When I inflicted that garbled post about Terry Nutkins and dolphins on you all I mentioned the restorative feel to Otter Country, and it feels restorative in many ways. Here is a book to take you right back to the basics instincts of man (or in this case woman) ... walking and searching the land. It was a book to restore that sense of nature red in tooth and claw and our place in amongst it all as I scoured the countryside and river banks of the UK in search of the elusive otter with Miriam Darlington.
I had known that otters had become scarce, this in the late 1970s...
'Otters living in an aquatic ecosystem that collected every single poison we humans had ever invented, went blind, or failed to reproduce young, or both. With no reproduction possible, slowly, quietly they began to pass out of existence.'
but had also heard that they might be increasing in numbers again.
As Miriam Darlington suggests, the otter is...
'a barometer for the health of our rivers, and like a spirit level, its reappearance indicates that we are finding our balance with the wild and we should always remember to keep a weather eye upon it.'
Let it be known that Miriam takes a big hit on behalf of the rest of us too, because from the safety of our armchairs that elusive presence is often only indicated by a little pile of otter poo, which we must call spraint. Miriam basically sniffs, prods and dissects her way through what seems like several tons of it in order to track and share those otter moments with her reader, and along the way I also learned that Avon moisturiser is the best midge deterrent known to mankind.
But on a more serious note, I learned a great deal more about the countryside and the threats... the developments that have hindered rather than helped. Countless man-made 'improvements' have been to the otter's detriment, wetlands and bogs have been drained, trees uprooted, all of which has taken its toll on habitats, but nature has renewal and repair within its power, and given the chance and the understanding, restoration of otter-friendly waterways is slowly happening.
The success stories, which often come through true dedication to the cause of otter preservation make heartening and optimistic reading, especially that surrounding the revitalisation of the River Lea as part of the London 2012 Olympic Park project.
Miriam Darlington's travels take her from Devon and the banks of the River Dart, thence to Scotland, the Somerset Levels and all ottery places in between, not forgetting the stream that runs past the Co-Op store in Lampeter
And of course there is the Tarka Trail in North Devon, and perhaps it is Henry Williamson many of us have to thank for that best of introductions to the world of the otter. Cue a dash to the shelves to find my copy of Tarka the Otter, bought with 3/6d of my very hard-earned pocket money in about 1965.
I have re-read a few chapters and I am twelve again, except I can't for the life of me remember how the book made me feel. Perhaps I just couldn't read it because this time I do feel a bit wobbly... thanks to Miriam I know so much more. Dear little baby Tarka and Halcyon the kingfisher and Old Nog the heron...
'This was her first litter, and she was overjoyed when Tarka's lids ungummed, and his eyes peeped upon her, blue and wondering. He was then eleven days old.... after a day of sight-seeing he began to play, tapping her nose with a paw and biting her whiskers...when his eyes had been opened a fortnight, Tarka knew so much that he could crawl as far as a yard away from her...'
But I look at that back cover now... the otter hounds in pursuit and I wonder what I made of that picture when I was twelve. It was a given, otters were hunted to their death by packs of dogs, now it seems horrific and of course it is banned, and I realise I am now far too squidgy to read the book at the moment. It will have to stay as a book read by the twelve-year old me.
Along the way Miriam Darlington weaves in many other literary references.... Seamus Heaney, Dorothy Wordsworth, Alice Oswald, Daphne du Maurier, Kenneth Grahame, Charles Kingsley as well as the artist Kurt Jackson. Ted Hughes credits Henry Williamson, and repeated readings of Tarka the Otter, for sparking his own interest in wildlife...
'It entered into me and gave shape and words to my world' and put his life 'under an enchantment that lasted for years'.
I had known that Ted Hughes lived in the same part of Devon as Henry Williamson, and that the Poet Laureate, feeling so indebted to the rivers, had asked for his memorial stone to be placed high up on Dartmoor. Permission was granted by Prince Charles (Duchy land) and a large piece of granite was airlifted into place at a secret location, equidistant from the sources of the rivers Teign, Dart, Taw and East Okement.
There was great excitement locally when that location was finally discovered. But I didn't know that Henry Willamsons and Ted Hughes had been friends, knowing that gives me a refreshingly new perspective on Ted Hughes too.
There are some lovely touches in this book. My favourite, and often appearing it seems when there has been a sighting of an otter, a little set of prints pad silently across the page as a sort of paragraph break, as if the little creature is there in spirit.
I turned the last page of Otter Country full of admiration for a really god read and for Miriam Darlington and her loving pursuit of one animal. Admiration too for all those people who support the cause of one species... the whales, the dolphins, the tigers and those who fight the corner for the less glamorous ones too.
But bless the otters, what a lovely book this is.