Ma first took up watching the beavers to cope with Ba’s passing ten years ago. Just a few months after he died, she discovered a family of them right next to the Walmart parking lot, where a stream of water flowed down into town from the canyon. The beavers turned that unremarkable spot into a calm pond with duckweed, cattails, and tall yellow grasses that attracted birds and other wildlife. Around dusk, you could see them leaving their lodge to nibble on the brush, and their little kits, small and cute like sandwich bread, glided around in the water. The beaver colony started to amass a following—Ma and other naturalists in the area excited for a new spectacle. Unfortunately, after a couple of years, the Fish and Wildlife Service undid the beavers’ dam and forced them to relocate. They’d gotten too ambitious with their building and started to flood the road.
After that first encounter, Ma obsessed over finding more beavers in the area. It was too bad, Ma had said, that beavers couldn’t outbuild humans, that humans always won. It wasn’t a fair fight. Following the flow of water from the alpine lake at the top of the mountain down through the canyon, she discovered many more beaver habitats and kept track of them, frequently hiking up the canyon after an early dinner during the warmer months. Even in the winter, she dragged me out to look for the beavers. We walked up to their homes and rested our ears against the cold tops of them, trying to hear their movements as if listening to a chest for a heartbeat. Sometimes, we saw the white steam of their exhalations through tiny gaps in their lodges. Over time, Ma became the amateur beaver expert in town. She was even cited in a few scientific papers, a fact she was proud of. “Where there is willow,” she said, tapping the side of her head, “there is beaver.”
Because of Ba’s job at the satellite university, I grew up in a small town called Magnus at the mouth of a canyon in Utah. Ma worked as an accountant at the hospital. She didn’t get along with her boss, a squat lady named Norma with curly silver hair, who wore silk scarves collected from various vacations. “She thinks they’re from different places,” Ma said, “but they are all from China.” Norma didn’t trust Ma with anything even though Ma was great with numbers. In Magnus, Ma felt self-conscious and never really made her own friends. She complained that the people of Magnus were nice in words but not in action. They said We should have you over some time, or, Let’s hang out soon, without ever asking for her phone number or bringing it up again. “It’s not what you say but what you do that counts,” she lectured me, as if afraid I’d become like them. Ba was different. He was outgoing and earnest: chatting with cashiers, inviting his colleagues to our house and refusing no for an answer, throwing parties for his students. He forced people to see him. Ba told Ma to stop being so sensitive, but I understood what she meant. Magnus left something to be desired, so I fled as soon as I could for a bigger city.
Ba died of pancreatic cancer the summer after I graduated from architecture school. I’d gotten a job in Las Vegas and postponed my start date to be with Ma through the fall. Ba was pretty much all Ma had for company in Magnus. I planned for Ma to move with me to Las Vegas, but that was all before the beaver sightings. For Ma, it was seeing the beavers, moving so vulnerably in the open water and working hard at the crepuscular hour, that finally gave her that spark of companionship she craved.
“Maybe your Ba was reincarnated as a beaver,” Ma once said, “and that is why I watch them so much.” Ma said watch instead of love, but I knew what she meant. When it came time for me to move to Las Vegas, I asked Ma one last time to come with me. She said no. In her mind, the beavers were a reason to stay, to give Magnus one last chance. I thought that feeling would fade, but it didn’t.
Two years ago, while I was in the backyard of a client’s mansion inspecting a newly completed waterfall feature, Ma called. “The Gilroy property next door finally went up for sale,” she said. I heard excitement in her voice.
“About time,” I said and took a seat underneath a palm tree to escape the baking Vegas sun.
Old Man Gilroy, who lived alone on the acreage just downhill of our house in Magnus, had been on his deathbed since the day I met him. I heard that in the heyday of his farm, he raised chickens and prize-winning hogs and tended a big pick-your-own fruit tree orchard and vegetable garden. As a teenager, I helped him out on his farm for extra spending money. By then, it was already deteriorating. When I came over, Old Man Gilroy was happy to have someone around to hear his complaints: It was either too hot or too cold for his extremities, his heart gave him trouble, there was too much work to do. Living, in general, was a pain in his ass. Eventually, he stopped going out altogether, so I delivered his groceries. I imagined that someone had once sandpapered away the sharp edges of his cantankerousness. The clues were in the small touches to the inside of his home—flowery teacups, lace curtains over the windows, and tastefully painted accent walls—but I never asked about that.
Every time I delivered Old Man Gilroy his groceries, he talked to me as if it would be the last time, handing me envelopes of money for college with solemn finality. When I left Magnus, Ma continued to deliver his groceries in my stead and updated me on the state of his property. He sold his animals and became totally reclusive. The fruit on his trees grew ripe and rotted. Weeds took over his barn, which was in danger of collapsing at any moment. His farm slowly turned into a junkyard, littered with corrugated metal, 2×4s, old cars and car parts, and bags of recycling. He really let the place go.
Ma called me excitedly when she saw the first signs of beaver activity on Old Man Gilroy’s property, flooding a section of his private road. His neglect was a beaver colony’s gain. “They were so close by!” Ma exclaimed. She watched them change the property in one season, speeding up its dilapidation. Old Man Gilroy didn’t care. He stopped leaving the house until he died at the ripe old age of 87.
“You’re not thinking of buying that dump, are you?” I asked.
“I already did,” Ma said. “I bought it as it was, junk and all. I got a good deal.”
“What are you going to do with all that junk?” I asked. It horrified me that cranky Old Man Gilroy’s world was now ours.
“I want to flood it,” she said. She told me her plans to turn it into a refuge she called Beaverland. She wanted to reuse Old Man Gilroy’s things to build her own human-sized beaver lodge.
