Henry Williamson,Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in the two rivers, illus. C.F. Tunnicliffe (Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1976 (1927))
He was called Tarka, which was the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor. It means Little Water Wanderer, or, Wandering as Water.
The rat had lived a jolly and murderous life, and died before it could fear.
They talked in the under-song voices – which men seldom hear, they are so soft and sweet – while clinging to the unburst heads of the reed-maces.
He was practising the upward and impaling lunge of beak that he had learned from his father a hundred and thirteen years before.
She opened her mouth and panted, which is the way otters laugh among themselves.
Already his mother had forgotten, and perhaps would never again remember, that she had loved a cub called Tarka. Tarka was alone, a young male of a ferocious and persecuted tribe whose only friends, except the Spirit that made it, were its enemies – the otter-hunters.
For how was he, his natural senses dulled by civilization, to have known that an otter had remained all night in the farmyard, waiting for the mate that never came?
Tarka the Otter has been on the bookshelves of my life for almost as long as I can remember, though I was probably about seven or eight when I became conscious of it. I recall seeing it in bookshops and in one particular fluorescent-lit bookshop basement. The picture was captivating and I knew I should read it. There was a further connection due to the fact that in the regional accent where I grew up, my surname was often pronounced ‘otter’ and at school I made a clay otter, the only surviving example of anything I ever did in arts and crafts classes, since this was not my strongest area.
One Christmas my brother bought me the book and it’s been packed and moved and unpacked ever since, one of those reassuring permanent presences. I don’t think I actually read it as a child, but recently I felt a yearning to, sensing it would give me a kind of completion. What I didn’t anticipate was the marvel it proved to be; not at all ‘just’ a children’s book, though it was always presented as one. Give it to any nature-loving child or adult.
Henry Williamson was damaged by the First World War and to recover took himself to a quiet spot in Devon, living in an owl-haunted tumbledown cottage where he could keep himself at arm’s length from murderous humans. He found an orphan otter cub and fed it milk from the filler of his fountain pen. It stayed with him, coming and going freely, until the day he found it caught in a trap. While covering its struggling body with his coat to try to free its leg, it suddenly tore itself away from the gin and from him, and escaped. He searched for it for a long time, on the assumption that a three-legged otter shouldn’t be too hard to find, but he never saw it again.
Tarka the Otter was the result of that experience and loss, written with care and months of minute observation of the ways of otters and the context in which they live, the landscape, dangers, delights, and the other creatures around them, human and otherwise. Williamson’s meticulous drafting and editing was an exercise in cleaving as closely to an otter’s eye view as a human can. The book rings with authenticity and clarity, rich imagery and original metaphor. It is also a feast of words, including Devon dialect words several of which can’t be found in the 600,000+ word online Oxford English Dictionary, and are featured on WritingRedux in an attempt to cast them forward in the language.
It would be hard to read this book without feeling wholehearted admiration for otters: their amphibious adaptability, their speed and strength, their resilience and cleverness, their apparent capacity for joy and play. Williamson portrays them as land-animals who adapted to water. In Tarka’s first foray into deep water, the throwback landlubber’s fear grabs him.
The first otter to go into deep water had felt the same fear that Tarka felt that night; for his ancestors, thousands of years ago, had been hunters in woods and along the banks of rivers. (31)
And as he nears the end of being pursued by water and land, he yearns to return to the earth, for all his power and knowledge of water.
He swam with his last strength, for upon him had come the penultimate desire of the hunted otter, the desire that comes when water ceases to be a refuge, the desire to tread again the land-tracks of his ancestors. (235)
But above all, as far as Tarka tells us, I was struck by their life-loving playfulness, friendliness and even loyalty to their own, and at times, their capacity to engage in games with other species, elements and objects. Starting with otter-play, first with his mother then later on his own with any handy object, or with his mate:
Once she whistled the food-cry, and they ran in excitement to her, only to find a large leaf laid on a stone. It was fun, and they chased her. (66)
Tarka played with his pebble …. Tarka tapped his pebble of glass, green and dim as the light seen through the hollow waves rearing for their fall on the sand. (100)
The brimming light gladdened Tarka, and he rolled for several minutes, playing with a shining ball he found in the grass – the old dropping of a wild pony. (129)
Though the birds scolded, the foxes snarled, and his own kind drove him away, Tarka had many friends, whom he played with and forgot – sticks, stones, water-weeds, slain fish, and once an empty cocoa-tin, a bright and curious thing that talked strangely as it moved over the shallows, but sank into the pool beyond, sent up three bubbles, and would play no more. (132)
He ran back to the river, after eating fish, he played with a rope of water twisting and untwisting out of a drain, trying to catch it between his paws and bite it as it plattered on his face and chest. (134)
Tarka was master of whirlpools; they were his playthings. He rocked in the surge with delight; then high about he heard the note of the horn. He yielded himself to the water and let it take him away down the gorge into a pool where the rocks were piled above. (176)
Williamson is even persuaded that otters laugh:
She opened her mouth and panted, which is the way otters laugh among themselves. (23)
They spoke to her, nuzzling her with their heads and mewing their hunger. When she would not speak to them they bit her rudder, they cajoled and wheedled, they made angry tissing noises, but she did not move. They left her; and suddenly she sprang up with an otter-laugh, which was not so much a sound as the expression of lips curled back from teeth, and the rolling of the head. She was boisterous with joy after the day’s fright, and had been shamming death in fun. (47)
Some species are neither hunting nor being hunted by each other. I was surprised at an instance of inter-species tolerance between badgers and otters, and amused at the badgers’ fastidiousness regarding a filthy fox.
