American Times Washington: Beavers captured in Battle of Potomac blossom Warning to capital's beavers: it's a trap

COMMUNING WITH nature American-style can entail extraordinarily complicated preparation. The higher up the income scale you go, the more special clothing and equipment you are deemed to need, supplied with outdoorsy over-enthusiasm by the vast emporiums that have beaten the track from the country's most venerated outdoors shop, LL Bean. These trendiest of purveyors delight in kitting you out as if to explore the Amazon, when what you had in mind was nothing more strenuous than a spot of birdwatching in the Virginia woods.

Increasingly, though, you seem not to have to go as far as Virginia in pursuit of the American wilds - and you certainly don't need that extra-light, all-weather jacket and matching magenta wetsuit. I have seen more deer on the verges of the Washington suburbs from the comfort of my car than I ever encountered in the countryside.

Wildlife is encroaching even on New York. Just a week or so ago, a wandering coyote was apprehended in Central Park. It was shot (with an anaesthetising dart, the police hastened to add), and caged for dispatch to a more conventional habitat "up-state". In Washington last week, a red-tailed hawk made news by swooping on to the White House lawn to feast on a presidential duck. Public sympathy for the savagely dissected duck, however, was muted by the relative rarity of the hawk: live and let die, said Washington coolly, as it girded for war across the ocean.

That, however, was before the beavers. To understand the fuss about the beavers, you need to know two things. Washington does not have many sources of civic pride, but it affects a communal swoon over the hundreds of Japanese cherry trees that bloom along the tidal basin of the Potomac River at this time of year. And while hawks and ducks and deer may be two a penny in the capital, it is not every day you see a beaver.

So it was with shocked incredulity that the park service admitted last week that four of the sacred cherries had been cruelly felled. Smashed to the ground, heavy with pink blossom, they looked like ravished May queens, and the city was out for vengeance. With the most celebrated chopper of cherry trees, George Washington, long gone, suspicion alighted on two enemies of the moment: anti-war protesters and - perish the thought - disgruntled Serbs. Small matter that neither had been much in evidence before then.

Expert examination, however, turned up not axe marks, but tooth marks. The culprit was a beaver. Whereupon everything changed. In Beaver v Cherry Trees, this city of lawyers was split evenly. It was "save our beavers" against "save our trees" - causes equal in environmental merit, but fundamentally incompatible. The National Park Service had the unenviable task of "doing something". It set off "slow and easy" (its words) on a twin-track policy of prevention. Vulnerable trees were encased in netting, and a $1,500 (pounds 940) contract was put out on the beaver: the trappers were called in.

On night two of their patrol, a spectacular success: they had their beaver - alive. But before they could claim their bounty, word came from a chastened park service: "We believe there are now two beavers. We have had sightings." On Saturday night, moonlit blossom-strollers (their ranks now swelled with beaver-watchers and television crews) witnessed the capture of a second "furry critter" or "tree-murderer" (depending on your point of view). By Monday, though, there was talk of a third beaver; perhaps a whole family.

By now, the park service - its phone lines jammed by callers appealing for the beavers to be spared - was having to watch its language. With a real war never far away, any hint of deportation, still less species- cleansing, was off-limits. Everyone did their best.

The traps were the most humane on the market; a Pennsylvania couple offered the vacant pond on their estate, but the park service said that as celebrities, the beavers deserved to have their new address kept private.

One woman even described the beaver as a "true follower of the American Dream. He should be allowed to build again," she wrote to The Washington Post, "revel in his success and be proud of the beaver that he can become; because this is America." To which there is surely only one response: "Bravo! Bravo! God bless the Beaver - and God bless America!"

Mary Dejevsky