The River Ballet by Meg T. Justice. Linocut, 2022

Otters in Winter

An unexpected encounter with wild joy

WHEN AN OTTER DIES, it disappears into earth or river, leaving no obvious sign. Even with the attention given to the otter, with meticulous improvements to its habitat and generally cleaner water, a wild otter’s lifespan might stretch up to five years. Many must die through scarcity of food, and in the winter the pressure on the food chain increases drastically. Otters have to feed for far longer in the winter, and they may need to travel further. At this time, seeing them becomes easier, as the landscape is worn so thin it can no longer hide everything. In late October, in the early morning and late into the dusk, I patrol stealthily around Denmark Farm. But there is still no sighting.

One morning I can see that the lake has begun to freeze at the edges and the undulating land is like a great bear going into hibernation. Layered with thick socks inside my wellies I crisp and crackle my way through the ice meadow of plant sculptures and down to watch mist moving over the white lake. It’s an early cold snap and West Wales is blanketed in ice. All life has retracted into itself, and I wonder how anything wild can survive.

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For seven evenings I walk around the boundary of the fields. I go in all weathers. I sit still. I wear the same old clothes, those that don’t make a sound or give off that human crackle that must sound and smell like fire to anything nonhuman. I go in different lights; in the glow of sunset, in low cloud, with the stinging patter of snowfall on my face. Each time, although well covered, my fingers and toes are bitten with cold.

On my very last evening, as the light is fading, I hear something which makes my hair prickle. A strange crunching sound is coming from the direction of one of the shallow field scrapes. Nothing is visible that could be making a sound like this. I move slowly towards it, blood thrilling in my veins. At last I see a thin form, close to the icy puddle of the scrape. Its humped back and frenzied movement are unmistakable. An otter. Then, its body curls unexpectedly and what I thought was one animal morphs into two. It’s a mother and cub!

The forepaws are extraordinary. How could I not have noticed the length of otters’ toes before? They are like long, slender fingers, but with webs.

The sound of them, magnified in the freezing air, is coming from their front claws as they scrape and dig fiercely at the frozen clump of rushes. I walk quietly closer, until I am only a few feet from where they are. The cub is slightly smaller, but seems like a young male, with a wide face, thick neck and prominent ears. He is oblivious of me. He has only one thing in mind, and using every ounce of strength in his muscular upper body he digs away at the ice, copying his mother in her frenzy to find food. Sensing the slow pulse of something hidden in hibernation buried in that clump, they both tear at the rushes. Every so often one of them stops and munches rapidly at an unidentifiable creature. Then they move to the next clump, and carry on with the search, the cub following in the footprints of its mother. She is teaching him. This is how he will feed himself next winter, when he is alone. As I watch, snow begins to fall and subtle flakes land on the otters’ dark outlines. As each flake settles, it stays for only an instant and then quickly melts on their fur.

***

Whenever we encounter extraordinary wild creatures, it takes a few moments to adjust. Our senses register a strangeness for a split second. Then we might feel shock, as a prickle of recognition goes through our body. The sensation is redoubled when we can name this experience as a living collection of fur and sinew. It is fox, otter, badger, or hare. The alien movement of a wild animal is like nothing we have seen in pictures or screens, and perhaps at these moments of recognition we are at our most alert. Encroaching more and more into the wildscapes of these animals, we have been forced into new contact with them, and they can remind us, by their appearance, that the divide between urban and rural, wild and civilized, between us and them, is not what we might think.

I stand in the cold, my lungs empty, my feet numb, cold swimming up my legs from the permafrost. I watch the otters thread through the lap of the field; they are thin as the edge of a knife, but powerful in their wiriness, using all their strength to break up the ice with jaws and front feet. The forepaws are extraordinary. How could I not have noticed the length of otters’ toes before? They are like long, slender fingers, but with webs. As the mother otter burrows into the frozen tussocks and chews on the ice with her teeth, I can almost taste ice in my mouth and feel a numbing fatigue in my own arms and hands. As I watch the otter’s arms working, I sense the gnawing hunger, the force of adrenalin, the sharpened determination to survive the winter.

Rising Up, by Meg T. Justice. Linocut, 2023
 

I speak, and the young otter turns its head. He looks me over and for a brief moment our eyes lock. Then the enchantment breaks, and the otter returns to his feeding. The mother otter simply ignores me. What impression they have of my whispering figure I can’t know. What does an otter think? They may have lain watching me many times, invisible in the ditch, brown shadows, waiting for the intrusion to disperse.

I can’t remember what I said, and I’m glad nobody human was there to hear, but for a few moments I understood that once, before we forgot how, we followed the furred and feathered creatures around us. We listened to them and watched them. In many Indigenous cultures across the world, creation myths suggest that in the past humans had taken animal forms. If you look at it like that, in spite of the harsh life these animals lead, in some way the covetousness we might feel for animals’ skills and resilience can be explained.

These days we may only ever have any sort of kinship with our domestic animals, with our pet dog or cat; or with our chickens, sheep, horses or cows, or the wild birds that we find through the lens of our binoculars. They can become like garden animals, that we like to feed with nuts and seed until they are semi-tame, ornamental things. The instinct that drives us to collect and own is only one of the forces in our relationship with animals, but it wasn’t always like that, and somewhere deep in our DNA our awe and wonder remain. I feel it each time I encounter the wildness of the otter in its environment, and here in this freezing field I sense it again. I stay until the otters choose to leave. I watch their thin curves slip together into the twilight, like fierce, muscled ribbons, darkening into the ribbon of the stream.

 

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Excerpted from Otter Country: An Unexpected Adventure in the Natural World by Miriam Darlington. Reprinted by permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2012 by Miriam Darlington, first published in the USA 2024. 

 

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Miriam Darlington is the author of The Wise Hours: A Journey into the Wild and Secret World of Owls and contributes frequently to The Times, The Guardian, and The Ecologist. She lives in Devon, England.