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.  

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

River shiver

The whole river surface shivered.

Ripples sweeping outward, catching light and swirling bubbles. Through the brambles and twigs I see her flip out of the water like a slim torpedo. She's porpoising. Upstream, purposeful, not wasting an ounce of energy on anything else but her foraging journey. She's working the underbank, alone, disappearing, teasing the eye. But she can't hide her wake. 

What is it about these encounters?

This morning I was on my way back home, one eye still sweeping the water. Distracted by a great spotted woodpecker drumming high in the branches of an oak, and an ear to the warblers, nose attuned to the mulch, my breath and heartbeat matched the footfall and mingle of all this, then there she was.

It was 10am. The meandering walk was nearly over. I'd clocked the first little white petals of the wood anemone, the poking tongues of wild garlic all over the bank, the buds no longer resisting the cold but beginning to fill with sap. Watery sunlight breaking through misting cloud. The ducks muttering, then alarmed. You can depend on the water birds to give away an otter.

The wake widens as she moves across the current and pauses midstream to eat something. She's surrounded by encircling ripples as the water shivers outward from her form. It glitters behind her, ruffles each time she pauses. The stillness of this morning, no breeze, and low, lazy water mean that I can see every single movement. Now she's a lissom backwash and she's away, far too busy to notice me. Her bubbles rise in a wobbly fizz each time she dives, so I can get her close in the sights of my new Leica binocs each time she surfaces.

There she blows, crystal clear, close-up, smooth as a piece of the river itself. The otter is water, she's the colour and shape of it, a slip of current, but powerful against it  as she slides upstream.

Why is my heart beating so fast, every cell in my body zinging with something I recognise and yet don't quite know?

On one level, it's the punch-the-air moment of Yes! Success! Wait till I tell everyone!

On the other hand, it's something much more than this. We evolved with these animals; somewhere way back, there's a common ancestor. There's kinship, but there's also a recognition that goes far deeper than anything I can really explain. Is it that my body remembers its own wildness, somewhere in its cells, in its genetic memory?

If it's not this, then why does it feel this way? Why are these encounters so exhilarating?

Yesterday I had a message from my friend Mark Cocker reporting otters in the centre of a local town. They seemed to have lost their fear of people. The pics shown here are some of his. How long will it be before these centre-of-town otters get wise and remember to be properly wild, I wonder? Local people have taken them to heart, and these otters are true ambassadors, but the paparazzi have also arrived, and the otter below looks too busy feasting on frogs to be afraid. Never a good idea if you are an otter.. Contact between wild predators and people rarely has a positive outcome.

On the other hand, they have attracted the loving gaze of a whole town, and that can't be bad, can it?

Copyright Mark Cocker 2013

Where I live, the otters' middle name is stealth. They were ferociously hunted here, and are still extremely shy. Some still dislike them, perhaps with good reason. Otters like many predators live on a knife-edge of survival and will take an easy meal if it is on offer. So for this and many other reasons contact with us can spell danger, and the otters seem to know it. Only last week I heard of one that was shot for doing what otters do and freely feeding on somebody's fish. Two weeks ago our resident dog otter was hit and killed by a car.

The otter in Britain has the highest levels of European protection because it nearly became extinct due to human activity. Its recovery has been painfully slow and is still not secure, despite what the media tell us.

In his wonderful newly revised and updated book Otters, Paul Chanin says "There are many interesting lessons to be learned from the decline and recovery of otters. The most obvious is not to spread new chemicals throughout the environment until you thoroughly understand their effects. One sadly we don't seem to have learned yet."

Where will it end?

Otters were here first. They evolved millions of years before we did. The extraordinary question remains: why do we humans still consider it acceptable to persecute and disregard the other beings who share our planet?

Surely it shouldn't come down to money and ownership and profit. Shouldn't it be about what remains after we leave, about what we have left behind?

