Like so many of these stories, it arrived in my e-mail in-box. In this case, courtesy of the LinuxSA-Talk mailing list. And it began, again, in typical fashion.
This is an actual letter sent to a man named Ryan DeVries by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality, State of Pennsylvania. This guy’s response is hilarious, but read the State’s letter before you get to the response letter.
Unlike most such tales, this one happens to be true.
Like most such tales, however, the widely distributed version isn’t especially accurate.
For a start, the events chronicled in the letters happened in Michigan, USA; not Pennsylvania, USA.
As well, the author credited in the version sent via e-mail is Ryan DeVries.
Now, DeVries is the person addressed in the original letter from David Price of the Michigan Department Of Environmental Quality.
In the version that arrived in my e-mail In Box, however, he’s also presented as the author of the infamous letter even though the actual author of the ‘dammed beavers’ letter is Stephen Tvedten.
So, why did DeVries get the original letter only to have Tvedten write the infamous reply? This is easy to answer: because DeVries was Stephen Tvedten’s tenant in 1997, when David Price wrote and sent the ‘you need a permit to build a dam’ notice.
And why did the ‘Pennsylvania version’ switch the US state and the author credits (and date, as we’ll see below)? This is harder to answer.
The easy thought is to put the errors down to so-called Chinese Whispers. The Pennsylvania version, for example, doesn’t include the address from which David Price wrote, making it easy for the state to be switched in error.
The switch of authorial credit required active editorial effort somewhere along the way, however. And this editorial effort likely extended to switching the state as well.
Tvedtan’s letter begins as follows:
Your certified letter dated 12/17/97 has been handed to me to respond to. You sent out a great deal of carbon copies to a lot of people, but you neglected to include their addresses. You will, therefore, have to send them a copy of my response.
First of all, Mr. Ryan DeVries is not the legal landowner and/or contractor at 2088 Dagget, Pierson, Michigan — I am the legal owner
Note Tvedtan gives the full address of the property in question (2088 Dagget, Pierson, Michigan) and explains he’s answering because he, not Mr DeVries, is said property’s legal owner.
The Pennsylvania version, however, alters this text as follows:
Your certified letter dated 12/17/02 has been handed to me to respond to. I am the legal landowner but not the Contractor at 2088 Dagget Lane, Trout Run, Pennsylvania.
This ‘re-write’ pushes the date up to 2002; removes one snarky comment; elides the reference to Ryan DeVries, but leaves the ‘I’m the legal landowner but not the contractor’ in, even though these words don’t make a lot of sense without the DeVries reference; and changes the address to ‘Trout Run, Pennsylvania.’
The Pennsylvania version also alters the valediction. Tvedten closes his letter as follows:
Sincerely, Stephen L. Tvedten xc: PETA
Note the formal ‘Sincerely’ and the ‘xc: PETA’, making it clear he’s sent a copy of the letter to the US-based PETA organisation (whether they were the best folks to ‘xc’ is another matter altogether).
The widely distributed version ‘re-writes’ the valediction thus:
Thank you. Ryan Devries and the Dam Beavers
No formality, and a final ‘joke’.
These aren’t the only differences between the original and altered versions, of course. The Pennsylvania version removes the in-letter reference to PETA, for example, and there are other changes. But the two changes detailed above are the ones which concern authorship and things which can establish authorship.
And, so far as I can tell and even though I’ve no idea why, these changes were made specifically to subvert the actual author’s identity.
Which is both insulting and troubling.
Insulting because Stephen Tvedten wrote a clever indictment of over-blown bureaucratic behaviour and it’s not unreasonable that he get the credit for his cleverness. And troubling because knowing who actually wrote the letter makes it easier to learn more about the actual events.
Events, it turns out, which aren’t as funny or simple as the mis-attributed letters suggest.
The snopes.com report starts us off on the right track, establishing the letters are true and making it clear said letters are the public portion of a dispute between Tvedten and a neighbour.
And said neighbour stands accused of some fairly villainous behaviour: specifically, killing beavers and then complaining about their ‘abandoned’ dam to various people in officialdom.
The next step is Tvedten’s own site. Here we find copies of the original correspondence and follow-up letters concerning the ‘dammed beavers’ Internet fame.
The second of these pages includes Tvedten’s explicit claim his neighbour killed the beavers and that Tom Brokaw
made [the neighbour] look like a fool and called him my “Dam Neighbor” on April Fool’s Day a couple of years ago.
I’ve not been able to dig up vision or a transcript for this, but Vanderbilt University’s TV News Archive does list an available report with the headline Michigan/Dam Mess. The abstract makes it clear the report concerns this story (although it gets Tvedten’s name wrong):
The dispute in Michigan over unauthorized beaver dams featured; dam scenes shown. [Landowner Stephen TWEEDEN, dam neighbor David HUGHES, Michigan department of environmental quality Ken SILFVEN — offer differing opinions on the damn beaver dam!]
And the date for this report? 1st April, 1998.
Even without seeing the NBC Evening News broadcast for 1st April 1998, I’m inclined to believe Tvedten’s claims at this point. And I’m inclined to think more than a little ill of David Hughes.
Which got me wondering. When I first got distracted by this, I wasn’t expecting more than a 30-second trip to snopes.com to get the ‘this isn’t true’ URL for posting back to the LinuxSA-Talk mailing list.
With Snopes telling me the story was true I started looking for evidence of Chinese Whispers at work.
When it became clear (or clear to me: you may not be convinced by the notes above) the Pennsylvania version was deliberately crafted to remove Tvedten’s authorship, I wondered who might have done the crafting.
And I’m still wondering as I type.
Trout Place, Pennsylvania is a real place, which is some (albeit slim) evidence the perpetrator of the inaccurate version is associated with that town. OTOH, it’s just as likely said perpetrator chose the name at random, or because they think it has a more ‘country’ feel to it, when compared to ‘Pierson, Michigan’. Also, we don’t have a motive for pinning the inaccurate version on someone associated with this little town.
Appealing to motive, perhaps David Hughes is the source of the Pennsylvania version. After all he’s been made to ‘look like a fool’ on national US television. Further, he’s been credibly accused of beaver killing.
In such a circumstance I might be tempted to deflect attention away from myself by turning the core of the event into an ‘urban legend’, passed around from e-mail in box to e-mail in box, but with the relevant details altered, so as to make it harder for the ‘funny story that everyone wants to tell’ to be associated with the rather nastier tale of beavercide and petty selfishness.
This isn’t an accusation, of course. I’ve neither the time nor resources to track down the Pennsylvania version to an actual source.
(If someone else is interested, some quality time with Google’s Advanced Search would likely track the first appearance of the altered version on a mailing list or Usenet, which wouldn’t be far off it’s first appearance in e-mail. The source of that first public posting would be the person I’d start asking for information about where the Pennsylvania version came from in the first place.)
Stephen Tvedten’s letter isn’t funnier for being attributed to Ryan DeVries. Mary Schmich’s ‘Wear Sunscreen’ column isn’t funnier or wittier because you took the trouble to misattribute it to Kurt Vonnegut and misrepresent it as a commencement speech rather than a newspaper column.
I mean, come on! This doesn’t even raise to the level of plagiarism.
Whatever emotional void is filled by deliberately changing the credit for material freely available via the web (not free as in beer, I hasten to add, but free as in speech) and then sending it out into the wild, get over it.