People tell me there are otters returning to this part of North Devon, though I have not been fortunate enough to see one myself. No longer brutally hunted with dogs and clubs, as in Henry Williamson’s book ‘Tarka the Otter’ (first published 1927), they are still somewhat at the mercy of us humans: our roads and motorways often crossing the otters’ traditional tracks and routes, with horrible results.
“Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Two Rivers” – surely one of the most intense, evocative and closely observed novels about wildlife ever written.
I first read it as a child, many years ago, little dreaming that I would one day come to live in the Country of the Two Rivers. I felt as though I knew every inch of the terrain long before I came to live here, near the Burrows of North Devon. But I knew it, not from the perspective of a detached human being, but as an animal, a living creature – thanks to the deep and lasting impression this book made upon me.
Just listen to this, from the chapter on the Long Winter – a profound evocation of ‘place’ as well as the ferocity and power of natural forces:
“The otters lay up near a cattle shippen, among reeds with white feathery tops. A dull red sun, without heat or rays, moved over them, sinking slowly down the sky. For two days and two nights the frosty vapour lay over the Burrows, and then came a north windwhich poured like liquid glass from Exmoor and made all things distinct. The wind made whips of the dwarf willows, and hissed through clumps of the great sea-rushes. The spines of the marram grasses scratched wildly at the rushing air, which passed over the hollows where larks and linnets crouched with puffed feathers. Like a spirit freed by the sun’s ruin and levelling all things before a new creation, the wind drove grains of sand against the legs and ruffled feathers of the little birds, as though it would breathe annihilation upon them, strip their frail bones of skin and flesh, and grind them until they became again that which was before the earth’s old travail. Vainly the sharp and hard points of the marram grasses drew their circles on the sand: the Icicle Spirit was coming, and no terrestrial power could exorcise it.”
The story of Tarka is a heroic tragedy in the real sense of the term – the story of a fine animal and his fierce struggle for survival. Williamson was concerned to portray only the truth, and spent seven years writing the book, continually revising it in his endeavours to be more and more truthful. For sure it contains interludes of death and brutality – but one is left at the end with a sense of pure joy and wonder.