The whole river shivered. Ripples sweeping outward, catching light and swirling bubbles. Through the brambles and twigs I see her flip out of the water like a slim torpedo. She's porpoising. Upstream, purposeful, not wasting an ounce of energy on anything else but her foraging journey.

Where would we be without her?

All photos copyright Mark Cocker 2013

Monday, 11 February 2013

Fantastic Mr Fox

It's been a while. Otter Country has swum away, a grown-up book now, making its sinuous way to an ever-widening audience. I spent six months travelling the length and breadth of the country giving talks and having discussions, and I've received otter-mail from both sides of Australia, otter-prayers and artwork, and (my favourite) I've been sent an origami otter and cub from Japan. Otters were recently declared extinct in Japan and some people are very sad about it over there. We need our large predators, few though they are in the UK. I know I'm not alone in thinking this, as there have been messages from around Britain and across the world, from the US and from New Zealand, and some otterly lovely reviews have rippled back. 

Provoked by an incident not with an otter but with a fox, this post is all about attentiveness, foxes and chickens, and the human/predator dynamic. 

Readers will remember that I have an inquisitive and trusting relationship with our small flock, some of whom are pictured below: 

These are the heavenly Wyandottes. Trillion, (left) Poppet (centre) and the Buff Orpington, Pimpernel (behind). Million and Twiglet, the two Gold-laced Wyandottes, have been featured before. These five are important to our family. They lay fabulous organic free range eggs, they enliven the garden landscape, keep me company on the days I work at home and their companionable presence is a joy. Each day we let them out, and they scratch and prink around the garden, happily trashing the flowerbeds and foraging in the hedge. They've excavated pottery I never knew existed from the garden soil, made secret nests, hidden pyramids of eggs in the long grass, and shamelessly pooed all over the path. So, they provide excellent manure as well as being the most entertaining pets one could wish for. Amongst the things I like about them are their constant conversation, their expressions of approval and disapproval, and their discerning eye always on the look-out for a tasty morsel. Their social gatherings are a delight; they arrange themselves on the largest flower pot for preening, or in a row on the wall, and they decamp en masse to the shelter of the porch if it is raining. Their keen hearing and eyesight mean that they are constantly on the alert, and the inquisitive watching of me at my desk seems to be part of this. Above all I love the sound of the rivery quibble and gossip of their voices, and the quirky procession around to the back garden when it is the correct time of day. 

But last night we-forgot-to-close-the-henhouse-door.  

: - ( 

Unforgivable, especially because that very evening we had been watching about foxes on the news, and talking about the clash of predator and people. 

It was dark - no moon, and only shadowy light from the edge of town. I opened my eyes to the sound of what appeared to be the flapping of giant wings. The word Fox came out of my mouth even before I was properly awake. In the garden, feathers were flying as if a giant pillow fight were taking place. I flung back the duvet and ran out into the frost to try to save my chicks. 

Barney was there first, and although he knew he was supposed to do something, he wasn't sure what. 

He stood by, concerned, but knowing there was nothing he could do. He must have seen the fox slip away, but I never did. Meanwhile, Poppet flailed across the lawn. Her neck had been broken and the flapping was simply a reflex. But that reflex was the one that had alerted me and probably saved her sisters' lives. 

We stood feeling like fools for a few moments with Poppet's drooping body, then made sure the others were safe. I felt like I should have let him take her; now next time he comes he'll remember to be even more sneaky.

What is it that goes through us when we have to defend our flock like this? I felt more alert than I had done for a long time, in awe at the unsettling stealth of the fox, and couldn't sleep for most of the night. What do we do when the wild, which we love, threatens what we also love? My heart was pulled in all directions. The fox is hungry, may have young to feed. I couldn't blame him. We blamed ourselves, in that case, for the carelessness, for not protecting our brood, and we got on with being sad for the loss of Poppet. 