The white-arrowed brocks only peered and sniffed at them. A few dawns previously a fox had crept into the same earth among the hillside pines, but the badgers had turned him out as he stank, and his habits were displeasing to their tidy ways … The otters were clean, and washed themselves before sleeping and so the badgers were agreeable. (77)
But this is not a cute tale of animal tricks. It shows the toughness and ruthlessness of survival in the wild, the ever present hunger, the hunting and being hunted, the terror of the prey, the tenderness and vulnerability of bringing young into the world.
This was her first litter, and she was overjoyed when Tarka’s lids ungummed, and his eyes peeped upon her, blue and wondering. (23)
Late at night she returned with the cubs to the wood, and whistled for the lost one. She did not know it was dead; she knew only her longing for it. Her whistles went far in the still night, as she ran with nose to the ground, stopping to whine when her grief became acute. (64)
Yet once Tarka’s mother has taught him and his sister to hunt, feed, swim and survive, she suddenly moves on, taking another mate who drives Tarka, now a dog not a cub, away:
Already his mother had forgotten, and perhaps would never again remember, that she had loved a cub called Tarka. Tarka was alone, a young male of a ferocious and persecuted tribe whose only friends, except the Spirit that made it, were its enemies – the otter-hunters. (83-84)
Another female, Greymuzzle, fails to feed her cub during a numbingly freezing food-starved winter:
Greymuzzle returned to the duckpond with only seaweed and shellfish to nourish herself and her cub. Unsteadily it dragged its little body towards her, and opened its mouth to greet her. No sound came from its mouth. Its legs trembled and could not carry its head, which hung over the couch of reeds. Its paws were frost-bitten, its eye-sockets empty. Greymuzzle stared at it, before lying down and giving the shelter of her body. She spoke to it and took it in her paws and licked its face, which was her only way of telling her love. The cub tottered away, and sought the milk which it could not find. (116-17)
Tarka’s last mate, White-tip, also suffers loss with her young, and in her desperation seeks stony surrogates:
Her first litter had been born in January, when the river had frozen, and one day White-tip, returning to the holt, had found them gone. She had called them, seeking everywhere, and in pain, but she had found none to suckle, for a badger walking on the ice had dug them out with his long black claws and eaten them. White-tip’s grief had been so keen that soon it had grown less; and she had lain with her mate in the bracken of Ferny Hill.
And now White-tip was grieving again. For two nights, as she travelled down the river with Tarka, she would cease hunting, and run aimlessly on the banks, whining and searching. During the third night she left him and returned to the ash-tree holt, wherein she had been making ready a couch of reeds and grasses. Into the hold she carried a stone, laying it on the couch, and licking it, until a sudden cry called her outside again. She traced the cry to a stone in the shallow, and brought it in her mouth to the holt; soon the couch was filled with wet stones. (136)
His mother forgets him, but a feature of the book is their regular loyalty towards and memory of each other. Tarka’s first mate is an older female, Greymuzzle, who dies rescuing him from a trap, gnawing through the trap itself and Tarka’s sinews to release him before being killed by a spade. Tarka escapes and the farmer’s dog is later reprimanded for barking all night because the farmer doesn’t understand what has prompted him:
For how was he, his natural senses dulled by civilization, to have known that an otter had remained all night in the farmyard, waiting for the mate that never came? (122)
Having survived the trap and the loss of Greymuzzle, he seeks and finds White-tip and the joy of their reunion is captivating:
Each was pretending not to see the other; so happy were they to be together, that they were trying to recover the keen joy of meeting. (155)
The rabbit was crouching under the wind in a tussock, and one bite killed it. After the meal Tarka drank rain-water in a sheep’s skull, which lay among rusty ploughshares, old iron pots, tins, and skeletons of sheep … Tarka played with a shoulder-blade because White-tip had touched it in passing. He ran at it and bit the cold bone as if it were White-tip. He played with many things that night as he ran across field and bank. (186)
When finally they part ways, they can’t resist one last gambol:
Paler the moon rose, and at dawn White-tip went down with the cubs and Tarka wandered on alone; but he turned back again, calling her to Canal Bridge to play one last game.
