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.

Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.
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Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!

Otter: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

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Otters are awesome!!!

To get us started, and into the mindset of the otter, let’s kick off with a video!

To a certain extent, that says everything I could say… Otters are amazing, playful, curious, intriguing creatures.  They are joyful, caring, graceful and delightful.

“The joyful, keen and fearless otter; mild and loving to his own kind, and gentle with his neighbour of the stream; full of play and gladness in his life; full of courage in his stress; ideal in his home; steadfast in death; the noblest little soul that ever went four-footed through the woods” – Ernest Thompson Seton

These fantastic animals tumble through the water with grace and playfulness.  This sense of play coexists alongside the stormy waters that otters do face.  They are prey for other animals, they have to deal with finding their own food, they have been hunted by humans and are facing habitat destruction, polluted waters and so on.  But they know the healing value of play and joy and love.  The card seems to show the otter in a lovely bubble of light and happiness.  Whilst we can’t live in that bubble all the time, it’s nice to have it to retreat to from time to time.  Have a think about what your bubble is like?  How can you get inside it?  Why not actually blow some bubbles?  There’s something wonderful and delightful about doing it.

Whilst not all otters live in groups, some do.  The smooth coated otters are the most social of otters and they maintain close bonds through group rubbing and play (I’m running out of synonyms so the word play will have to do!).  They make delightful squeaks and yips as they frolic.

These are land animals which returned to water and are clearly at home there.  They are agile, graceful swimmers and highly energetic.  Their flexibility comes in handy as they need to be able to reach all over their body to groom their fur.  These supple creatures move freely between the elements of water and land, between the emotional and practical, at home with both.

One documentary narrator commented that they seem to have two speeds – on or off.  Action or rest.  And it’s important to get the balance right with that.  And that balance will be different for different people.  For me, if I’m going to have a day trip, I’ll need to rest at least the day before and the day after.  That is my balance and having chronic pain and fatigue really helps you tune into that.  Balance here could also be between land and water.  Between work and play.  Otters have to actively hunt for their fish but they also make water slides.  They work hard and play hard.

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I think this card is a river otter but we’ll have a look at sea otters whilst we’re on the topic of otters.  Sea otters have the thickest fur on the planet which keeps them nice and warm but makes them a target for hunters.  They need this fur for warmth but it’s not so much the fur itself that protects them from the cold sea water.  The fur traps air which acts as insulation and this also means the super furry babies bob on the surface!!!  When you see sea otters rolling over in the water, this is sometimes to get rid of crumbs, they do eat off their tummies, but also to trap air in their fur.

You may also know that sea otters hold hands or wrap seaweed around themselves and this is to tether themselves so they don’t drift out to the middle of the ocean whilst they take a nap.  Holding paws reinforces the idea of the otter as a loving, caring creature and also suggests a problem solving approach.

Otters are linked with selkie myths as well as other tales of shapeshifting.  If you’ve ever seen an otter dancing, twirling, twisting and being one with the water, you’ll know how easy it is to imagine them shapeshifting.  Which is interesting as they seem so completely at home in their bodies.  Perhaps it is only when we are truly one with ourselves that we are free to explore other bodies?

In folklore they are generally helpful and friendly, bringing food to those who need it and warming cold feet!

The otter really is asking how you can bring more joy and more play into your life.  I hope you find a way to embrace your inner child.