Electing Beaver: The Politics of Place in the Public Square

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what he saw in a plain way …”

John Ruskin

I do not know William “Beaver” Watkins, supervisor of a bucolic township where broad, green landscapes are interrupted by streets studded with antique shops and churches. But, like all who entered Cambridge, New York, this fall, I came to know Supervisor Beaver through symbols, signs and coupled words.



 

“Symbols are natural spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or a brush in his hand and said: Now I am going to invent a symbol.”

Carl Jung

 

When my wife first saw one of the election signs, she thought it was an ad for a cleaning service: it was kitschy, an inside joke Xeroxed dozens of times in this small town near the Vermont border. She didn’t get it. This specific political signage had a different effect on me. The construct of the symbol pierced my soul, calling forth primal instincts. The sign was Beaver’s creation; it was Beaver. Without a doubt, this was the wildest political campaign sign I’d ever seen, immediately identifiable with a particular person and place.

Beaver’s method was Pop Art churned out with assembly-line efficiency: stark black blots on white plywood cohering to the form of a large beaver holding a broom. Many versions of the signs exhibited lone beaver symbols, absent any words. Other variations riffed on word puzzles. For instance, the beaver image plus “Watkins” equals: “Beaver Watkins.” Nifty.

Myth sage Joseph Campbell believed that for a symbol to effectively transmit meaning it must be understood by both sender and receiver. Locally, the community got the message: It was election time, Beaver was running for town supervisor again, once more on the platform of sweeping away the failed policies of the past. Probably.

Influenced as I was by traces of my own suburban snobbery, I conjured a creation myth of how Beaver summoned forth his art:

A thunderbolt from elsewhere, an ancient impulse from the ground arose in Beaver. The primal urge worked through land and place, worked itself into the man, and Beaver went to work inside a worn cow barn. In a fog of black haze, Beaver and his followers sprayed paint across homemade stencils on white plywood or whatever was available. The incumbent Cambridge supervisor and his friends crafted their assembly-line signage to the twangs of Froggy 107.1, the local country station. Clawing cans of red, white and blue Bud in one hand and black spray paint in the other, they talked big talk. That must have been how it was done. It didn’t matter how it was done; it was done. A political sign was made, a screen-printed beaver holding a broom. Finish sweeping out them good old boys – that’s what this Beaver aimed to do.

“A price has to be paid for anything worth while: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination.”

E.F. Schumacher

In the business of political campaigning, calculations are made, budgets are weighed. A war chest is accumulated; Orwellian swag is dangled across websites. Candidates’ eyes sparkle at the stuff their name could brand. Nail files to swing the ladies, showy car magnets for the guys, shiny buttons, cool water bottles, imprinted pens, balloons for children to follow, paper fans to refresh the country fair crowd: people in the know call these vote-getters and volunteer chum “collateral.”

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