Beavers in the Bronx

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

Lester A. Knibbs aka Doctor Hakeem

When I was 12 and a half, our family moved to the Bronx. It was June of 1958. I was thrilled to get out of Harlem.

One of the joys of my new environment was taking long walks along the Bronx River, which ran through Bronx Park, little more than half a mile from our home. I lived, in various locations, no more than a mile or so from that river, from 1958 to 1964 and from 1980 to 2003. From 1995 to 1999, I lived less than a five-minute walk from the river — seeing it or crossing it most times I left home or came back.

As it threads its way through the Bronx, the Bronx River is a small stream — barely ten or 15 feet wide as it passes under Gun Hill Road — and, seemingly, not more than a few feet deep. From time to time, I watched ducks swimming in the river and resting on its grassy banks. In later years — between 1995 and 1999 — Geese began to frequent the riverbank just north of Gun Hill Road. It is wise to avoid geese — not only because they are aggressive creatures (come near their young, and they will kill you) — but also because they litter the ground with big nasty turds. But they are quite pleasant to watch — from a distance. (In contrast, along a small, swiftly moving brook in Munich, Germany, a mother duck with two ducklings rested for a while, hardly more than five feet from where I was sitting, on their journey downstream.)

There are only two rivers passing along or through New York City — the Bronx River and the Hutchinson River, both in the Bronx. (The Hutchinson River is named after Anne Hutchinson, who settled along the east bank of the river, and who was killed along with her entire family, except one surviving daughter, when the people whose land she and the other Europeans had settled on were slaughtered during the war initiated in 1643 by the Dutch colonial governor — against the advice of his own council. In response to being attacked, the Siwanoy people and the other Algonquian peoples of the area formed a united front against the Dutch, who had invaded their lands and slaughtered their people. All of us who live here, from Alaska in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south, however our ancestors arrived, need to ponder the sad legacy we have inherited. “Ten Little Indians,” like its n-word variant, is not, as it seems, a happy little children’s song; it is an actual historical remnant of the slaughter of the original residents of what became my home, the Bronx.) New Yorkers believe that the Hudson River, the Harlem River, and the East River are actual Rivers; they are not. They are tidal estuaries — long narrow bays affected by oceanic tides. The upper reaches of that body of water called the “Hudson River” — over 100 miles from the ocean — are an actual river, flowing downhill from the Adirondack Mountains.

I remember seeing, when I was a teenager, what looked like remnants of beaver dams in the Bronx River — either floating or, more often, snagged on something on the bottom or side of the river. I may have even seen a beaver lodge or two. If all I saw were remnants swept downstream by the current, then perhaps the beavers themselves were residents of Westchester County, north of the Bronx, and not residents of the Bronx itself. According to Wikipedia, the first resident beaver in 200 years made its home along the Bronx River in 2007, after having lived at the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens (both fairly large institutions located within Bronx Park and along the Bronx River). I am convinced that naturalists often miss things, and that there were probably a few beavers living along the Bronx River in the 1960s and during many earlier decades.

The beavers were all but exterminated for their fur during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a young man — in my late teens and early 20s — I remember being the proud owner of a beaver-felt fedora, with a little feather in the sweatband. The beavers were probably also driven away by pollution.

The return of “José”, named after Representative José Serrano from the Bronx, has been seen as evidence that efforts to restore the river have been successful. (Wikipedia)

According to the Census Bureau, the Bronx is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. At the same time, the population of the Bronx is more than half Hispanic. At the time our family moved to the Bronx, European-Americans (“white people”) constituted over 70 percent of the population. As of 2013, white Americans were barely more than ten percent of the population. Politically, this has caused a changing of the guard. And, as best I can tell, it has been for the better. The previous office-holders seemed to be sitting on their butts, while the environment was polluted and residential streets went badly paved and much-needed traffic lights were absent. Once Hispanic leaders were elected, things changed. In my old neighborhood, the streets became properly paved and many new traffic lights were installed. The Bronx River was cleaned up — to such an extent that, as part of an annual Bronx celebration, there are kayak races in the river. (I am proud to have as my personal friends some of the activists who brought about these developments.)

And so, officially at least, José the beaver represents the return of the beaver to the Bronx River, and symbolizes the wonderful effects of a fresh ethnic group on our American society, just as the several groups of immigrants — Irish, Italians, Jews, and others — have enriched and enlivened this land in previous generations. And beavers are wonderful creatures — good for the environment, good for the trees (except the ones that die), good for birds (some making their nests on beaver lodges), good for the fish, and good for the landscape.

And, by the way, the borough (and county) of the Bronx is named after the Bronx River, not the other way around.

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