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4.6 out of 5 stars43
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 12 May 2013
It is hard to sum up all the qualities of this stunningly beautiful, well written, thoroughly researched and highly readable book, other than by saying it is simply one of the finest books I have read in a long time, and engrossed me from the start.
Miriam Darlington is an accomplished poet whose deft observations of animals and nature are always engaging, and in Otter Country, her first venture into the world of prose, she doesn't disappoint. Split roughly into regional sections, as the author visits various parts of the country in search of the elusive animal, the book provides a fascinating overview of natural Britain, from the "True North" of Scotland, to the "wide curve of sand and mountainous dunes" of Northumberland, with its "gnarled, windblown hawthorns," taking in the Lake District and the surprisingly wildlife-rich canals of east London, to the "glittering river Dart" and the idyllic sounding environs of the author's local area, England's south-west.
There is a lot of thoughtful, insightful poetry and nature writing emanating from this part of the country right now, with writers like David Caddy, Mandy Pannett and Alice Oswald bringing the ancient land-and-water-scapes to life, and Miriam Darlington's fluent style of writing, non-judgemental observations and obvious love of wild animals fits perfectly into this poetic melting pot. Her descriptions of seals "bobbing like vertical bottles" in the sea, her meditations on the Cheddar Gorge, whose limestone foundations are steeped in subterranean water "percolating, eroding ventricles and chambers inside the secret rhythm and drip of the earth," and of course her depictions of the otter, whom she imagines "enfolded in fur, dreaming of water; a tight sleep-knot, enjoying the deep sleep of one who exists totally in the moment," all proclaim to us clearly and admiringly "This writer is a true poet."
The book is not just a collection of sightings and descriptions. The author gives us a detailed history of the species, its relationships with other creatures and its evolution, its place and timeline in and around Britain, and the many threats it faces. She tells us movingly and interestingly about how her fascination with otters first began, describing her membership of charities and trusts devoted to its welfare, and entertains us with a rich array of characters who she meets along the way, from renowned experts to enthusiastic otter-spotting amateurs, assisting in her quest to observe otters in their wild habitats. Miriam Darlington also quotes extensively from scientific reports and statistics about otters, and from wildlife books throughout the ages. Expected names cropped up - Leopold, Maxwell, Williamson - but I was also thrilled to come across various authors I had never heard of, such as Annie Dillard, David Abram and Barry Lopez - the last being a discovery for which I am truly grateful, for indeed, it is entirely thanks to this wonderful book that I have embarked on exploring the whole of Lopez's back catalogue of nature writing.
Otter Country does not restrict its self to the titular animal. There are, among others, fascinating accounts of the lives and habits of different mustelids, beautiful descriptions of insects, haunting images of starlings and swallows. I read this book over a couple of days when mainly out nature-watching myself, finding it a fine companion for such purposes. Overall, Otter Country is a compelling and heartfelt book, the otter seems to swim out of its pages like a vivid dream, the writer's passion for her environment being eloquently and sharply expressed. I will not spoil the "plot" for future readers by detailing exactly how the author's quest to uncover the lives and mysteries of wild otters unfolds, only to say that for anyone who appreciates good, rich, confident writing, and has a love of the natural world, Otter Country is a must!
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on 7 September 2012
I bought this speculatively after reading the rave Guardian review that said the author had immediately catapulted herself into the company of the nature writing greats with this book - and they got it just about spot on! This is a great read - part journey across the country in search of the author's beloved otter and part excavation of this animal's literary past, this is really readable and rewarding stuff.
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on 30 November 2012
On the cover of Otter Country is a puff from Jim Perrin 'If a better nature book is written this year I would be very surprised.' As we approach December I think we can be safely say he was right. Otter Country is a delight; beautifully crafted, passionate and authentic, it chronicles Darlington's quest not just to observe but to understand the otter - and in so doing to discover more of herself. And it's this aspect - the willingness to place herself and her responses into the narrative - that I enjoyed so much. Too many supposed new-nature books use the landscape as a prop for the author's ego - reams of research material supported by a fleeting visit to the 'wild' (the much lauded Edgelands is a classic example). Otter Country is the real deal - Darlington's lifetime obsession is genuine, so too her initial naivety; her need for help, empathy and patience in understanding her subject - Otter Country is as much inner journey as outward quest. All this and exquisitely written too - I read it in a weekend, then again a month later - a rare event for me and further endorsement if it were needed.

Highly recommended.
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on 11 December 2012
I bought Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter as soon as it came out in September 2012 and was immediately taken by the brilliantly evocative writing combined with a clear contemporary analysis of the state of the otter in the UK. The author describes Scotland, Northumberland and the Lake District with a skilfully poetic air. The book also has a great narrative structure and is also a page-turner. A highly recommended read for all nature lovers- eco-criticism of the highest order.
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on 7 September 2012
I'm a big fan of nature writing (Macfarlane, Mabey, Jamie etc) and loved this. The moments when Darlington makes otter sightings are positively spine tingling and by the end of the book you feel you're seeing the world as perhaps an otter would. A wonderful journey into the world (both literary and literal) of one of our most fascinating mammals.
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on 10 September 2013
Darlington has a thing about otters, bordering on an obsession with them. In this book she shares that obsession. The otter was almost made extinct in this country, and were only made a protected species in 1978. Since then they have made an amazing recovery, assisted by the cleanup of the river systems across the UK, and there are signs of otters in a lot of rivers across the UK, provided you know where and how to look.

