent, the natural water cycle has been changed in a number of ways. As a result, water is no longer able to clean itself naturally, and despite our best legislative efforts our waterways are still impaired.

By dredging, by damming, by channeling, by tampering with (and in some cases eliminating) the ecological niches where water cleans itself, we have simplified the pathways that water takes through the American landscape; and we have ended up with dirty water. What we can hope for is that by changing the way we manage our vast public lands—by restoring those elements of the natural world which made the water pristine in the pre-Columbian waterways—we can have clean water once again.



This story about American water begins, surprisingly, back in Europe during the Middle Ages, when peasants living in cramped quarters close to their animals were probably warmer than the rich in their drafty great halls. Fireplaces, the medieval equivalent of modern space heating, were so inefficient that to keep the winter s chill at bay the well-to-do slept under fur covers, put on fur-lined robes or tunics upon rising, and donned fur-lined cloaks before venturing outside. More furs were worn in the Middle Ages than at any time before or since.

By the end of the thirteenth century, furs had become so much a part of the wardrobe of the times that rich and poor alike wore them in all seasons. Kings and dukes owned as many as twenty or thirty garments lined in fine furs, and would dressin two and even three layers of fur-lined clothing. Records of royal wardrobe purchases by French and English kings list enormous numbers of skins for royal households; from 1285 to 1288, for example, King Edward I bought a hundred and twenty thousand squirrel pelts a year. But the market would have been quite small if only royalty wore furs. Even relatively humble citizens owned one or two robes lined in lambskin or cat which could be bought for a few shillings, or a few weeks’ work. In 1363, an English statute stipulated the furs that might be worn by each social class: hoi polloi were restricted to local skins—lamb, rabbit, cat, or fox—while the nobility, clerics, and richer citizens could wear ermine, lynx, sable, beaver, and fine Baltic squirrel.

Not surprisingly, trade in fine furs began early and became quite robust. Beginning in the ninth century A.D., Viking traders collected beaver, sable, and squirrel as tribute from the Finns and exchanged them in England for wheat, honey, wine, and cloth. Skins collected from southern Europe and North Africa appeared regularly at the Marseilles fur markets; those from Scandinavia and Russia were sold at Bruges; Spanish beaver was sold in London. So great was the demand for luxury furs that furriers—called skinners in medieval England—became politically powerful, socially prestigious merchants: the historian Elspeth Veale reports that their mercantile guild was powerful enough to set the length of time for an apprenticeship at fourteen years compared to the usual seven—an arrangement that made skinners among the most exclusive guilds of the merchant class. By the end of the 1300s, the fur business had become so successful and the market so insatiable that most of the wild European furbearing species were gone.

Initially, trappers simply moved deeper into the Russian interior. Complete records for pelts collected from northern and western Russia and shipped from Novgorod to England survive for two periods in the late 1300s: from July to September 1384, a total of 382,982 skins were imported from the Baltics, accounting for 97 percent of England’s total fur imports; from March through November 1390, 323,624 furs were imported, of which 96 percent were Russian. In the next two centuries, millions of Russian squirrel, beaver, marten, ermine, and sable pelts were bought by European skinners.

The beaver was in particularly high demand, for a number of reasons. First, its fur is uniquely suited to felting. The undercoat is much finer and denser than lambswool or rabbit hair, and the shaft of each slim hair is covered with tiny barbs that lock together to make the beaver waterproof. When this undercoat was shaved off the skin, pounded, stiffened, and rolled into felt for a hat, the tiny barbs on each individual hair linked the whole so securely that the hat kept its shape far longer than hats made from other furs. Second, the beaver could be used in its entirety. Castoreum, a glandular secretion that oils the beaver’s hair and is used to mark its domain, was highly sought after, both as a medicine and for use as a perfume base. Beaver flesh was preferred to that of game birds, and beaver tail was considered a great delicacy; moreover, because of the scales on its tail, beaver flesh could be eaten in lieu of fish during the Lenten season. And finally, since beavers build dams, stay by their pond, and take time to raise their kits, they are easily caught.

