Tarka the Otter by the River Taw
North Devon is all Tarka country now, there’s Tarka Tennis, Tarka Housing Association, Tarka Holiday Park, even Tarka Chimney Sweeps. But, to my shame, I’ve never read Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, despite having lived in Devon for years. So I’ve come to one of my favourite spots on one of Tarka’s rivers, the River Taw, to finally read the book.
I parked at Chapelton Station, on the Tarka Line, and walked across a field and over a footbridge to one of the best wild swimming spots on the whole river. In Summer, at least. As I look for a good place to sit and read, a buzzard erupts out of a nearby tree. He struggles to find a thermal on a grey second of December, and instead lopes over to another standard hedge tree, his wings beat long, sullen strides. The khaki brown river is full. When I was last here I sat under the bridge with my legs dangling in the water, squeaming as small fish nibbled my feet. Now, a fallen ash tree that has been swept down the river is jammed in front of the bridge, pinned between two of the bridge’s brick supports. The noise of the river slowly crushing and stripping the corpse is not quite loud enough to drown out the sound of the wet A377 or the nearby timber merchant. I can’t even imagine an otter swimming here now. I settle down with a picnic blanket and Thermos flask next to the chainsawed remains of a tree trunk, and begin.
Something that Williamson does very well is give the reader a different perspective on the countryside. I’ve read that whilst writing he would crawl about through the grass, to get an otter’s-eye view. But even in the first chapter, the narrator goes further, describing different perspectives of time on the river. The river can remember the 300 years of a now dead oak tree’s life, and knew rumours of the Roman occupation. A water vole hurries breathlessly to clear out its nest hole. My favourite measure of time (a bit later on) was when Tarka found an egg and “ate it before the shadow of a grass-stalk had moved its own width on the bank” (35).
As I get to the end of Chapter One, I realise that I’m having more trouble than usual falling into the book world. It has begun to rain gently, and there are now engineers working on the Tarka Line, as loud as the train, when it passes. But more than both of these, it is the river that’s hindering my imagination. The real river seems to be acting as a barrier to the river in the book, not letting me imagine otters swimming about placidly in the standing waves, eddies and debris. This is somewhat disappointing, not at all the result I’d expected.
Rather than raw fish and eels, I brought a flask of sugary coffee, which I drink whilst waiting for the rain to pass. It wouldn’t do to go getting library books wet, not even this one. I stare at the river whilst I wait, but see no sign of otters, or any other water creatures for that matter.
Williamson’s anthropomorphism is beautiful. Usually I can’t stand that sort of thing, but here it seems based on such close observation that instead of pretending the otters are like little fishermen with moustaches, it helps me see the otter’s behaviour in my mind’s eye. In fact it’s helping me a lot more than the Taw to imagine otters.
A duck! Finally an animal! I was beginning to think the river had been poisoned or something. A kingfisher! ‘Halcyon the kingfisher sped down the river, crying a short, shrill peet! as it passed the holt’ (22). A flash of electric blue and the shrill peet! was all I saw of this kingfisher too. But it did feel like a connection between my Taw and the river in the book. I shift position to get more comfortable.
As I carry on reading, I’m starting to understand what’s stopping me from wrapping myself up as much as usual in the book. Tarka’s family have just escaped the hunt and sought sanctuary in a new pond, where a dog otter is picking over the feathery remains of a drake it has just killed. Tarka finds the half-dead frog that the drake was eating as it was attacked, and takes it to a thorn bush planted by a lark beside the pool. All the while, the drake’s mate and her brood of ducklings look on in fear from a patch of bulrushes, which themselves were dropping pollen to make a yellow film over the pond. It’s a violent but beautiful snapshot of the pond’s ecosystem, painful but not cruel (the only cruelty comes from the humans with their gins and cries of Tally ho!). I look up from the book, the red line of the text still burnt into my cornea as I gaze at the green, green, green of the riverside. I’m a total alien here. The river is another planet, and I can hardly even breathe the atmosphere. The sawmill by the A377 screams with every new plank. Wrapped in bright red Gor-Tex, I feel less connected to the river for reading Tarka by the Taw than if I was curled up by the fire at home, pretending. The real world is constantly ridiculing any attempt at empathy. It’s like a play where Brecht’s ‘forth wall’ is constantly being broken. And it’s sad.
To put it politely, after sitting for two hours on a not-quite-waterproof picnic blanket, I need to stretch my legs. As I stand up, three pigeons explode from a tree on the other side of the river. I walked to the soft riverbank, down where the cows go to drink, and a cock-pheasant that had been hiding in what was left of the dead reeds fled noisily. Almost every animal I have seen this afternoon has been trying to escape from me. Tarka’s intimacy with the other animals, even his contact with those he hunts, makes me feel more alien by comparison. Instead of enjoying a day by the river, I feel like I’m walking through a village fête firing a Kalashnikov into the air.
I start reading again, and soon start to understand what else is making me feel uncomfortable. Williamson describes much of the action from the point of view of a bystanding animal, an owl watching as the otters find a new place to stay after one of the family is killed by an iron gin, a grey wagtail catching insects in the evening as the otters swim downriver. It gives me the feeling that I’m being watched. Perhaps this paranoia is exacerbated by my not really wanting anyone to see me here. I’m not actually on a footpath, though I’m not doing any damage, and reading by the river in the middle of winter might look a bit weird. I’d rather not face the awkwardness. Though I would love to be able to explain myself to the wildlife.
I’ve only read forty pages when I decide to pack it in for the day. My feet are getting painfully cold, and although it’s only 3pm, it’s dimity. I certainly want to continue reading Tarka the Otter. Williamson’s writing is engaging and not at all what I expected. But I think I’ll finish it inside, or at least in the Summer. Don’t expect this book to bring you any closer to nature. In fact, I found it drove me further away.
I was reading Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, publishing as a Penguin Classic in 2009 (first published 1927), on loan from Barnstaple Library, where there is a rather good Henry Williamson collection.