I can't help wondering about the fox, and his hunger. He'll be back. And I admire him for that. The jizz of conflicting and prickly feelings he evoked reminds me again that the 'wild' is not 'out there', it's all around, inside us, enmeshed through us as well as through the town and the city. Thank goodness it's there, creeping, creative, adapting; disturbing, ferocious and resilient. I feel sorry for the baby that was hurt by a fox in London, and perplexed as to why people might want to tame these wild creatures. There's a little grief that we lost our friend last night, but not nearly as much grief as I would feel if that untameable community with all its fierce, bloody vitality was lost. And without it, wouldn't we wither?

In a moment of inattentiveness that night we slipped up, but we learned something. As Leonard Cohen says in his Anthem: 'There's a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in.'

So here's a thought shining through that crack: it is miraculous that in this crowded little island there are still top predators living alongside and amongst us. We evolved alongside these creatures and we need them more than ever now; we need to notice their hunger, and their struggles, and be attentive to them, as well as to our own. But we also need to keep our distance, and be mindful that close contact with us means that many of the predator kind are persecuted, driven to the edges or lost forever. 

We also need all those who strive to clarify the misunderstandings that so often happen, and to protect and preserve our wary connection with our wilder kin. As David Abram says: 

'This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams - these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.'

One American father of the conservation movement, Aldo Leopold, said a similar thing in the opening to his thoughtful treatise on preserving the wild, A Sand County Almanac: 

'There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot... Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things wild, natural and free.'

This was written in 1948. Are we still taking some of these 'wild, natural and free' things for granted? What would Leopold say if he were still alive today? 

Across town, I hear that chill music, the high bark of the vixen as she calls to her mate. They too are our family. Let them be left.

'Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.' 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Book Launch!

Otter Country is here...

...and is getting off to a wonderful start with Hugh Warwick's spiffing review in The Guardian:

I'm just off to the Voewood Festival - 'arts garden party of the year' - to celebrate with the great and the good. I'll be appearing there on Sunday 26th August at 3pm in conversation with world-class conversationalist Mark Cocker, and later partying into the night.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Otters in May

It's May already. I've been deep in the editing process for 'Otter Country', and hard at work on my next book, which is a secret as yet.. (More on that in later editions of Wild watching.) In between, I have failed to wean myself away from the otter-obsession. Surely any animal as elusive as the wild and slippery Lutra lutra, a species that proves such a challenge to watch in the wild, must invite a degree of fixation. And I know it isn't only me. Having just begun reading Hugh Warwick's wonderful new book 'The Beauty in the Beast', which features Hugh's meetings with many knowledgable and eccentric animal obsessives, I feel confident enough to say that it's not simply me that's been diagnosed with over-enthusiasm. There are others. Look at Hugh. He had a hedgehog tattoo. And it turns out that from the hidden folds and hills to the urban edgelands of our wonderful archipelago we are many in being addicted to the wild. There's a toad man, a fox man, a water vole woman, a bumblebee man, a dragonfly woman... 

When you start looking closely at any creature, be it toad, ant, dragonfly, vole or bat, unexpected things always come into focus. The curiosity deepens, the multi-faceted object of your love glitters with fascination and the animal becomes inseparable from its intricate landscape. I felt it coming over me in the woods on Dartmoor last week. As I walked upriver, the water babbling companionably beside me, I came into a clearing filled with green light. My eye was distracted from the otteriness of the moving water and I noticed that over the mosses and ferns the air was flitting everywhere with little copper-coloured wings. They gleamed and glimmered. They were graceful. They were completely wrapped-up in their own world. Some were feeding on nectar, some were simply basking, some were unabashedly mating. I stared at one, and then another. I had a suspicion, but couldn't identify them. Not coppers, nor gatekeepers. Not silver-washed fritillaries, no too small for that. What sort were they? As soon as I got home, I rushed to my butterfly tome - Patrick Barkham's brilliant 'Butterfly Isles' - and rifled through the pages. I re-read Patrick's description; the timing and behaviour he described confirmed it. The rare pearl-bordered fritillary.