Beavers once lived throughout the European wilderness and the British Isles. As people pushed back the forests, and as furriers paid good money for beaver hides, the beavers began to disappear. Scotland’s beaver trade dried up by 1350, by which time a beaver pelt could cost up to a hundred and twenty times as much as a lambskin. By then, the Continental beaver was scarce: of 377,200 furs delivered to England from the Baltics in 1384, only 3,926 were beaver. The wardrobe records of France’s kings further reflect the devastation of the European beaver population. In eighteen months of 1387 and 1388, King Philippe and his brother were able to order 450 beaver hats for their personal use; the next year the King bought only 144 beaver hats for himself and his son; in 1390, his purchases of beaver hats fell to 62, and he filled out his wardrobe with felt hats made from black lambswool, marten, and rabbit. Year by year, the King of France was able to buy fewer and fewer beaver hats. After 1415, of an annual purchase of hundreds of hats, rarely more than a dozen were of beaver. All the evidence suggests that beaver hats were still prized and that the King’s diminishing purchases were not of his choosing. Indeed, beaver hats were so precious that they were often willed to heirs.

Such sixteenth-century innovations as glass windows, better chimneys, and the use of coal as fuel had made it warmer indoors, and fashion changed along with the interior temperature. Sumptuous fabrics and jewels supplanted many of the furs as prized possessions, and the trade in pelts declined. While the reprieve allowed relict European populations of many furbearing species to rebuild, the beaver was simply gone from most of the Continent. By the mid-1500s, only the remote reaches of Siberia and Scandinavia had ponds still abundant in beavers.

But the desire for beaver hats had become an imperative of fashion that scarcity could not destroy. Now, however, there was only one place on earth where millions upon millions of beavers still existed. All that remained was for the last stronghold of the beaver to be discovered.

When the Europeans landed in the New World, the Indians who greeted them were using flint knives, bone awls, and stone or skin kettles. European iron tools were so vastly superior to these Stone Age implements that as soon as the Indians became aware of their existence, they wanted them. Indian women especially welcomed the European technology: iron kettles, knives, awls, and hoes were clearly superior to their own tools, and the woven goods—blankets and coarse cloth—were pleasing alternatives to animal skins. Axes, guns, powder and shot, traps, and access to a market economy would soon change the lives of the men as well. The only product the Indians could exchange for the European goods they coveted were the coats of the animals that crowded the wilderness. And so, in a Faustian bargain of enormous reach—one that would eventually leave them without the means to earn a living and no way to return to the lives they had led before the arrival of the Europeans—the Indians turned wholeheartedly to the task of trapping the North American furbearers.

Beavers were the first to go. By the mid—1600s, beaver hats were once again plentiful in Europe and were being worn by both sexes. A gentleman’s attire included a black beaver hat adorned with an ostrich plume; men swept such hats from their heads when they bowed, with an elegant, practiced gesture. In 1638, Charles I of England decreed that “Nothing but beaver stuff or beaver wool shall be used in the making of hats.” Samuel Pepys noted in his diary in 1660 that his beaver hat cost -£4 5s. (more than a wig and less than a cloak), while a 1719 treatise by the Countess of Wilton describes a fashionable lady’s annual wardrobe as including “a beaver and feather for the forest,” at a cost of £3—the same price as a set of stays or English shoes. The high-crowned Spanish beaver hat was followed by the conical beaver of the Puritans, which was itself superseded by the broad-brimmed slouch hat of the Restoration, the plumed “shovel” hat of the French Revolution, and the flat-crowned clerical and three-cornered cocked hat that became standard headgear for men throughout the eighteenth century. Everyone wore hats, and the best of these were made from New World beaver.

The effects in Europe of the beaver trade were apparent, but the effects in the New World were far less obvious. In one sense, Europe’s insatiable demand for beaver hats did make a noticeable change, allowing the Native American to pass from the Stone Age to the Iron Age in a single bound. The Indians embraced the new tools and goods so quickly that only the earliest white visitors saw Indians in their original state. In 1620, the Pilgrims noted that the Indian villages of Cape Cod were stocked with European kettles and hatchets—presumably bought with beaver skins. “Nor could it be imagined,” wrote the colonial historian Edward Johnson in 1653, “that this Wilderness should turn a mart for Merchants in so short a space, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal coming hither for trade.” But in fact this is precisely what happened. Stretching over three hundred years, the North American fur trade would alter the physical landscape of the New World as no other trade has done before or since.

