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!