A few days later I was back, stalking around with my camera: no butterflies. I snuck about peering under leaves and snooping around the tree trunks. Not a proboscis, underwing or antenna in sight. Where had they all gone? Where did they roost? Do butterflies roost? Did they last more than a day? The questions began to pile in, and I began to get that old feeling, that curiosity which can send us trampling all over if we're not careful. And then I thought, no, just leave it. Poor butterflies. And I let them be.

But on the way back, the sun came out. And suddenly there they were, just so:

If you look carefully, you can see patches of gold on its lower wings that dazzle with brightness.

Back to the main story. Earlier this month I visited my favourite otter-haunt on the west coast of Scotland and stayed with an old school friend William and his partner Cathy. They are lucky enough to live and work on a Highland croft, which also happens to be in a prime location for otters:

William and I took a day out in his sea-kayak. As we paddled along the coast, on the glittering sea loch you see above, we came upon a familiar bump and a slick tail moving busily in the water. It turned out to be two otters - a mother and cub who were so intent on feeding that they didn't seem to notice us. We were able to rest our paddles and drift closer. They were heading towards us on the tide and we sat in silence and watched as they arrived. The mother was busy teaching her cub how to dive and feed. I've seen it before, but was struck again at how close they stayed to one another at all times - often floating almost symbiotically side-by-side or face-to-face - to eat their catch on the buoyant salt-water. Finally the mother noticed us (the cub seemed oblivious, or at least did not seem to recognise us as any kind of threat) but instead of taking flight she bobbed nearer and nearer to the boat, sniffing and snuffling noisily in an attempt to work out what we were. Clearly she had never seen a kayak this close. She didn't seem to know what we could be as she spent a good few minutes swimming around us attempting to work it out. She seemed to be relying almost entirely on her sense of smell, possibly because she couldn't believe her eyes. It was hard to decide whether it was a mixture of curiosity and confusion, or whether she was being territorial, or whether her eyesight was simply so poor that she did not see us as human, let alone anything dangerous. The strange contours of the small craft with two people in it were evidently not something with which she was familiar. At one point she was inspecting us so confidently that I thought she may be angry; we were trespassing in her dining room after all. I began to feel nervous that she would touch the boat or become protective of her cub; you had to be there - it felt as if anything could happen. Finally, after a great deal of boisterous snuffling she seem to have read our scent sufficiently to cause her to disappear with a 'huff'. She left nothing but a fizz of silvery bubbles. I swear I felt her swim beneath the kayak. When she melted away, she left her cub very confused and calling after her in its familiar, high-pitched whistle.

The cub might have been eight months old; its call was high, and it was a little smaller than its mother but still had good swimming and diving skills. Otters have to learn quickly in the demanding watery environment of river and coast, but it still can take a year or even more for them to have sufficient skills to become independent.. William noticed that to an un-practised ear it was very hard to distinguish the otter cub's call from a bird-sound. Then I realised that even though he lives within spitting distance of these animals, and must have heard it before, Will hadn't identified their sound. This must be true for many people who hear an otter call; either they do not notice it at all or they put it down to a bird calling. Yet another highly successful otter subterfuge! 

Eventually we spied the two otters reunited on the shore; they slipped quietly out of the water, trotted over the rocks and sneaked around to a holt hidden in thick brush on the hillside. Perfect otter habitat - undisturbed and impenetrable to many other animals and certainly to people.

Otters can be quite predictable, so a couple of days later I returned at the same time of day to the same stretch of shore. I saw the two otters again, swimming in exactly the same place, and they came out of the water in exactly the same direction. Again they went the same way into their hidden holt.. This time however I was ready for them, and I managed to film the episode. Just as I thought my day was complete, a few minutes later I saw three more otters, making a total of five otters all on one stretch! I hastily pulled out my camera again, and caught these three on film too. Because they were on the same patch, I think these otters must have been related - I expect they were an older brood from the same mother, or perhaps an additional female/a sister, a cousin or a sister-in-law, with last year's cubs? I couldn't help wondering what this meant about the population density of otters in the area - was I just lucky or is it an area particularly rich in otters? Do they have smaller ranges in places where feeding is better? What was it about this area which was so good for the otters? So many tantalising questions left unanswered.