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
“I just want to know if it’s possible,” she said, “from an architect’s perspective.”
“Well, anything is possible these days,” I said.
“Come back and build it,” she said. “I want to put Beaverland on the map. This place will be as famous as Falling Waters.”
I’d been in the Las Vegas landscape architecture business for eight years by then. I designed elaborate backyard desert oases for the wealthy. It was absurd how much people spent on their pools. They wanted decorative tiles from Greece and the Middle East, elaborate waterfalls and water slides, fire features, palm trees, and island bars. They came to me with their fantasies, and I made them come true. One client, a diving aficionado, wanted a deep saltwater pool full of tropical fish and a watertight room of breathable air at the bottom, Just like my time in Vanuatu. Another client, a retired actress, wanted her pool to be in the shape of her face when she was young and beautiful so that people could see it from a plane. I’d never planned to be in the pool business, but the work kept coming.
Because Ma pressed and pressed, I drove back to Magnus to help her with Beaverland. I took the road home that followed a river. It was early summer and lush and wet. I could make out patches of willow and the signs of a beaver settlement: a pond with a dam and lodges made of mud and sticks, as obvious as houses. I pulled over to see the structures better and studied what the beavers had built. At the start of the pond, there was a gentle, cascading stream—shaped by the construction of tiered dams plugged up with mud and branches. Above the calm surface of the pond, three beaver lodges stood firmly in the water, indicating that many generations of beavers were here, reinforcing what their ancestors had built. The other end of the pond was like the vanishing edge of an infinity pool. The dam that made this possible was center-stage for the artistry of the beaver. The mud bank was fifty feet long. Timber pieces that had been chewed down to similar lengths had been set in the mud in a crisscrossing pattern, spanning the entire bank. As I studied these beaver constructions, they seemed like the obvious inspiration for the wattle and daub technique in human architecture, where the walls of a home were made by weaving sticks together in a frame and filling the gaps with mud and clay.
When I arrived, Ma showed me the old Gilroy property. It was almost unrecognizable. His old farmhouse was now partially underwater. The beavers had already done significant work. A stream that once trickled through the property had become a wetland pond. The beaver lodge that stood on the water was composed of various building materials both from the trees nearby and from Old Man Gilroy’s piles of junk. Everything was up for grabs. Ma wanted to emulate the beavers. She wanted her own small pond and lodge.
After we planned Beaverland, construction began. The dams came first. We scavenged everything we could from Old Man Gilroy’s things, deconstructing his sagging barn and reusing the wood. When the dams were done, and a small pond had been established, we dug the watertight tunnel so that Ma could enter her lodge from underwater as a beaver would. When that was done, we used removable scaffolding to build the dome-like structure of the lodge atop a floating platform. To build the walls, we wove panels of sticks together and filled the gaps with mud and grass and anything else we could find. Parts of Ma’s lodge were wood and mud, and other parts were glass and plastic and metal, colorful and gleaming. We left room for a large picture window so that Ma could see out.
Ma wanted a simple lodge and eschewed most of her furniture and appliances for the bare minimum: desk, lamp, bed, radio, telephone, and a small plug-in stovetop for preparing meals. We installed a water catchment system, a compost toilet, and an outdoor shower near the lodge. In between construction, Ma and I planted willows all along the property. The beavers needed building materials, and so did Ma.
“There will be plenty of maintenance work,” I told Ma. “The daub will crack over time. Rain will erode it some. You’ll have to keep applying.”
As we worked on Beaverland over two seasons, one summer to finish the lodge and another to do the little things like installing cabinets and shelving and solar, I noticed that something started to change in Ma. Over this time, she looked more unkempt, letting her old rituals go. She no longer performed her morning routine: lotioning and moisturizing her face, applying anti-aging cream, penciling in her brows, picking out an outfit, spritzing perfume. She wore the same towel brown dress every day, which sometimes slipped and revealed her breasts.
“All of that other stuff was for the old life,” she said.
When we finished building the structures, Ma and I slipped into her lodge and tested it out. It was dark and smelled earthy and alkaline. At dusk, we watched the beavers swimming around and listened to them slap the surface of the pond with their tails. They circled Ma’s new house curiously, assessing the newcomer. Ma and I slept together in the bed, falling asleep to the sound of running water. The next day, Ma told me she’d never gotten a better night’s rest. “Next time, we’ll build you one,” she said.
When it was time for me to leave Ma in Beaverland, I observed from my rearview mirror that her new environment was soft green and dewy, the kind of landscape only made possible by beavers, gathering water and making it stay in one place. It was the crepuscular hour; everything bathed in gold. “Date light,” Ma always called it, the kind of light you want to be seen in when all your features are flattering.
Ma has been in her lodge for one full season, and I am back to being busy with more clients than ever. It is a strange and miraculous thing—a pool in the desert. The whole city of Las Vegas shouldn’t exist, yet it does with its bright lights and palm trees.
My aunt called me multiple times, worried sick about Ma in her hovel. “How can you let her do this?” she says. “How can you just stand by and watch?” I tell her that I don’t think it is so bad to live the beaver life. There is a lot to admire.
I speak to Ma regularly. She updates me about new presences around the pond that she can see from her picture window: fish, frogs, newts, otters, swans. She explains that she has contracted a fungus since I saw her last that affects her nails. “Perhaps it’s from the mud,” she says. She must trudge in it to check on her dams. The keratin of her nails grows out thick and long and yellow like a malignancy. She is sanding them every day against the willow trees. It is the only issue that comes up. Otherwise, she sounds happy.
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