When Giulio Menossi invited me to participate in the First Mosaic Symposium in Patagonia (alas, virtually…) and told me the theme was “Colours of Patagonia,” my mind immediately went to the blues and whites of the Patagonian glaciers. Threatened by climate change, those glaciers seemed like an obvious inspiration for me. Oddly enough, the more research I did, the less inspired I felt. I even started to worry it was a sign that I wasn’t ready to get back into the studio, despite my year-long hiatus.
Feeling slightly panicky, I broadened my search beyond climate change and glaciers, and in nearly no time at all, I had stumbled upon an article about invasive Canadian beavers in Patagonia. Something just clicked and I immediately knew this was the topic for me. Not only did it fit neatly in my Anthropocene series, where I had already covered biodiversity loss from a general angle, but it also offered a very tangible Canada-Patagonia connection. (For those who don’t know, the beaver is the national animal of Canada.)
If you haven’t heard the story of the beavers of Patagonia, here it is in a nutshell. Back in the 1940s, the Argentinian military transported a few dozen Canadian beavers to Tierra del Fuego in the hope of starting a fur industry. I mean, what could go wrong? Sigh. Fast forward a few decades and the beaver population in the area has now ballooned to roughly well over 100,000 (some estimates put it closer to 200,000), while the fur industry completely failed to take off.
In their native habitat, beavers play the role of ecosystem engineers, modifying the landscape in many beneficial ways. In fact, by letting them go about their business they can actually help us face some of the challenges climate change is throwing at us (e.g., drought, flooding, etc.) by helping manage water resources naturally while also creating important habitat for other species.
But take them out of the environment they’ve evolved in and, well, just like pretty much any non-native species, there are bound to be consequences. And that’s what happened in Tierra del Fuego. Unchecked by predators, the growing beaver population has flooded large tracts of land, killing native lenga forests, which are not adapted to flooding (unlike their North American counterparts). The white, dead trees left once beavers move in are known as ghost or phantom forests. They’ve also created new ecosystems that are highly suitable to other invasive species (e.g., mink and muskrat), further compounding the damage they’re causing. The impact that these invaders have had on the landscape has been called “the largest landscape-level alteration in subantarctic forests since the last ice age.” That is no small thing. (If you want to read more about the beavers, I suggest this National Geographic article.)
The rivers I incorporated into the design aren’t random. They’re based on old Canadian fur trading routes, with the dams I built marking some of the trading posts. Why use Canadian trading routes instead of Patagonian rivers? To put it simply, I wanted to play with different but related notions of invasion. For me, there was an important parallel between the destructive effects of invasive species (all in the hope of starting a fur industry) and the destruction brought about by the Canadian fur trade hundreds of years earlier, both on the beaver populations (which nearly disappeared) and on Indigenous Peoples. This was a key connection to include because our national narrative here in Canada tends to be one of pride when talking about the fur trade and how it shaped our country. We have a tendency to gloss over the fact that the fur economy came at a high cost to Indigenous Peoples (their health, social structure, economy, etc.), and the harm of the systems and structures it put in place continues to this day.
While this piece began as a spark of inspiration when reading an article about invasive Canadian beavers, as I moved through its conception and execution I became increasingly excited about the connections to social and cultural issues. In my hiatus, I did a lot of thinking about how I want to start shifting my work to increasingly address the bigger and more complicated intersections of environmental degradation, racism, colonialism, and capitalism, where environmental and climate justice are inseparable from social justice. While I’m still deep in thought about how, exactly, to represent these ideas in mosaic, this piece is one small step in that direction.