• In Search of the Elusive, Eternal Otter

    Miriam Darlington Listens for the Telltale “Yickers”

    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 mesmerized as it furs with the lightest shower of rain, ripples beneath coots or bends under the weight of a swan. Moorhens bicker at the edges of my vision, and mallard mis-choreograph landings, skating over the water in threes and fours. Gadwall flock and feed. Mostly, nothing happens. But nothing is good. I drop into stillness. My mind empties. The rain on the roof is a thousand pattering fingers.

    A ragged battalion of cormorants perch on the sagging skeleton of a drowned tree. Rain begins to come in through my window, polishing the sill into the surface of an infinity pool. My toes begin to go numb. I zip my coat, tooth by tooth, up to the neck, pour myself some tea and eat a biscuit by melting it on my tongue rather than crunching. Still no sign of otter. The logbook notes one feeding in front of the hide yesterday, and preening its fur on the bank two days before that. I rest my chin on my fist.

    The water surface is zinc, and brighter than the sky. Between the two, thousands of starlings are stirring. It is nearly time for me to leave. The starlings begin their pouring flight over the reeds. They are a flickering brown stream. Some settle like extra leaves in the scrub, others continue on to some invisible gathering place in the fields. I leave the hide as the sun is beginning to dip and the clouds are tinged with lemon. Color shifts to etch in some ochre, then gradually daubs everything with a watery wash of orange and salmon pink.

    Emerging from the woods, I catch the smoky display of the starlings. They form and dissolve against the sunset. Their spectral swarm seems to contract, then burst wide open. Watching the news recently, my eye was distracted by the same formations in the background behind the newsreader. Starlings were taking over the shot. I don’t know what the story was, but the starlings rewrote it that night. I wonder how many other viewers noticed and were distracted by the shapes made by the birds? Far more interesting than the story that was supposed to be news, it was a protest in starling, a wordless  countercurrent to what was being spoken.

    The wet body of peat gives gently under me. Its crypt smell speaks of a thousand years of history. The otter has been here through all this time; it was here before people came, before villages and towns and roads grew up.

    I stand absolutely still. Behind me the fading sky is piled with mountainous cumulonimbus. The birds are gargantuan against the clouds for just a few moments before falling to earth. Like the underwater movement of the otter, they leave me longing for something that slips away. As the birds disappear, a badger bustles out of the trees and forages for beetles in the soft earth of the track. Its sett must be in one of the banks in the coppice woods, and I think about the fragments of history it burrows through nightly: Neolithic, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Roman. Peat has been dug here for centuries.

    In 1970 an old timber trackway was discovered by Ray Sweet, a peat-cutter. Dendrochronologists dated the tree rings in the oak planks to 6,000 years old. It is possibly the oldest road in the world, extending across the marsh between what used to be an island at Westhay and a ridge of higher ground at Shapwick. Thousand-of-years-old feet creeping across the marshes. Perhaps searching for beaver or otter.

    Evidence of a network of these tracks has since been found, some of them obviously laid on trackways that were older still. Hunter-gatherer ancestors would have crossed and recrossed here, carrying their young, moving their families, hunting deer, trading pelts.

    If you stand on one of the promontories, you can imagine what the topography must have looked like—wide, silvery expanses of water, crisscrossed by these thin lines; raised wooden walkways linking outcrops and their people. Otter, beaver, elk and wolves would have waded freely. I wonder about the library of memory held in the ground. It’s a dizzying thought.

    In Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, he talks of when the Earth was a dark plain, and the ancestors created symphonic pathways which literally sang everything into creation. All we have left is a little archaeological evidence and small puzzle pieces. Chatwin says, “an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.”

    Listening to the quiet echo in the reeds, I can’t help thinking of it shadowed with patterns and songlines. Moving like a fluid map, reeds whisper. Water trickles. A bird flickers through the air. It is a breathing web and neither the map nor my words can do it justice.

    Night falls between the watery dykes. When my eyesight no longer serves me, I listen to the strange layers of song: the call and return of a pair of tawny owls, and later, the percussive high-pitched whistle that could be an otter, hidden in the dark. Something is rippling and reforming in puddles and pools. A thumbnail of crescent moon has risen.