This was a big day for me - I managed to capture all five otters (very inexpertly) on film. Using the only equipment I had, a wide-angle lens camera which was wrong for the occasion, I was able to give a fairly good idea of the fleeting glimpses you usually see of wild otters, rather than the rather misleading close-ups that you can see sometimes on TV which show every whisker and nostril in their finest detail. I researched my book 'Otter Country' with just a pen and notebook, and never took a camera. Sometimes I simply relied on the sensations from my memory to write it all down later; photography is clearly not my medium. I found the camera got thoroughly in the way of the experience. But still, the mother and cub are there on film now, for all to see. For me perhaps the most interesting thing, apart from the noisy eating, is that it shows just how secretive and difficult to see they can be on land, and how their fur seems to take on the colour of the surroundings, and how it reflects the light, water and rocks almost as effectively as an invisibility cloak.

Watch the otter film full-screen on youtube:

The fine line between watching these animals and disturbing their privacy was weighing on my mind this day. I was conflicted by the fact that I'd been given a camera to film, and felt I had to use it, but only had a wide-angle lens which I didn't really know how to operate. I succeeded in locating my couple of otters, but set out over the rocks and quickly found myself totally encumbered by my equipment. Worse still, I  discovered that if you set out to film, rather than simply watch and observe, the whole experience is transformed, and in my case, the technology seriously got in the way. However, my skilled daughter has helped me to edit my attempt at film - not a brilliant first go - and it is edited now into something almost presentable. It fails to depict how close the otters allowed me to come to them. The lens I had, and the fact that the camera stopped working, miss the fact that at times the otters were almost at my feet. In one shot you see the otter come to peer at me from behind a big rock; it seems feisty and curious and far too busy eating to bother about escape or concealment. Not at all like the impossibly secretive otters I know at home in Devon. Having had a first go, I am determined make a better job of filming next time, and if I can, I'll record the feisty otters of Scoraig more closely.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

More Lutris

They were there again this morning, almost in the same place.

November mist, and mild. Bird calls. Water birds. Moorhen, mallard, geese. Nobody much about. I've dropped the kids at school and can breathe a little. My dog Barney and I are bimbling along the river bank. He with his agenda, I with mine.

It's nearly the same place as before, and the water is otter-coloured, silted with roots, reeds and fallen leaves. It ribbons around submerged things, slides with strange ripples and currents that swirl to the surface. It's hard to focus. Time and sound bend and stretch. The surface is chinked with light and smoothness; it ripples, confuses, changes.. and I'm coming out of my human skin with all its dark thoughts and wonderings. I'm empty enough to see them, I think.

There's been heavy rain, and I'm worrying that this will have flushed out my otters. One of them disappeared into an underwater holt last time I was here, and if the river level rises like this, do they have to move out? Do they struggle? Will they have gone to some other part of the river?

Anyone else might have thought it was bird-sound, but my ear tells me otherwise. It's a musical 'cheep' ... 'cheep' - soft, but insistent. It slides over the water. O to have the ears of an owl. Lopsided, but very effective. I wish. I strain my senses, but they're no use, so I let them go.

It's there, again, and now I'm even more sure. It's not particularly distinguishable from the many bird calls that ring from every direction, but most resembles the kingfisher. The otter's call has an irregular rhythm, and unlike the startling kingfisher note as it arrows upstream, it's brief, staccato. Even knowing this, you may not hear it. When I recognise their voices, I can tune in.

While I'm still, the mallards flurry in a kerfuffle of panic; they fly up and away, indicating exactly where the otters are.

A presence pops the surface and pours downriver. Purposeful. They could be just ripples. They appear and disappear. Everything about the otter, including its voice, is honed for disguise. I'll lose them soon.

