Yet another hidden gem amongst the books on my shelves, and this time I didn't even realize I owned it. I had been reading a borrowed copy of Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water when I happened across my own copy in a pile of books purely by chance--it had been (sadly) completely forgotten. I must have bought it when this Penguin edition first came out in the early 90s or thereabout. It's a really remarkable story of a man living in the Western Highlands of Scotland who quite unusually had two otters as pets. This would have been in the 1950s as the book was published in 1960, so an entirely different sort of world. Would it have been strange then to see a man walking an otter down a London street? Would it be today? I'd never heard of anything quite like this, and while I don't think an otter for a pet is for the average animal lover, Maxwell's account is by turns wholly charming and heartbreakingly sad. It's a very special sort of book that fits in nicely with my nature reading, though with an entirely different slant to it.
I don't think Maxwell was a naturalist in exactly the same sense that Roger Deakin was, but certainly by the way he writes about his home, the land around it and the animals in his care, he obviously had a deep and abiding love of nature and the landscape. He was born in 1914 and had a varied sort of upbringing and life experiences. He served during WWII as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive, and traveled in Iraq about which he wrote a book. He tried to establish a shark fishery on the tiny island of Soay in the Hebrides, which he bought in 1945, which was unsuccessful. It was on a remote and isolated part of the Scottish mainland, however, where he lived at least part of each year and raised his otters. He calls his home Camusfeàrna, the Bay of Alders, in the book, though he tried to disguise the actual locale.
". . . but the name is of little consequence, for such bays and houses, empty and long disused, are scattered throughout the wild sea lochs of the Western Highlands and the Hebrides, and in the description of one the reader may perhaps find the likeness of others of which he has himself been fond, for these places are symbols. Symbols, for me and for many, of freedom, whether it be from the prison of over-dense communities and the close confines of human relationships, from the less complex incarceration of office walls and hours, or simply freedom from the prison of adult life and an escape into the forgotten world of childhood, of the individual or the race."
The first half of the book is about his life at Camusfeàrna, which was a solitary existence save for his only companion--his dog Johnnie, and the few neighbors and guests who would drop in. It wasn't just a solitary existence, but a pared down one as well. When he first arrived his home had no furniture, no water or electricity, and his nearest neighbor wasn't very near at all. He jokes that if he waits long enough what he needs will likely wash ashore in the bay and he can decorate his house with these castoffs. It sounds like an idyllic yet harsh lifestyle--to be close enough to nature to literally be part of it and to watch it in all its beauty outside his windows. Yet the terrain and the weather could be somewhat unforgiving as well.
It's not until after perhaps a decade or so at Camusfeàrna and after the loss of his beloved Johnnie that he acquires his first pet otter, Mijbil, which he brings home (in a harrowing but also slightly humorous journey) first to London and then Camusfeàrna from the marshes of faraway Iraq. For me the best bits of the book were about his life with his otters. Mijbil was later succeeded by Edal. I can't say I knew much about sea otters before reading this book, but they are highly inquisitive and intelligent animals to say nothing of intensely loyal.
"Otters that have been reared by human beings demand human company, much affection, and constant co-operative play; without these things they quickly become unhappy, and for the most part they are tiresome in direct ratio to their discontent. They can be trying, too, out of sheer inquisitiveness and exuberance of spirits, but not in the seemingly calculated way that is born of deprivation."
Much can be learned from animals, and wild or not they are not so unlike humans really. That is part of the beauty of this book, how well Maxwell conveys to the reader just what life was like living with these wild animals. He had a great respect and love for them. These otters were probably closer than most humans were to him. And he was a great observer of their behavior (well, knowing what I know now about otters . . . that's one way of putting it).
"Many of his (Mijbil) actions, indeed, appeared ritual, and I think that comparatively few people who keep wild creatures realize the enormous security-value of routine in the maintenance of an animal's contentment. As soon as routine is broken a new element enters, in however minute and recognizable a trace--the fear of the unknown which is basic to the behavior of all animals, including man."
And yes, Mij did take walks while in London complete with leash, much to the delight of the children by whose school he and Maxwell passed by. The routine of the quote above refers to Mij's need to follow the same exact route, down to the same pavements. He would even tug Maxwell in the direction of a wall and "gallop on it the full length of it thirty yards . . ." and peer in certain drain grilles for long seconds before he could be led away. That must have been quite a sight, and Mijbil and Edal must have been quite unusual and special otters. I'm sure I'll only ever get to see them in a zoo, and I doubt I'll ever look at them in quite the same way again.
This was a marvelous read I was tempted to look for the sequel he wrote to Ring of Bright Water, but I decided it has such a special and magical quality to it, I prefer to let it stand on its own.