Published here December 2006.


Musings Index

Planning and Construction
Another Dam Case Study
(Author Unknown)*

Huntsville, Ontario, Canada

Dennis Messner is busy beavering away at construction. According to neighbors close to the project, he is spending an inordinate amount of time and effort in the planning and construction phases of building a dam. In the past four months, Messner, a local beaver, has visited hundreds of other dams and drawn up detailed and extensive blueprints. He has researched topics ranging from advanced dome acoustics to the near-extinction of the North American beaver in the early 20th century. He plans to incorporate much of his research into his design.

After studying the local river's current, Messner observed:

"There are two primary schools of thought on dam building: the instinctive school and the adaptive school, [but] I'm more of an integration-minded postmodernist myself. Contrary to most of my colleagues, I don't believe that form should follow function. On the other hand, a dam is a celebration of beaver culture, and that is what it should reflect. It's all a lot to think about."

Despite time constraints dictated by the changing seasons, Messner has spent nearly 400 beaver-hours stripping logs of their bark and foliage, and more than two weeks scouting locations up and down the Muskoka River. "I just want everything to be perfect," he said.

Figure 1: Contemplating construction problems
Figure 1: Contemplating construction problems

Longtime friend and fellow developer, Tim McManus, who is nearing completion of his own dam, took a more pragmatic approach to construction. "Work-work-work. Gnaw-gnaw-gnaw. Build-build-build. Must hurry," said McManus.

Messner has already developed two feasibility designs this season alone. He dismissed the proportions of the first as "aesthetically dysfunctional," and the second was built out of cottonwood, which he called "a mistake." But, according to Messner, the latter experience got him thinking about different woods in ways he had never considered previously.

As Messner puts it:

"What woods are the sturdiest, or the most visually pleasing? What does a birch dam say? Everyone seems to love sugar maple, but it's such an over-familiar scrub tree. Would I be making a stronger statement with willow? I don't want this to be one of those generic 'McDams'. What do I have to say - as a beaver and as an artist?"

After much thought, and after completing "highly necessary" preparatory work chewing the branches into uniform-sized interlocking sticks, Messner decided to reconstruct the anterior section of the dam with poplar wood.

Figure 2: Preparatory construction work in progress
Figure 2: Preparatory construction work in progress

Yet such details struck fellow developers as excessive. As Cyril Kyree said as he dragged a number of logs into the shallow lick of river where the rest of the community has built their nests:

"Get to work, get to work, build the dam, build the dam, chew-chew-chew. Need a mate. Build the dam."

Messner rejected the criticism.

"Not everyone in this area cares or is even aware of how dam building alters an ecosystem, but I am, and, yes, I do wonder what kind of impact my dam will have on the environment. How can I make this the most positive experience possible, while still minimizing adverse impact on the wetlands? What kind of beaver would I be if I didn't take erosion science into consideration?"

To that end, Messner has reached out to the local otter, fish, and waterfowl communities, and has incorporated their input into his design. Despite some frustration with his efforts, Messner professed faith in the process.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm just treading water. Then I remember that a beaver near Baysville built a dam that was nearly 12 feet high. There's even one that's almost 200 feet long in Manitoba. I want to build something that I can be proud of." he said.

This marks the third consecutive spring in which Messner has sought to build the perfect dam. Many in the area believe that Messner will fail and resort to burrowing a hole in the muddy ground where he will spend the rest of the season, as he has done these past three years.

Figure 3: Abandoned dam failing to meet best practices
Figure 3: Abandoned dam failing to meet best practices

Case study question

What lessons can you conclude from this anecdote?

*  Adapted from original source accessed 5/2/06. Original© Copyright 2006, Onion, Inc. All rights reserved.
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