    The poet Alice Oswald calls moonrise the “hinge-moment” when different voices begin to speak and the moon hangs in mist and over water like a peeping eye. I find a bridge and wait for the whistle of the otter call. The landscape fades into shadows and greys, but the water still holds a memory of brightness. New sounds occur that I can’t identify. The whirring flutter of something, a rasping cry, a twitch; rustling.

    I am listening for something in particular. Otters have a range of calls; the huff seems to be when the animal is curious, surprised or slightly threatened, but also appears to be used as an aggressive response when it is annoyed. The high whistle is used for locating and summoning; cubs will use this sound repeatedly. There is also a high-pitched whickering, what Henry Williamson called a “yicker,” which is used defensively, when the otters become agitated or frightened, or when they are fighting.

    *

    Time blends into the dusk. I wait until I can no longer feel my feet. My senses begin to confuse and lose focus as my eyesight no longer serves. Then, like a soft clarion call, it is there. My heart misses a beat. Could it be? What bird would whistle at this time? There it is. It’s the otter’s whistle. I can feel my pulse racing. It’s close. The whistle is repeated again and again, at intervals of a few seconds, in the same high, monotone call. It sounds urgent, insistent. There is no answer, only the trees rustling with crowded roosts and tangled foliage. My feet, half submerged in mulch, are glued to the ground. I wait and wait. I hardly breathe. Without the dazzle of a torch, the moon is all quivering reflections. I stare over a bridge at the flicker beneath.

    Suddenly, a shape forms, leaving a rippled “V” behind. A bulge in the water rises then disappears. I daren’t move. The water is all the colors of night; black peat with its archive of color mixed over millennia—water, mint, algae and reeds make brown; mud and silt and sedges make grey; eels, frogs, stones, the down of bulrushes; all of it comes to black. How will my eyes ever see a moving shadow from the belly of the river against this background? But there she is, a shapeless strangeness in the water, and a fluttering of discomfort in the reeds.

    Another whistle, and the otter is joined by another. I cannot see them, but remain still, hardly daring to breathe, cursing the vapor of my own breath. A splash as the otters meet face-to-face in the water. I hear a yicker as they greet each other and their bodies break the surface. I think it’s a mother and cub.

    The faintest reflection of light catches their movement as they twirl together like rope. Otter cubs can sometimes stay with the parent until they are eighteen months old. At this point they are fully grown and have enough hunting skills to be independent. But the mother often has trouble getting rid of her young. They are clingy; they sometimes pester, follow and call to her for weeks.

    A sequence of leaps and dives ensues, where the otters spar and bicker. The splashing is unselfconscious now, and unmistakable. One seems to have caught some prey and the other is begging for a piece. Otters do not like to share food. There is quiet while one chews and the other forages for itself. I can still only just make out their shapes. There is a flickering movement of jaws before they swallow and dive again.

    For a moment I think they have left, then they surface once more and I make out two long shapes, one just ahead of the other. They wend their way further down the waterway before insinuating themselves back into the dark. A breeze moves the reeds and I hear one more whistle, then nothing. I wait a little longer, until most of the light has gone. Still the water holds a faint glimmer of sky.

    *

    On my way back to the car park I’m light-headed with my otter sighting. Two otters together! I’m buzzing with excitement. This night-time encounter makes me think it will be worth coming back for more.

    Just as I reach the road, a badger noses out of the undergrowth and sets my heart racing again. It bumbles away along the path in front of me. Striped nose fixed to scents in the grass, it follows an invisible trail laid down by generations of other badgers. I follow its ghost-greyness close behind until it pauses mid-mouthful, catches my scent, then bulldozes off into the brambles with a snort of disgust.

    In the trees and reeds around me, hundreds of starlings are roosting. At dusk you catch them gathering on wires and branches, shifty, like Hitchcock’s birds. They are still now, like reams of black beads. In the darkness my sensations are suddenly all askew. Not being able to see my own feet properly gives me a kind of vertigo. I’m not sure how much further it is back to the road. I can only function by being porous to what is around me. I try to bring the surroundings into my senses by a kind of osmosis. Animals must have the power to do this a hundred times better than me.

    This process of nighttime perception reminds me of Steinbeck’s image of how a human might gather delicate marine invertebrates: “so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will on to a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.”

    I let my mind go gentle, become a receptive vessel, allow sounds and shapes to “ooze and crawl” on their own into my senses. Only then can I feel what is there and try to bring some of it into focus.