At the onset of the fur trade, ten good beavers—adult, winter-prime northern hides that were stretched and cured—bought the Indians one gun. One good beaver bought, variously, half a pound of powder, four pounds of shot, a hatchet, eight jack-knives, half a pound of beads, a good coat, or a pound of tobacco. “The beaver does everything perfectly well,” an Indian trapper told a Jesuit priest in 1657. “It makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread. In short, it makes everything. The English have no sense—they give us two knives for one beaver skin.”

Neither side understood that another exchange, far more deadly in nature, was simultaneously occurring. It is thought by many that Columbus brought syphilis—endemic in the Americas—back to Spain. What is known is that within a year of his return the disease had entered France. When the young French King Charles VIII led his army of thirty thousand men against Naples in 1494, the ranks were filled with soldiers hired from across Europe. In 1495, the unsuccessful campaign was over, and Charles’s mercenaries returned to their homelands with contagious genital lesions. A victim could be dead in two weeks of a pustular rash that ulcerated down to the bone, or survive for decades while the neurological ravages of the disease progressed from blindness to madness and death. Millions of Europeans died from syphilis in the 1500s, and the pandemic taught people of another time the hard-earned lesson that casual sex carried the threat of deadly disease. Syphilis eventually helped to transform the licentious Old World libertines into Puritans and Pilgrims. Across the Atlantic, an even more devastating calamity was unfolding, as European diseases emptied out Indian villages. Smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, influenza, and typhus entered the Americas and struck the immunologically unprepared Indians with terrible ferocity in wave upon wave of epidemics. Mortality rates in the initial onslaughts were rarely less than 80 or 90 percent of a village s population. Traditional healing practices were useless against the biological assault, and the Indians quickly learned that the only way to escape the new diseases was to abandon their villages and cast aside family and community ties.

The settled, populous agricultural tribes fared the worst: the people of villages attacked by a new pathogen often missed key stages in their annual subsistence cycle—corn planting, say, or the fall hunt—and were consequently weakened when the next infection arrived. Those who survived, wrote Robert Cushman, a contemporary chronicler, “have their courage much abated, and their countenance dejected, and they seem as a people afrighted.” To the Puritans, the epidemics were manifestly a sign of God’s providence, a way of making room for them in the new land. More than fifty of the earliest European settlements were sited near abandoned Indian villages, with the settlers appropriating Indian fields. “God hath hereby cleared our title to this place,” wrote Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in a letter to his friend, Sir Simond D’Ewes.

Left without any response to these plagues but flight, the Indians concluded that fur trading was their best hope for survival, a decision of great benefit to the Europeans. With the Indians doing the trapping, beaver skins became the coin with which the colonists paid off the debts incurred in establishing a colony, bought additional necessities from Europe, and ultimately acquired modest fortunes. Beaver skins bankrolled most of the early colonists, including the Pilgrims. Captain John Smith had arrived off New England in 1614 “to take Whales and make tryalls of a Myne of Gold and Copper. If those failed, Fish and Furres was then our refuge.” He found no gold and caught no whales, so devoted himself to fishing and trading for furs. As his men fished, he ranged up the coast with a small boat and crew and “got for trifles neer 1100 Bever skins, 100 Martins and neer as many Otters; and the most of them within a distance of 20 leagues.” It was Smith’s assessment of the likelihood of quick returns from the fish and fur trade that convinced a consortium of English merchants to finance a Pilgrim colony in the New World.

When these Pilgrims landed on the tip of Cape Cod in early November of 1620, they spent a month searching for the best spot to build a settlement. Previous voyages had described thriving Indian agricultural villages on Cape Cod and northward, with neat wigwams and well-kept fields of corn, squash, and beans. Instead, the Pilgrims found villages that were deserted but often held evidence of recent human occupation: fields of plant stubble, empty wigwams, caches, burial sites, and European tools. In some villages, skulls and bones were strewn about the ground, suggesting a plague so deadly that no one had survived to bury the corpses. Fields that the Indians no longer had the heart or the numbers to plant were lying fallow, and the Pilgrims happily moved in.

