From Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison, published in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts by Elliott & Thompson. Out now in paperback original (available in the Caught by the River shop for the special price of £12) and ebook.
Words: Miriam Darlington
At the southwesterly tip of Britain, amongst the low hills of Bodmin Moor, the river gathers in a furzey marsh. The waters move beneath the A30, pass through a drowned valley and muscle into miles of moorland fields. Further on, the water cuts through granite and bounces into pools cold enough for spawning salmon and sea trout.
The river sparkles past human dwellings: past drives, parked cars and gardens with swings and climbing frames where children play. The banks are knuckled with the roots of ash trees that otters use as covert passageways to hide from prying eyes. The fishy scent marks of their spraint linger on almost every prominent rock and could give them away to those who wish to pay attention. People who live beside the water might be in the know about their otter neighbours, but they could just as easily mistake the otter’s comings and goings, and its characteristic whistle, for courting dippers or the chinking voices of nesting wrens.
The sprightly Fowey tumbles over rocks and through woodland, it races under bridges throwing moist spray that mists uncurling ferns on the banks. To save energy, otters come out of the water here and nose through the rich undergrowth where it is dry. Beneath the bridges aromatic masses of moss and fine, sandy silt build up. Here, the perfect wet surface captures the otters’ movements in svelte trails, tracing evidence of their secret nightly commute.
A recently half-eaten duck might lie in the shallows. A fishbone. A small scrape of sand made by somebody with a heavy tail and a crescent of five webbed toes.
As the waters enter gentler slopes and the current slows, wild garlic and wood anemone carpet the banks. Tall, gnarly oaks are showing buds, and in the glades where the weak spring light comes through, patches of dog violet splash and scatter through the spindly hazel coppices. From the edge of distant villages, beyond the mosaic of reedy wetland and boggy fields, the voices of song thrushes speckle the air.
Where the first hint of an estuary begins, brackish creeks seep into the main river, and tributaries lined with copses of hazel and ash carry reflections of tight black buds. In its smooth sections the water absorbs all the brightness of filigree leaves just emerging. Where the light does not touch it, the water is musteline-black. In other stretches it turns to bottle glass, slow and green, with eel and bass swimming in its dreamy fathoms.
At dawn there is still a frail tissue of frost on the riverbank. Ice crystals carry a sliver of tracks that soon melt into the sand. A small female has passed, leaving an ottery shimmy behind. It is hard to say which way she might have gone, and her soft scent trail drains quickly away into the water. Through the over-hanging hazel branches, shadows and light catch on catkins and reveal the bright red of bare dogwood twigs.
At the inter-tidal zone silty banks should make it easier to find otter tracks, but the tides can wash away any evidence. A little further seaward, salt marsh and mudflats spread into an oasis of sheeny openness. Wading birds, herons, water rail and moorhens might fall prey to the otters if they nest too close to the water. As the river’s wildness becomes tamed and con-trolled by urban encroachment the sounds and scents of the human Riviera take over. Groynes, flood banks, roads; salt and vinegar, ketchup and beer; bottles litter the banks and smokers mingle with seaweed. The water might be watched from windows, walls, bridges and balconies, and the otters must slide past in the half-light, their profile sleeking into quieter nooks of the river where no trail can be seen.
There is something magical about the otter’s continual sinking into a world where we cannot follow. Its disappearances have fascinated writers ever since we first wondered if we might try to capture it. Kenneth Grahame’s childlike delight in this enigmatic side to lutrine behaviour is highlighted in Otter’s abrupt vanishings in The Wind in the Willows. Otter often melts away unexpectedly in the midst of conversation, and consequently is thought to have no proper manners. Amongst the other animals it is accepted that this is simply how otters are, they vanish and nothing can be done about it. But the otter’s riverine home also embodies an enticing mystery. For Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, the river could be a wraith-like creature, carrying memories of the land’s history in its swirls and silvery mists. In Tarka, sibilant waters steal into the otter’s holt and soothe him when he is afraid: wilder, fast moving stretches become creaturely at night, shiver to life and playfully tease and spar with Tarka, fighting him with watery teeth and star-streaming claws.
The indivisible nature of water and otters also appears in Charles Kingsley’s children’s story The Water-Babies. The water baby Tom sees a family of otters ‘. . . swimming about, and rolling, and diving, and twisting, and wrestling, and cuddling, and kissing and biting, and scratching, in the most charming fashion that ever was seen’.
In spring the river’s bright weed fronds swirl like the hair of enchanted beings; rain-coloured herons stand like statues amongst the tips of new flag iris; pools of wriggling toadlets glisten, and mounds of emerald moss are magic enough. But the possibility of diving into this unreachable world rouses further with the promise of warm weather and soothing waves. Where the river meets the sea, gradations of blue deepen into the far horizon, and the sparkling indigo reminds me of the splashed seascapes painted by Kurt Jackson. Beyond the old granite quays and pale yellow sprigs of wild daffodils on the shore, I catch wildness in the call of an oystercatcher, the mew of a curlew and the high circling of gulls. Alongside it all, the otter sleeks in and out of the water, travelling upstream and down nightly, and most of us have no idea it is even there; we overlap but are only dimly aware of one another.
One evening, where the river pours into the estuary, I crawl dune-ward, crushing celandines in a curve of marsh scented by the tide’s underbelly. Streetlight leaks from the town and drifts over the moving water so that any ripple or wavelet is thrown into sharp relief.
The otter’s contact call can sound like the whistle of a kingfisher but when coupled with the heart-stopping sighting of a familiar, whiskered muzzle, there is no mistake. Tilting its head upward, it floats, crunches awkwardly through the hard shell of a small crab. I hear one faint call, catch the curve of its back as it disappears, and then nothing more. As the light fades I wonder at the lithe beauty of this creature. It must travel to the sea be-cause it is hungry, starving perhaps, after the long winter. Here on the shore there must be more reliable feeding. My feet slick through the silty mud of the estuary: I need all my senses to find my way back to the solid world of pavement and road. Here where the season’s edge blurs into another world, it’s still possible to lose yourself in the wild.