Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Some more otterel

The poet Keats does not mention otters in his light-hearted doggerel dedicated to the river Teign (shown below as it looked today). Their absence from Keats's poem is not very surprising since in his day all otters were perceived as Vermin. Back then otters were thought simply to be fish-devouring pests. However, even though they did not appear very often in verse they were there, those secretive spirits of the river, even if they were not considered worth mentioning. And now attitudes have altered, persecution has mostly ceased, and toxic pollution is less of a problem, the otters are protected, and are returning again. Happily it is more fashionable to mention them. Yesterday I spent some time finding their many tracks and spraints in the sandy banks of the sprightly Teign:

And later I found the very silly poem Keats wrote. Or is it silly? He claimed it was, but it is a poem that takes in almost the whole length of the river and reveals much of its ecology, character and emotional resonance - watery, human, animal and otherwise:

'Here all the summer could I stay'

'For there's Bishop's teign
And King's teign
And Coomb at the clear Teign head -
Where close by the stream
You may have your cream
All spread upon barley bread.
There's arch Brook
And there's larch Brook
Both turning many a mill;
And cooling the drouth
Of the salmon's mouth,
And fattening his silver gill.
There is Wild wood,
A Mild hood
To the sheep on the lea o' the down,
Where the golden furze,
With its green, thin spurs,
Doth catch at the maiden's gown..'

Keats dismissed his poem as doggerel; as he says, it's full of predictable rhyme and joyful bawdiness. But having just been to see the river as it slides gracefully through a wooded Dartmoor gorge, and seen it surrounded by the most exuberant display of wild daffodils, with dappled sunlight sifting through the trees and the whispering sibilance of the river all soft and the air sweet with the edge of spring, I can't help feeling something like forgiveness for Keats's easy rhymes. Could his rosy vision of the revels of 'maidens sweet' have been an early depiction of the binge drinkers of his day? Anyway, does it matter, when we can be enraptured beside the riverbank where 'O and O/, the daisies blow and the primroses are waken'd/ and violets white /sit in silver plight..?

'.. There is Newton Marsh
With its spear grass harsh -
A pleasant summer level
Where the maidens sweet
Of the Market Street,
Do meet in the dusk to revel.
There's the Barton rich
With dyke and ditch
And hedge for the thrush to live in
And the hollow tree
For the buzzing bee
And a bank for the wasp to hive in.
And O, and O
The daisies blow
And the primroses are waken'd,
And violets white
Sit in silver plight,
And the green bud's as long as the spike end.
Then who would go
Into dark Soho,
And chatter with dack'd-hair'd critics,
When he can stay
For the new-mown hay,
And startle the
dappled prickets?'

I'm not sure what 'dack'd-hair'd critics' look like, nor what 'dappled prickets' are, but I can begin to imagine the playful contrast. Having mingled with both types of fauna I think that just like Keats I'd prefer to be in the company of the 'dappled prickets' when spring is here.

I came home knowing about a new stretch of river, and beyond the poetry, I was thrilled at finding otters there. Each new set of paw prints had revealed something more of the river and of the otter's secret life. The prints had shown that there were cubs, and that there had been some play amongst the pebbles and reedy banks, as well as the busy feeding routine. My mind was full of images of the mingling of wild water and whiskers, of webs and wet fur. But back at home, on opening my emails, I was faced with the shock of this image sent from a friend who lives close by the Teign; an otter had been found still warm, knocked by a car. A young female. She could have been the very maker of those traces of footfall and play that I had just seen in the sand:

Any more words?

Perhaps just to ask if it is time now to slow down, mindful that we are ploughing through somebody else's world?

Afterword: 'dappled prickets' are apparently young male fallow deer in their first year, with new antlers that have not yet grown more than one prong or shed their velvet.  


  1. A beautiful post, ending with such unfortunate sadness. Every single time we drive in our car, I am acutely aware of those driving at speed, with little care for there being a world belonging to someone else. I am often saddened by yet another animal left dying in the road. When on the roads at night I drive even more slowly, even more fearful that I may be about to interrupt that 'other world' and I will often say to my husband that it feels somehow wrong to be cutting through the land, laying down our imposing tracks, giving people the option to speed through life without a thought. It makes me sad... but the occasional admission to others about these feelings often leads to a debate about how irrelevant other animals are; how relevant we humans are. Thank you for caring about slowing down too :-)

  2. Hi Miriam, I read this post a while ago and it made me feel strange. It has stayed with me though, the brutality of it all amongst the beauty. Slowing down seems like the answer to so many conundrums, even if it is just to allow us time to think.

  3. Thank you for your comment. I agree, I think it's shocking/strange juxtaposing those two things - brutal even, but they both happened, and the contrast in coming back from this exquisite place (now awash with a heaven of bluebells) was so poignant that I wouldn't have felt honest censoring the horrible end to the day. I felt there was a story to tell about slowing down, mentally and physically.

  4. I understand - it's more meaningful for the honesty I think

  5. Now look what you've done! Thoroughly enjoying your otter book (love the daddy longlegs description: soft motorcycle rider) ... anyways ... riding my bike from home alongside River Exe to Dulverton today and kept wondering what secrets lay under all the bridges! Will have to explore next time :)

  6. Thank you, Paul. Yes, lots of secrets under bridges! Meeting places, crossing points, confluences.. all waiting to be discovered. Enjoy the startling under-the-bridge encounter p 252-5..

  7. A lovely piece which flows in its prose like the Teign. On the second day of a walking holiday, from Exeter to Callington in the 1970s, I followed the Teign from Dunsford to Chagford. It was one of the most memorable walks of my life: a pure delight, really. (I knew nothing then of otters, but remember the startling blue of a kingfisher as it flashed past me.)

    The extent of road kill – and ‘rail–kill’, with high speed train cab windows literally splattered with insects, and no doubt birds that did not ‘stick’ – is truly saddening. I remember the unbearable sight of a squirrel half killed on a county road. I would have put it out of its misery myself, but the traffic was too frequent and fast, and I simply had to wait until another car mercifully ‘completed the kill’. The countryside is a green blur to many – if not most – motorists, and we pay a high price for the impatient desire to get from one A to B as fast as possible.

    Keats’ ‘light hearted doggerel is fine. Perhaps some of the rhymes are predictable – they would have to be in is so quickly a written poem! – but it is lively and fun, and that is all that matters.

    I looked up ‘dack–haired’ in Jack Stillinger’s Complete Poems, and apparently “Keats frequently wrote ‘a’ for ‘o’ in his MSS, and may have intended ‘dock–haired’ (short–haired).” Whether this meant that critics tended to be dully conservative in comparison to ‘wild–haired’ romantics is, I imagine, anyone’s guess . . .

    (Nothing to do with the Teign, but I delighted in the countryside around Bratton Clovelly, Broadwoodwidger, and Germansweek.)

  8. I drifted onto your blog, following some links, then realised that I read your book last year. My daughter bought it for my birthday.
    I enjoyed reading it and still like to pick my way through it now and again, some books become a bit like an old pal.
    You inspired me to read Gavin Maxwell, which I did, and enjoyed too. But his books could never achieve that old friend status, he was ever the careless hedonist, and it rankled as I read.

  9. Thank you, Sullivan! Did you hear the BBC Radio 3 Proms Plus Literary event where Horatio Clare and I discuss Maxwell on his centenary? I think you can still find it on iplayer! I'm currently trying to work out how to restart this blog having neglected it for a very long time.. In the mean time, look out for my Nature Notebook in The Times!