Ripples and the ring of truth

Skye again, otter watching again, a head-full of Gavin Maxwell again.

Part of my life’s recurring pattern. And with every Skye otter, I remember something from Ring of Bright Water that staggered my teenage mind when I first read it, an account of Maxwell’s reunion with his otter Mijbil after it had been missing for two days.

“I am aware that this scene of reunion, and the hours that for me had preceded it, must appear to many a reader little short of nauseous. I might write of it and subsequent events with a wry dishonesty, a negation of my feeling for the creature, which might disarm criticism and forestall the accusation of sentimentality and slushiness to which I now lay myself open.

“There is, however, a certain obligation of honesty upon a writer, without which his words are worthless… I knew by that time that Mij meant more to me than most human beings of my acquaintance, that I should miss his physical presence more than theirs, and I was not ashamed of it… I knew that Mij trusted me more utterly than did any of my own kind, and so supplied a need that we are slow to admit.”

Something locked into place then. I wanted this kind of writing in my life, this kind of emotional commitment to the natural world. It would be another 23 years before I began to write about the natural world for a living, but when I did it was with Maxwell’s words for a first commandment: “There is, however, a certain obligation of honesty upon a writer, without which his words are worthless…”

But I did not choose his path. I have never adopted a wild animal. I only ever wanted to adopt something of their wildness, to become an acceptable part of their landscape, to acquire from them ways of coming closer to nature. But Gavin Maxwell – more than any other individual or circumstance – finally revealed to me the path I did choose.

They say there is an otter territory for every mile of the Skye coast. I don’t know. I know many miles of the Skye coast, some intimately. And better by far than examining every mile of the Skye coast is to get to know one of its miles inside out and backwards, discover the preferences of the local otters, and wait for the otters to come to you.

Isle Ornsay, early morning, and after an hour of sitting there is a new pattern on the water 20 yards offshore, made by an otter muzzle from which a vee-shaped wedge spills, grey ripples edged by white light.

No sooner has he turned up than he vanishes. The same old frustration. Resist it, sit still. In 20 more minutes he is back in exactly the same place.

He looks like a log floating at the speed of the current, but then he curves towards me, puts one forefoot on my rock, while his muzzle tests the air not 15 feet away. He has come to inspect me. Then he turns in his own length and leaves me a parcel of bubbles for a parting gift. And now I know he knows I’m here.

I have proved to myself this one thing over and over again: if you can be still and allow nature to come to you, that is when nature is freest with her secrets.

Another hour, then quite suddenly the otter is lying on his back in the water, eating an eel from his “hands”, even as the eel writhes. Otters like their food fresh.

He dives, discards the eel half-eaten. Why? He resurfaces with a huge crab in his jaws. That’s why.

But he cannot eat the crab the way he eats an eel, he needs a rock. He chooses mine, the same one he chose the last time, and a thousand times before the last time. He climbs out, drops the crab. I hear it hit the rock. I hear his teeth take hold of it. I hear the shell crack and I see it splinter. A small, brittle rain of crab shell falls.

He takes a pace up the rock, turns his back on me, and the crab flakes start to fall again. Occasionally he looks over a shoulder at me. In 10 minutes, he has reduced the crab to shell sand. He steps off, leaves me a new parcel of bubbles…

Gavin Maxwell wrote a simple epitaph to another of his otters, Edal. It appears on a small memorial cairn at Sandaig: “Whatever joy you had from her, give back to nature.”

I picked a small stone from the Sandaig shore years ago, and I wrote those words on it. It is still on my bookshelves, so that his words are before me every working day of my writing life.