May 4, 2013 9:19:24 PM
Tuesday afternoon James Towery stood in a cluster of willow trees near the edge of Proctor Lake. Brother James, as he is known in these parts (Towery is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in West Point), reached out with his left hand to steady himself. In his right hand he was holding a Kaiser blade. For snakes.
For 10 years Brother James has been at war with a colony of beavers, who see it as their mission to stop the flow of water in a drainage ditch that crosses his property in the Lone Oak community near West Point. The beavers' handiwork has converted a portion of the pastor's pasture into marshland.
Exasperated, Brother James has called in the heavy artillery, George Brown and Earl "Buddy" Foreman. Brown and Foreman specialize in beaver eradication and blowing up beaver dams.
Depending on your perspective, beavers can be pests or a boon to the environment. They are responsible for millions of dollars of damage annually to farmland and timberland, while the wetlands they create reduce erosion and flooding and act as the "kidneys" for the earth, providing silt and still water where toxins from pesticides can be broken down by microbes. Their ability to change the landscape is second only to humans.
Towery admires the industry of his adversaries.
"I wish everybody in my church worked like that," he said.
The men have slogged through mud and high grass and tight-roped along a sliver of earth and sticks leading up the widest part of the dam. It is a beautiful day, clear and cool with a slight breeze. The delicate greens of the trees signal spring. But, not quite.
Towery points to a blooming vine at the edge of the lake.
"That's blackberry winter," he says. "Those blooms mean a few more days of cool weather."
Brown is studying the dam trying to decide where to place the explosives. A 25-year veteran with the Mississippi Highway Patrol, he got into the beaver eradication business about two years ago. Though it goes back much further than that. He's been hunting and trapping since he was a boy growing up in Saltillo.
"We used to hunt where Barnes Crossing Mall is now," he said. "We could go all over the place and hunt where we wanted. Everybody knew us."
When asked how the trapping business is going, Brown holds up his hand and smiles.
"Still got all my fingers."
Foreman, who has been trapping for about 40 years, is less sanguine. "Trapping is a complicated way to go broke," he said.
"Yeah, we get hired to do the ones you can't get to," Brown adds. "Most of the time you're wading in water and fighting snakes."
During a three-week stretch last summer the two men killed 27 snakes. They will kill two this afternoon.
For explosives Brown has two options in his arsenal, a Helix (High Energy Liquid Explosive) and the more powerful Dam Buster. Both use a fuse that looks like a bright yellow bungee cord. A cap is connected to the fuse from which the men will extend a two-strand wire that allows them to stand away from the explosives. Touching the two leads of the wire to the poles of a 9V battery triggers the blast.
Brown figures two Dam Busters will do the job. With a long pole he hollows out a cavity in the dam for the explosives, which are shaped like sticks of dynamite.
According to Towery, beaver dams are an engineering marvel, a fabrication of sticks and twigs woven together and reinforced with mud and the roots of plants.
The explosives in place, the men slosh back through the willows to a point about 200 yards from the dam.
"Fire in the hole," Brown yells as he touches the wires to the small battery.
The blast is instantaneous and spectacular. Dirt and sticks enveloped in a cloud of black smoke thunder 150 feet into the air.
The explosion opens a 6-foot gap in the dam. The men return to the dam to stand and watch the water rush through the opening.
"Boys, y'all did a good job," Brother James says.
Later in the week he will install a 6-inch PVC pipe in the opening. The pipe will undermine the beavers' rebuilding efforts, at least for a time. Their new dam built over the pipe won't hold water. Eventually the beavers will solve the puzzle and stop the flow, says Towery.
And then, perhaps, on another lovely spring afternoon like this one, Brown and Foreman will come back out and again do battle with these industrious and persistent creatures.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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