Strategic as a Beaver

by Sara Mierke, Senior Consultant.

Schools should be like beaver ponds.

In today’s complex, dynamic, and uncertain world, our students and our communities need our schools to be:

  • spaces of safety, growth and wellness for children and adults
  • integral to local networks of diverse stakeholders
  • instigators and innovators of quality education for all learners, and
  • assets that collect, sustain, and share critical resources.

In this, the North American beaver (castor canadensis) is an instructive role model for school leaders and educators wrestling with their school’s purpose and potential for being a force for good in the world. The systems of dams, lodges, canals, ponds, and wetlands that these industrious riparian mammals create, when given the space and time, are like a blueprint for how schools can build impactful ecosystems that generate positive ripple effects beyond the school walls.

The wet, wild yet highly functional spaces beavers create do four big things:

  1. ensure safety and food security for the resident beaver family (mating pairs, yearlings, and newborn kits)
  2. connect distinct and diverse landscape features
  3. create conditions for other species to thrive
  4. capture and retain water that is then pushed deep into aquifers.

Beaver dams create ponds that support fish, amphibians, insects and birds; those ponds turn into marshes that host a multitude of bird and butterfly species; and, eventually, those marshes evolve into meadows where grasses, flowers, trees and large and small mammals thrive. The canals that beavers dig connect fragmented wetland habitat and irrigate surrounding land, extending the capture of water and build-up of nutrient-rich sediment that nurtures flora and fauna, from caddisflies to moose. All of this has the long-term potential for climate change impact mitigation, adaptation, and even restoration in local environments.

I started drawing lessons from these industrious rodents this past summer. On an afternoon kayak in northern Ontario, my friend and I spent hours marveling at what generations of beavers had created: a 30+ foot dam that’s holding back several acres of water covered in lily pads and teaming with life; four or five lodges, some abandoned and others adorned with fresh willow branches to feed the brood inside; and a grassy marsh stretching off into the distance surrounded by pine and cedar forest. That beaver pond was a magnificent world of its own that we paddled through with awe and reverence.

That little jaunt inspired me to read Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter. The author, Ben Goldfarb, makes the compelling case that beavers are the answer to so many of our climate and human-induced environmental crises. As one of the few species other than humans that purposefully build ecosystems, this keystone species contributes to the broader world around it and impacts other species in both dramatic and nuanced ways.

I started to see the many parallels between the work that beavers do and the lessons we can apply to schools when we see them as integral to their local neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions.

To support both the mitigation and adaptation to the effects of our current social, economic, and climate realities, schools need to be integral to the community outside their doors.

When school leaders think and act like beavers – enabling messy and generative diversity, constructing connective canals and bridges, forming and tending nurturing networks – their schools become more like beaver ponds: wonderful spaces for the children and adults on the inside and essential components of complex, dynamic, and life-giving ecosystems for so many others. In ecological terms, when this happens schools enter into a form of mutualism(1) with other local stakeholders, symbiotic relationships that create conditions for sustained collective well-being.

Going back to the four big things that schools need to be that our rodent friends have already figured out, we start to see a path – or canal – forward for how schools can intentionally shape and contribute to the world around them in ways that are adaptive to our complex world, while simultaneously creating conditions for their students to become prepared for that world. Most schools, naturally, focus on the first thing: creating a nurturing, vibrant space for their learners. The next three big things – building networks, innovating for all learners, and sharing assets for collective thriving – are not necessarily easy or instinctual for school leaders, but are essential for this world we live in.

 (1) “Mutualism is a type of symbiotic relationship where all species involved benefit from their interactions. While mutualism is highly complex, it can be roughly broken down into two types of relationship. In some cases, the species are entirely dependent on each other (obligate mutualism) and in others, they derive benefits from their relationship but could survive without each other (facultative mutualism).” The latter form of mutualism is particularly apt here.

Sara is Founder of Anchor Schools, a social impact advisory firm working to transform the role schools play in our communities.