    *

    The next day I set out early. I’ve borrowed some neoprene waders, though I don’t intend to fish. I want to look from water level. I pack up the bike panniers before dawn and arrive as a thin line of light peers over the horizon. Following a tip-off, I wrap my feet in tinfoil for insulation. It can get very cold standing for long periods in waders in the water and apparently this is the thing to do. I slide into my neoprene membrane and waddle as stealthily as I can to my spot. Already birds are beginning their wake-up calls. Edging into opaque water, I am drawn into the rustling of reeds in the dark. I can feel cold clinging to my legs.

    A brown eye is floating on the surface towards me. It forms into a head, followed by a long body. I can see upturned nostrils, a half-submerged snout and two ears.

    I stay for a long time, the kind of time that makes time seem like nonsense. Sometimes I feel unsteady, as if the silt under me is shifting. In their foil coating, my feet feel like Sunday roasts. Gradually the light comes up. Indigo becomes cobalt, which brightens to the kind of blue glow from a computer screen; the blue of a low gas flame burns for a while, then eventually fades to pale English-winter blue. Now the color is lifted by hundreds of starlings flying out of their roosts. They flow above my upturned face like feathered arrows in clusters of ten, thirty, fifty, the reeds vibrating with their flight.

    When the birds have gone, there is not silence; water and air can never be entirely silent. There is a constant breathing of reeds. I’m inside the forest of stalks and my feet, although protected by the foil and the wellingtons, are losing normal sensation. I am suddenly thinking about the hot sweet tea in my thermos. In the light of morning my stomach gives a huge gurgle of longing. I decide to give in, and in that moment, it happens. Something is moving on the water. It is among and between the swaying stalks, twenty yards away. I freeze back into my footprints and will my stomach to be quiet.

    A brown eye is floating on the surface towards me. It forms into a head, followed by a long body. I can see upturned nostrils, a half-submerged snout and two ears. The whiskers are webbed with water. I think it is unaware of my presence, but I cannot be sure. A tail tip leaves the water as it steers through the shallows. It bends into the depths, dips and comes up all teeth and whiskers, chewing what look like small eels. Even as it eats, there are no ripples.

    It is coming closer, out of the reeds, towards me, almost close enough for me to touch. I have never been so near to a wild otter, and stuck thigh deep in its territory I begin to wonder, through my held breath, about the sharply uneven contours of needle teeth. Then I start to think weirdly: perhaps it is so close because it is a tame otter that has been released? Just as this thought dissolves, it looks up. Something about it stiffens. We are eye to wild eye; its face is armed with a startling array of walrus bristles. Its ears are larger than I expected, almost like a cat’s, and its nostrils are visibly measuring my scent. There is nothing shy about this animal.

    I have got close enough to see five different sets of whiskers around its face and under its chin. In its eyes I can see shock at what on earth I am, and at what I could be doing in its hunting ground. The live current in both of us prickles. When I do not move, it comes a little closer, huffs, then melts bodily into the water surface, leaving the shadow of a ripple and nothing else.

    *

    Back in the Car Park hot sweet tea dribbles down my throat and thaws out my hands and feet. I grab my notebook, focus my eyes, and make a clumsy sketch of the otter as best I can; the picture is shaky, as if it should wobble or pour off the paper. I must be printed upon that otter’s retina as it is upon mine. I wonder how long I will stay there, the untrustworthy outline of me, meaning nothing but all the contours of danger. I trap my picture between the pages, as if even this image is slippery. Then I set about peeling off my waterproofs. I lay out the foot-shaped foil for later use, put on a warm jumper and go to lean on the bridge.

    The wet body of peat gives gently under me. Its crypt smell speaks of a thousand years of history. The otter has been here through all this time; it was here before people came, before villages and towns and roads grew up. It flows through its water pathways, makes use of our canals, traveling unseen, moulding itself around us like a shadow. It has been among us since the beginning. As far as it is concerned, we have only ever been one of the earth’s dangers; like Ted Hughes’s otter, who

    Wanders, cries;
    Gallops along land he no longer belongs to; 
    Reenters the water by melting.

    _______________________________________

    Excerpted from Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter by Miriam Darlington. Reprinted by permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2022 by Miriam Darlington.

    Miriam Darlington
    Miriam Darlington
    Miriam Darlington contributes frequently to The Times, The Guardian, and The Ecologist, and is also the author of Otter Country, forthcoming in the US from Tin House in 2024. She lives in Devon, England.





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