copyright G. Wykes 2011
This will not be my typical Naturespeak blog in that it will be on-topic. My motives are, well, less than noble. I wanted to show my readers that I am occasionally right. My self-serving topic is a simple one. Harvard can be wrong on occasion.
Words are wonderful things but because it takes a thousand of them to describe a picture, I often resort to pictures in order to save the alphabet. I was searching the web for some word-saving pictures the other day – looking at the Google image page to find them. I was seeking old illustrations of beavers and beaver colonies. Some of the early woodcuts that came out during the fur trade era were done by European artists that had never actually seen one of these North American animals before. There were beavers in the Old World, but the artists that illustrated these travel accounts were forced to rely purely on fanciful descriptions. Their pictures certainly reflect that and they can be quite amusing by current-day standards.
The 1738 account of Claude LeBeau contains a woodcut showing a colony of industrious beavers which look more like Naked Mole Rats with flat tails. There are dozens of animals working together. In one corner of the picture 6 beavers are shown chewing away at a single tree. The dam in the background is topped with an upright fence. There are no beavers shown painting that fence but the image definitely hints that they probably did so every Wednesday after the groupsing.
As part of this search, I was directed to the site maintained by the Harvard Art Museum. The listing was for a drawing labeled “Head, Paw and Fur of a Beaver”(see above). From the second I clicked onto the image I could see a problem. The picture did not depict a beaver. It was a muskrat. So, in a moment of self induced authority I shot off the following e-mail:
I was just looking through your Harvard Art Museum Website and noticed a mislabeled illustration. Since it doesn’t appear that the piece was originally labeled by the artist, I assume that this is probably a cataloging error made at an early stage – possibly during initial acquisition (in the 1920s?). You might want to consider changing the label for the sake of accuracy (in cases of on-line search engines etc.). The illustration I am referring to is the William Rowan drawing titled “Head, Paw, and Fur of Beaver”. This sheet actually depicts a muskrat – detail of head, hind foot, and portion of tail. There is a world of difference between the muskrat and the beaver. The hind foot on the beaver, for instance, is fully webbed whereas that same appendage on a muskrat is equipped with only a tiny portion of webbing. It also takes about ten hefty muskrats to equal the size of an average beaver. As a career naturalist my observation can be considered valid. Yes, I know this may not seem much of a distinction but the two creatures, although related, are as different as a house cat and a lion. Of course, the real reason for calling this to your attention is for the defense of the lowly muskrat. The beaver has always gotten the attention over the years while the muskrat’s recognition has been delegated to that cheesy “Captain and Tenille” song. I guess someone needs to be captain of the MDL (muskrat defense league)!
I did not really expect an answer. The pencil drawing, by a Swiss immigrant to Canada named William Rowan, was executed in the early 1900s. It was not a major piece of work. I, however, felt proud of the chance to flex my Muskrat Defense League muscles.
Imagine my pleasant surprise when I received the following response within hours:
Dear Mr. Wykes, Thank you for your message. The title has been changed to reflect the correct species. With best wishes, Michael T. Dumas Staff Assistant Specialist Division of Modern and Contemporary Art
Needless to say, I felt the need to forward this tidbit for two reasons: vanity and education. I’ve explained the vanity part, but ask that you examine this illustration closely. Examine the details and compare this with foot and tail details of a beaver (see below) and you too can become a member of the Muskrat Defense League.