By the time Squanto wandered into their midst the next spring, over half of the Pilgrims themselves had died—not of plague but of malnutrition and too many bad colds. Squanto claimed to be the sole survivor of the Pawtuxet tribe, whose fields the Pilgrims had appropriated. He gave them corn and showed them how to plant it, and when the fields were tilled, the Pilgrims cast about for furs to send back to England to pay off their debt. Volunteering his services, Squanto guided the Pilgrims up to the present site of Boston harbor, on a “voyage to the Massachusetts.” They left their boat where Charlestown is now and walked in the direction of Medford, where they met some Indians decked in beaver skins. One member of the expeition reported that Squanto was impatient to “rifle the savage women” of their beaver coats, but the Pilgrims wisely insisted on fair trade. The women “sold their coats from their backs, and tied boughs about them, but with great shamefacedness (for indeed they are more modest than some of our English women are).”

The coats the Pilgrims bought were made of beaver taken in the winter, when the fur was prime. To make such coats, women would scrape the inner side of the pelts and rub them with marrow; each pelt would be trimmed into a rectangle, and from five to eight skins would be sewn together with moose sinews into robes that were worn with the fur side in. After fifteen to eighteen months of wear, the skins became well greased, pliable, and yellow, the fur downy, or cotonne, and ready for felting. In the early years of the beaver trade, the courtiers of Europe wore hats that were made from the used coats of North American Indians.

The Pilgrims filled their boat with a “good quantity of beaver” and promised to return later. True to their word, they returned the following March with Captain Miles Standish, and again they had a “good store of trade.” Plymouth Colony, with no large navigable rivers nearby, was poorly situated for extensive fur trade into the interior of New England, so the Pilgrims sailed up the coast to trade for furs and extended their fur-trading venture to Maine as early as 1625, bringing home, according to Plymouth Governor William Bradford, “seven hundred pounds of beaver besides some other furs.”

The first two shiploads of beaver skins sent to England were captured by pirates, but in 1628 a cargo worth £659 arrived safely, and the Plymouth fur trade grew rapidly. During the period 1631—1636, Governor Bradford estimated that the sales of beaver came to £10,000, a “great sume of money” for such a small colony as Plymouth.

The Plymouth traders were never without competitors in their quest for Maine beaver. In 1620, six or seven ships were trading for Maine furs, and four years later some forty ships from the west of England plied the Maine waters and stopped on shore, where local Indians brought the furs they had gathered during the winter. Many of the towns in Maine, including Augusta, Brunswick, and Portland, were founded as trading posts for beaver skins.

In the Connecticut River Valley, the English entrepreneur William Pynchon was granted a monopoly on the fur trade. By the mid 1670s, nearly a quarter of a million beaver had been shipped to London from the Connecticut River Valley alone, and there were no more beaver to be found in the area.

The Dutch monopolized much of the fur trade south of Cape Cod. In 1624, the Dutch West India Company sent four hundred beaver skins from New Amsterdam. Hudson beaver was plentiful, and tens of thousands of beaver skins were shipped out each year. In 1664 the British colonies captured the city, renamed it New York, and took over the beaver trade. Two decades later, the British complained that “this year . . . the revenue is much diminished, for in other years we used to ship off for England 35 or 40,000 beavers, besides peltry; this year only 9,000.” Beaver skins were the principal export of New York until 1700, when the trade ended abruptly. By that time, London had imported nearly two million beaver skins from New York. Since France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal were also trading for American beaver, the total number harvested must have been enormous. Beaver populations that had been stable for thousands of years were effectively exterminated along the American east coast by 1700.


On Sale
Aug 6, 2008
Page Count
224 pages
Basic Books

Alice Outwater

About the Author

Alice Outwater is an environmental engineer, a consultant in sludge management, and the coauthor, with Larry Gonick, of The Cartoon Guide to Environmental Science.

Learn more about this author