They played the old bridge game of the West Country otters, which was played before the Romans came. They played around the upper and lower cutwater of the middle pier, while the lesser stars were crowned in the heavenly tide flowing up the eastern sky, and the trees of the hill-lane grew dark, and larks were flying with song.
I liked the differing examples of wily or joyous resilience:
The lobster had lost so many claws that, after nine had been wrenched off, its brain refused to grow any more. Its chief enemy was an old man named Muggy, who went to the pool every Sunday morning at low springtide with a rabbit-skin and entrails, which he threw into the water to lure it forth from the cleft. The lobster was too cunning, and so it lived. (93)
Or a massive conger eel whom Williamson names Garbargee, who evades its perpetual enemy, Jarrk the Seal:
For whenever it saw Jarrk the seal, its enemy, it hid far down in the crab-green water, in a hole in the rocks of the deepest pool, where lay shell-crusted cannon and gear of the H.M. sloop Weazel wrecked there a century before. When no seal was about, Garbargee hung out of the hole and stared, unblinkingly, for fish, which it pursued and swallowed. (93)
The swallows, speaking in their ‘under-song voices’ of their long migration, show resilience differently:
They talked of white-and-grey seas, of winds that fling away the stroke of wings, of great thunder-shocks in the sun-whitened clouds under, of wild rains and hunger and fatigue to come before they saw again the sparkles in the foam of the African strand. But none talked of the friends who would fall into the sea, or be slain in France and Spain and Italy, or break their necks against the glass of lighthouses, for the forktailed birds of summer had no through of these things or of death. They were joyous and pure in spirit, and alien to the ways of man. (81)
And the relentless food chain, starting with a frog, a hedgehog (‘vuz-peg’) and a badger, and then passing to a drake who never manages to finish a frog he started, and a rat who having feasted is feasted upon by a crane:
They left some of the frogs uneaten, for there were eels in the ditch. Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s – found the remains, and was gleefully chewing when a badger grunted near. With a squeak of terror the vuz-peg rolled himself in a ball, but the badger bit through the spines as though they were of marram grasses. Iggiwick squealed like marram grass in flame. Later in the night nothing was left except the trotters, teeth, and spiny coat of poor Iggiwick. (49)
At the time of capture the drake had been trying to swallow a frog, by quapping with its bill, which held one of the legs. (51)
Tar from the road, after rain, had poisoned it. A rat ate the body the next day, and Old Nog speared and swallowed the rat three nights later. The rat had lived a jolly and murderous life, and died before it could fear. (87)
The birds that feature in the book are splendid and varied in their skill and beauty. I had a particular soft spot for the ravens, beginning with the feints of the frog-piling impalers, who take no nonsense from Tarka:
She had been fishing for frogs by dapping the water with her beak. Hearing the noises, the bull-frogs swam to the surface and turned with bulging eyes towards the dapping. The raven made a dry and brittle croak. When the frogs heard it, the skin swelled under their necks, and they croaked a challenge, mistaking the noises for the struggle of a choking female. They swam within a few inches of the raven’s beak. One, perhaps two, would leap out of the water, and then the raven opened her beak and caught one, perhaps two. She was very quick. She hopped with them to her pile, spiking them through the head, and walked quietly to another fishing-place … Tarka lifted his head and worked his nostrils. The steadfast glance of the small eyes along the black beak pointed at him. He smelled the frogs, took three quaddling steps towards the raven, and stopped again. The raven did not move, and he did not like her eyes. He turned away. She hopped after him, and nipped the tip of his rudder as he slipped into the tarn. (165)
And later, another raven called Kronk whose beak-moves are honed like a fencer lunging with an epée:
He was practising the upward and impaling lunge of beak that he had learned from his father a hundred and thirteen years before. (100)
One of Kronk’s many sons plays with Tarka until Tarka gets too close to the young, when he gets such a ferocious reaction, he evermore steers clear of ravens:
