Otter Country

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington is a tale of her quest to see otters in the wild.  It weaves her journey with facts as well as drawing in reflections and experiences of other otter writers, in particular Gavin Maxwell.  She visits the site of his home as part of her search and, it seems, to pay homage to an author who’s ottery writings had a huge impact on her.

Have just read about imagery in nature writing, I chose two pages at random and picked out the similes and metaphors:

The land is ribboned with water… surfaces glossy with wet… web of lines that link ditches… a lattice of hazel… clouds loosed… wind bashes reeds and bends them into a whistling chorus… a frog shimmering as if varnished with water pings away and becomes a wet leaf among other wet leaves… I creak inside… a world slick with water… a rainbow seeps in… release my binoculars… a slab of grey water… moorhens bicker… mallard mischoreograph landings… rain on the roof is a thousand pattering fingers… a ragged battalion of cormorants… sagging skeleton of a drowned tree… the water surface is zinc… starlings begin their pouring flight… they are a flickering brown stream…

Within these two pages we also find an evocative description of the water that our narrator is looking out onto:

“The water changes from moment to moment.  It is grey, it is ruffled, it is polished pewter or a mirror holding the sky and bouncing light in every direction.  I am mesmerised as it furs with the lightest shower of rain, ripples beneath coots or bends under the weigh of a swan.”

Despite only being 52 words, we are filled with a detailed sense of the scene and the characteristics of the water.  Water as a changeable entity is something we find a lot in poetic writings about lakes and rivers.  It is endlessly the same and yet always changing.

The description of the water as a mirror holding the sky is such a beautiful image, I’m envious of her ability to describe the world she sees and the action within it.  The idea of the frog pinging away and becoming one with the wet leaves, the starlings with their pouring flight, echoing the water below them as they stream through the sky.  Even without the allure of the otter, I think Darlington could easily draw readers in with her captivating imagery.  That said, otters were the reason I picked up the book in the first place…

And that is because otters are amazing!  And as far as creature specific nature writing goes, we find them in Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, The Wind in the Willows and the internet phenomenon, I Am Otter.  Turning to poetry, we have Ted Hughes’ An Otter and Dog Otter by Kevin Saving amongst many others.

As a bit of an aside, the otters that pop up in memes and cute videos are most often sea otters whereas the kind we have in the UK are Eurasian Otters.  Instead of living in the sea, they move between land and fresh water, without which they would become dehydrated.  They also need fresh water to clean their fur and maintain its waterproofing.

Whilst the otter rock stars of the internet appear cute and cuddly, they are actually quite ferocious, they are serious predators, they are after all wild animals who need to survive.  They were one of the earliest mammalian carnivores to evolve and have a powerful bite.

To search for otters in the UK is quite a challenge.  Whilst numbers are on the rise, they got close to extinction in the 20th century.  But it is not necessarily population size which makes them tricky to find.  They are one with their world, they slip between water and earth with graceful ease, without impact and without notice.  They appear and disappear as if by magic, slipping away unseen.  This can, at times, make the book a little frustrating.  After all, I chose a book about otters with the hope of actually finding one lurking between the pages.

When reviewing the book, John Lister-Kay said:

“You don’t have to be an otter fanatic to love Darlington’s book… Otter Country is proper nature writing, revealing as much about the writer’s obsession with otters as of the animal itself and leaving us in awe of both”

Who isn’t an otter fanatic?!  As nature writing, Otter Country is a great piece of work.  She provides beautiful imagery, an interesting reflection on the watery landscapes she finds herself in as well as considering the otter in literature.  My only criticism is that it is titled Otter Country and whilst she is writing well about the home of the otter, I wanted more actual otters…  The nature of the otters means they are elusive and this is reflected in the book but I think the title sets the reader up for something that they aren’t going to get.

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