I should go back a bit. I was bimbling along, but I was going too fast to notice anything. The brisk walk most of us do, the kind of walk that's filled with thoughts and clutter, of the weekend's frustrations, joys, sadness.. this kind of walk will yield nothing. I can't hear properly. So I check my pace, slow, focus my eyes on the edges of the water. Its surface is dark, sinister-brown, with inscrutable depths. Barney dog, intrigued at the change in my behaviour, begins tiptoeing carefully behind me. He's a collie, and although he sometimes has lapses, now instinctively understands what is required.

I'm standing beside a gate, screened by some sallow and oak branches. A movement on the water. The size of a water vole, but with a wake. Henry Williamson, who wrote 'Tarka the Otter' and spent many years down at otter-nose-level, called it a 'ream'. Half way between a ripple, and a beam of light. The otter's head catches light, is light, is water.

It dives and its companion dives with it. They are water shapes, a presence that could be nothing, and most would miss them. How many times have I been here and not noticed? Travelling downstream this time, their bubbles fizz to the surface where they are foraging in the river's belly. A split second later they are slippery, up on the slope of a half-sunken tree, exposed fur smooth as silk and dripping. One is slightly slimmer, or smaller. A pair? They could be mother and yearling.

Their fur is exactly the colour and texture of the water. They chew their prey rapidly, swallow and dive again, this time porpoising a little, but moving as one. I follow them. Barney, following my whispered orders, sits like a statue. He knows the routine.

As I scan with my binoculars a runner distracts us; shocked by his sudden appearance, we fall out of our watching. Barney wants to play, offering a stick, and I want to tell. Are they there? he asks, stopping his run, looking at the water, steaming a little. Yes, I say, but we won't see them now.

I follow their chirps downstream but do not see them again. They dissolve in a trail of calls that vanish up the riverbank and into a tangle of marsh.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


I'm trailing along the river, thinking, this is a good otter place, where's my dog? what was that Jenny said to me.. I hope she's ok in her wellies today.. when I see it. Swimming directly across the river toward the bank upon which I'm now standing, AN OTTER! Face right out of the water, going fast, a wake of ripples spreading behind.. my heart flips, and I drop down, still as moss. Then it dives, its back forming an extravagant hump in the water, curving in a graceful arc which melts into the surface. All the colours of the river, that wet fur, smooth as water and disappearing, always disappearing. Then it's gone, down into the murk, and I slip nearer. My feet sink into mud, I peer, crane my neck, scanning the water; not a thing. No bubbles, no trail.. It must have gone into an underwater holt. I can see it resurfacing beneath the bank in my mind's eye, then entering the holt, circling to find a dry spot, beginning to preen its spiky pelt.. The bank here is covered in dark, in thick roots and rafts of leaves and debris; I've no hope of seeing it again. It is doing what otters do, invisible now, perhaps watching me from somewhere, listening for my departure, eyes, ears and nostrils lying on the perfect meniscus of the water.. Otters have an almost supernatural talent when it comes to vanishing. Like Ted Hughes said, they move 'by melting.' But then, a whistle from the opposite bank. Not a whistle, but a staccato, plaintive 'peep' ... 'peep'. The sound is urgent, it goes into my head and right through my heart.. it says 'cubs'. They're not hard to spot, their ripples confusing the water's glassy surface as they circle, luring my eyes, searching for their mother, who is hiding, and unable to tell them to come.. I see one cub, but can hear others calling. I creep closer but they vanish into the water, dissolving with the watery swirls of the inexpert swimmer. Their voices mingle, and a kingfisher startles away, adding its voice to the blend. The bird's note is about the same key, but rings out for longer, its words twine around one another, as if it can throw its voice a little further. My eyes are full of river, my senses alive.. The otters' ripples continue, but now I can't see them through the trees. I can never come here without sensing their presence, but each time it happens it is a surprise, this fleeting glimpse into wildness, into this other world, the liminal place between where I am, and where I would wish to be, only ever unveiled briefly.