All That Glitters Is Not Gold
My mother and I share a habit, a ritual. It's about a place. The habit dates back to the early nineties when I was an art student away at college and she phoned to say otters had been discovered on the River Granta. We were both thrilled. This was breaking news, a top story that lured me back home.
Our place is a bridge. Underneath is a ledge you can walk along; it is usually a little higher than the water level. It was a magical place for me. When I was ten years old I had a habit of fishing for tiddlers every day after school. I remember a shoal of minnows flashing ruby, sapphire and gold, bright as neon tetras. Once when I slipped my net under the crumbling recess of the concrete ledge it came out heavy with a plate-sized trout. It was like a monster to me. The name brown trout doesn't do the species justice. It is cryptic in fast-flowing water with spots of red and black on gold.
The tiddler habit must have started early in the year; I remember being in the water until my legs went numb. Turning over rocks and stones, I netted the fish carefully from the gravel of the clean chalk stream and slipped them into a bucket. I usually collected twenty or so, then set them free. Three times I saw a massed wriggling ball, weird and enthralling. Metallic in the sunshine, these were brook lampreys gathering together to spawn.
Back to the nineties: my mother and I found our spot, and evidence of the otter's return after decades of local extinction. We collected spraint and sent it to an amateur otter naturalist. He returned a letter, listing identification of every fish scale and jawbone. I was familiar with the bullheads and stoneloaches he analysed - these were the tiddlers I used to catch. To this day our under-the-bridge habit of checking for spraint is one of those things you do without thinking. With the rise and fall of water levels it's one way to check if all seems well. 'How's Granny?' 'Seems happy enough.' 'Any otter spraint?' 'Yes, lots. Fresh!'
Instant gratification of the wildlife kind is a mixture of comfort and curiosity. Reading this passage from the book Otter Country by Miriam Darlington makes me smile:
'As my foray progresses upriver something strange happens. My heart lifts more and more at every sign or spraint that I find. Soon, each clue seems to sparkle, as if I am following a treasure trail. Each crinkly sculpture is thrilling proof of live otters moving into the territory left by the others. The signs are like lost artefacts, carefully crafted clues; every little half-digested bone, beetle or scale brings me closer to the confirmation, the reality of a new otter.'
Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta Books.
In her book Miriam Darlington spends a year and a half searching for Britain's otters. My favourite bit in the book involves the fully-camouflaged author quietly observing two 'bantering youths in hoodies.' On this occasion not a rarefied encounter with an otter, but nude human shape-shifters conquering cold water.