In this book she travels all around the country in search of the elusive otter, and meets with people who are possible more obsessed that her, including James Williams, author ofThe Otter Among Us. She goes to the Cardiff University to meet the people on their Otter Project, where they perform autopsies on otters that have been killed, mostly on roads, and collect DNA data from these unfortunate creatures.

There is not so many actual experiences of her encounters with otters, as she says they are elusive, and are often active at night, but this is as much about the experience of being close to the wildlife of the rivers and estuaries, and being immersed in the fantastic landscape of Western Scotland. But as she looks for evidence, she finds their trails and spraints in many places close to home and whilst on her travels. The few encounters that but she does document the few that she has.

This is also a book about the wider natural environment of the UK, whilst we do not have the same mega fauna of Africa, it is still a fascinating country that we live in, in terms of wildlife. I liked the writing style, it is very evocative and she gives you a wonderful sense of place.
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on 4 September 2013
I loved this book. The descriptive passages particularly held my attention. One description of a wintry riverscape so enthralled me that when, on my train journey, I looked up and saw the full summer leaves on the trees, I was for a moment quite disorientated. The author has the gift of creating just the right mood and atmosphere to go with her particular otter encounters. I also appreciated learning a lot about geological features and the history of the places she visits. And I learnt a tremendous amount about otters! I really recommend this book to all nature lovers.
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on 10 October 2013
This is a truly lyrical account of Miriam's quest not only to find otters throughout mainland UK but to become otterfied in the process. Her scholary credentials are very evident in the shamanic-like transformation she so ably describes from otter-obsessed to otter-informed, her occassional otter encounters culminating in her becoming as one with otters in their watery world. I look forward to being taken on another journey with Miriam's next book!
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on 28 November 2012
The otter, says Miriam Darlington in this wonderfully absorbing study of nature, ecology and wild places, is `a creature that melds into its landscape, leaving little sign of itself'. Her book records the journeys she has made through the length and breadth of Britain, and through the decades of her own life since early childhood, looking for otters and little signs of otters. The searches necessarily require her to hold these amazing creatures constantly in her imagination. This involves experience and scientific knowledge but also a special kind of sympathy, `one that is so light and unselfish that it can detach itself easily'. Seeing the track of an otter she remarks that she knows `its life will be short, like every bird, insect and leaf that dwells here'. She adds: `Like all things, it will eventually let go and give itself wholeheartedly back to the earth. My senses kindled, my two feet rooted, I can only ever bear witness to this.'

The book is full of moments when the author's senses are kindled, her body rooted, and her eyes, mind and heart bear witness - witness to the cycles and seasons of nature, and to the ceaseless ebbing and flowing of life, and to unrepeatable single moments of excitement, awe and delight. She travels and writes alone, but meets and talks with other people wherever she goes, including several who have devoted their lives to studying otters in their habitats and to making the world a safer place for them. She is thoroughly familiar not only with scientific literature and issues of environmental management but also with works of the imagination. She mentions in this connection that these two kinds of writing, scientific and imaginative, are associated with her parents, her father being a scientist and her mother a lover of fiction and poetry. Her paternal grandfather was Professor Cyril Dean Darlington (1903-1981), author of many books on biology, genetics and evolution. She recalls that his house at Oxford was full of fossils and artefacts, and that he often spoke to her about them when she was little. After he died, `a whole web of connections slowly came into focus. Ideas began to grow in my mind: fossils were not just dead things; bones had ancestors, families, loved ones.'

One evening in late November in Wales, the author sees a female otter and its cub, a young male. She writes: `He is oblivious to me. He has only one thing in mind, and using every ounce of his strength in his muscular upper body he digs away at the ice, copying his mother in her frenzy to find food ... 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,' she continues, `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.' To read Miriam Darlington's prose, accompanying her on her odyssey through the land and through her life, is to become more vigorous oneself, and more bold, more alert.
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on 19 October 2013
This beautiful and readable book is the story of Miriam Darlington's continuing obsession with Britain's wild otters. While another Richard reviewing the volume was disappointed that Otter Country was not a straight ahead account of the natural history of the otter, there is much to be learned about this elusive mammal from this book because what Miriam Darlington has spent much of her life doing is immersing herself both figuratively and literally into the otter's watery world. Every birder knows about 'jizz', the characteristics and feel of a species or family, that helps with identification - this book gives a real sense of the 'jizz' of the otter.

As the author recounts her forays to some of Britain's wildest places, she imparts information on otter biology and the story of its remarkable recovery, but this book is also an exploration of hers and our relationship with the (natural) world, a book about values. The otter is her entry point to a better understanding and perhaps the best way to describe Miram Darlington's relationship with the otter is to use Philip Pullman's concept of the daemon.

The book is beautifully written and that Mirian Darlington is also a poet is evident on every page. The writing is fluid and few books I have read have captured the essence of these island's watery habitats better than Otter Country.
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