Several times each day the two ravens flew to the tarn. The cockbird talked to Tarka whenever he saw him, and pestered him when he was sunning himself on the bank. He would hope to within a few feet of him with a frog in his beak, and drop it just windward of Tarka’s nose. Once, when Tarka was playing with a frog and had turned his back on it for a moment, the raven picked it up and threw it to one side. Bird and otter played together, but they never touched one another. The raven, who was one of the three hundred sons of Kronk, would drop a stick into the tarn and Tarka would swim after it, bringing it back to the bank and rolling with it between his paws. Occasionally the raven slyly pinched his rudder, and Tarka would run at him, tissing through his teeth. With flaps and hops the raven dodged him, flying up out of his way only when driven to water …
Unless he was tired after the nightly prowl, the kron-n-n-n-k of the zooming raven would always wake him, and he would either run along the bank or swim by the reeds to play with the bird. (166)
One morning five ravens flew over the tarn, the hen leading three smaller ravens in line and the father behind them – black constellations of Orion. They lit on the turf of the dam. The youngsters sat on the bank and watched their mother dapping for frogs. Tarka ran along the bank, amid guttural squawks and cronks, to play with them, but the parents stabbed at him with their beaks, beating wings in his face and hustling him back to water. They flew over him when bobbed for breath, and worried him so persistently that he never again went near a raven. (166-67)
Then a Greenland falcon, deadly, sails in, like a feathered fighter-jet:
The next day thicker snowflakes fell, and out of the storm dropped a bird with white wings, immensely swift in flight, whose talon-stroke knocked off the head of a goose. It stood on the slain, holding by the black sickle-claws of its yellow feet; its hooked beak tore breast-bone and flesh together. Its plumage was brown-spotted like the plumage of Bubu – the hue of snow and fog. Every feather was taut and cut for the swiftest stoop in the thin airs of its polar ranging. Its full brown eyes glanced proudly as any Chakchek, for it was a Greenland falcon. (105)
And the exquisite parti-coloured Halcyon Kingfisher:
It may have been that the Quill Spirit had painted the bird with colours stolen from rock and leaf and sky and fern, and enriched them by its fervour, for the bird’s feet were pinker than the rock-veins in the cleaves of Dartmoor, his wings were greener than opening buds of hawthorn, his neck and head were bluer than the autumn noonday sky, his breast was browner than bracken. (24)
The Quill Spirit, what a lovely notion, may it permeate this website. Or jays, what do you know about jays? Here is a memorable description of their dapper characters:
They were among birds what the Irish are among men, always ready in a merry and audacious life to go where there is trouble and not infrequently to be the cause of it. Raising their crests and contracting their light blue eyes, the six jays screamed with the noises of tearing linen. (63)
Whatever species you are, may you enjoy a merry and audacious life.
But sweetest of birds, the darting swallows:
They talked in the under-song voices – which men seldom hear, they are so soft and sweet – while clinging to the unburst heads of the reed-maces. (80)
Among the hunters are humans. Williamson never explains why otters were hunted, and I had never heard of this gentlemen’s sport until I read his book. Were otters so abundant as to be a pest to the farmer? He doesn’t tell us, but he does describe the remorseless pursuit by otter-hounds, whom you come to dislike. As he puts you in the paws of an otter, you feel no sympathy for hounds or huntsmen and so I was surprised to learn afterwards that Williamson was familiar and even friendly with them, and married the daughter of one of the main hunt-masters. Tarka is a fighter:
Tarka bit and bit and bit, quick as a striking viper, in cheek, shoulder, flank, nose, and ear. (147)
The book culminates in an interminable hounding of Tarka and it ends surprisingly and magnificently, of which I will reveal nothing more. Here he is as the hounds appear to close in on him after eight or nine hours of subterfuge and evasion.
His small dark eyes showed no feeling. He turned away from the human faces, to watch the coming of the hounds. He was calm and fearless and fatigued … At the beginning of the ninth hour an immense fatigue came over him, greater than this fatigue when in the long hard winter he had lived for over a month on seaweed and shellfish in the estuary… (235)
This is a slim, limpid, richly worded book, a loving but rigorous attempt by a fine writer to see and feel the world as an otter might. To help you relish it if you are not a native English speaker I will soon provide a glossary. That said, many words are comprehensible and enjoyable from the context, being onomatopoeic: the most mouth-watering are listed below.