Otter Country and Dartmoor’s UnWinter

The new Featured Writer is Miriam Darlington with her dancingly written and meticulously researched book, Otter Country. In the downpours and floods I have often thought of the otters: too much water can drown them. (As an aside I must mention that I was very honoured that Miriam chose to use my otter poem, Fluent, in her book. And I still look for an otter whenever I pass that place on the River Dart where I happened by chance to see one once and which inspired me to write. I stop and look 2 or 3 times a week….)

So far, this year is UnWinter – small spiders are making cobwebs, misted with drizzle drops, like hammocks between grass blades or on mossy tree trunks. Last night, two robins tried to out-sing each other as darkness closed down, both refusing to be the first to stop. When I wake these mornings a woodpecker is hammering in the huge, old sycamore outside the window. Bird song in general has that slightly spring-like thoughtful chirruping… is it or isn’t it? In my high altitude garden, cowslips and primroses are in bud and I am picking white sprouting broccoli. January can be both transforming and slightly scarey: what will the year ahead bring for it seems like a long old road. And this year seems to have set even more questions … in every sense we can think of.

For Christmas I was given Adam Gopnik’s book, Winter, and he explains how our perceptions of winter have developed. He brilliantly divides the book up into five windows, five essays about looking out at winter. Once upon a time and not so long ago, winter imperilled our lives. But since the advent of coal which, among many other things, brought warmth we have been able to look out of our windows at the beauty of winter instead of living on survival’s edge. Jack Frost patterns on window panes, for instance, were once considered to be signs of God’s purpose as they can look so like biological forms when, in reality, the shapes are following simple rules of molecular chemistry. And he explains that Bentley’s photos of snow-flakes did not show that every single one is different, in fact most of them are very similar and unsymmetrical and it is the process of falling through the atmosphere that makes them different. I won’t spell out the metaphor in that!  It was Romantic painters who invented winter as a Christmas card scene.  But my favourite images are Lawren Harris’ arctic icebergs from the 1930’s.


Are these images of the mysterious human psyche?

But, so far this UnWinter, talk of snow and ice is incongruous: rain hammering the windows, the land so sodden it cannot absorb any more, cows and horses lifting their feet through mud like moonwalkers, the river bursting its banks and tearing out the paths we have walked along securely for years. The River Dart looks scoured out, with all its stones gleaming. The monster current has torn away mosses and scraped the riverbed. Huge amounts of debris have been tossed up on the banks.  And yet there’s something in me begins to half wonder, half hope there might be something cleansing in rain …

Bernadette Mayer wrote in the winter of 1982 in her book-long poem Midwinter Day, ‘ if you look hard through the flawed window glass you can begin to see the lightest rain or snow but it’s not there, now I can see it on the books and on the walls, it’s in my eyes, I shouldn’t even mention it, yet do you see it.’


About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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3 Responses to Otter Country and Dartmoor’s UnWinter

  1. jinkspots says:

    Love the painting! And your beautiful observations. Thank-you!

    • Hi Jinkspots, lovely to hear from you (again, i think?). Anyway, I just went for a walk and went past a spiral of stones that someone has made on a patch of open ground. So that is a bit synchronistic after looking at your stuff! The spiral itself isn’t ancient but it has survived 2-3 years now so it’s beginning to look old and the stones are deeply embedded. Yes, isn’t that painting amazing? Cheers R

  2. E.E. Nobbs says:

    I love that Harris painting too. I have an urge to get a print of it. If I can. I like what you said – that it could be a symbol of the self. Thank you, as always, for your lovely writing.The Winter essays were broadcast in Canada a couple of years ago (the annual Massey Lectures). Here’s the link. I’m not sure if they’re available outside Canada. Becky – would you try the link and see if you can listen to them. There’s lots of other good stuff there too.

    And I enjoyed very much reading about Miriam’s adventures, especially the description of the otter getting ready to take a nap 🙂

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