Beavers laid claim to every waterway. All of the rivers, all of the creeks, all of the streams, brooks, and rivulets of any size were dammed. In some places, the dams created lakes, marshes, or ponds full of life. In other areas, they made water barrens devoid of all but grasses and large, hardy species.
Through the generations, the geographic center of the beaver clans hollowed out. Beavers ate the maple, alder, willow, and birch trees until there were no more. Even sedges and lilies had scant time to grow before they were discovered and devoured. Older beaver lodges rotted and collapsed. Clans rebuilt them from the same, half-rotted materials, taking wood from multiple dwellings to form a single new one. Every fresh sapling seemed precious. Except for a few months in springtime, only ancient trees stood in their area. Those trees took great efforts to fell. Broken branches from them, found on the forest floors, became treasures.
Beavers began to fight among themselves, not over survival but over wealth. They longed for the luxurious plants of generations past.
So it was one summer evening that a young female headed out from her mother's home. She swam to the shore and headed into the forest to search for fallen branches. It didn't take long before she sensed that she was being followed.
Although she couldn't see her pursuers, she could smell them when the wind blew uphill under the canopy of firs. They were at least at least two members from the upstream beaver clan. They had cut off her return to her lodge.
She found a birch stump from one of the last of the young trees she'd cut down. Sometimes it tried to grow back and it provided her with food. Today it had a single, diamond-shaped leaf. She munched it while waiting for her followers to arrive. But they never ventured uphill. After a while, she stopped smelling them. It was safe to move on.
She trudged down another slope, back toward the shore. Although she heard an animal in the pine needles, she didn't smell predators. And she still hadn't found any fallen branches.
Because she had nothing better to do, she located a pine tree the she had previously gnawed. It was too large to fell in a single day. If fact, she'd been working on it, on and off, for a week and she'd gotten halfway through.
Pine tasted bitter. It was not her favorite. But this tree grew next to the water. When she took it down, she could cut off branches and carry them to her home.
She went to work and discovered that the sour sap had dried. That made the wood easier to chew or at least more palatable.
As she gnawed, she remembered better jobs than this. Only a few hundred yards north, there had been a stand of poplar trees. A clan long gone had tended to them and to some willows, too. But the upstream lodge had taken over the poplars and raised scent mounds to mark their territory. Then they had felled every tree. This year, they hadn't bothered with scent mounds. They'd left nothing to protect. The dead grove was no longer worth anyone's bother.
The young beaver worked past dusk, longer than she'd meant to. Her progress on the dying wood encouraged her. She paused to listen for predators. She knew there were no wolves nearby. They made noises she could hear even over her chore. And the stink of a bear would have been impossible to miss. She worked her way deep into the trunk. As the tree began to creak, she risked her life for the final cuts. The trunk began to tilt. She scurried to safety.
As soon as the tree fell along the shore, she caught the scent of others beavers again. She heard two of them slide into the water. They were coming downstream to her, members of the hostile clan.
"We'll take this, cousin." Another beaver, a large male stepped out of the underbrush along the bank. How long had he been watching her work?
"Are you a band of thieves, now?" she said. Her first instinct had been to slap her tail against the ground and flee into the water. But she recognized these scents. She shouldn't need to escape them. She only wanted the branches she'd worked so hard to put in reach.
"You've got no right to protest," he replied. "We're bigger. We have more to feed. We take what we can. Those are our orders."
"I recognize you," she said. "Last winter you asked my parents to hide you from a wolverine. You were in my home. We saved you. And now you're stealing from us."
He fell silent. One of the other beavers clambered ashore.
"What are you waiting for? Let's get cutting," he said.
"You steal all of the time." She bristled with anger. "You steal the coppice. You killed the willows. You ate up the water lilies. You take all of everything that's rich so there's no more, not for us, not even for you."
"It's what our leaders want," said the newcomer.
"You exploit everyone and everything. You're thugs and fools."
"Another clan resisted us, cousin, with more than words," he told her. "They fought. Are you too young to remember them? Our leaders had us destroy their homes. We laid them open to the bears."
"And when my clan is gone, too, what will you do? When you've taken our homes and pushed us out to die, then what? You'll have no one to steal from. This has become your livelihood. You spend your time plundering resources needed by all and thieving from others' hard work."
"Our orders come from our grandfathers. You act like we're to blame. But we're not. There's nothing we can do. Our elders demand more and more, even if there's no more to be had."
"Orders or not, this is not a right way for you to live. I mean for you, personally. You do evil things and accept rewards for your deeds. And you can't pass that off onto anyone else."