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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

I have always been fascinated by nature--especially animals.  When I came across Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, I could not resist.  I had never heard of Williamson, but the intro had a vast selection of stories by him.  The New York Review Books also provided a brief biography.  “Henry Williamson was born in Brockley, London.  In January of 1914, he enlisted in the British Army, and by November he was fighting in the trenches on the Western front.  He worked his way up to Lieutenant by 1916, and he fell sick from a gas attack in 1917.  Later he wrote for a local paper.  He died in 1977. 

The story begins: “Twilight upon meadow and water, the eve-star shinning above the hill, and Old Nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.  A whiteness drifted above the sere reeds of the riverside, for the owl had flown from under the middle arch of the stone bridge that once carried the canal across the river. // Below Canal Bridge, on the right bank, grew twelve great trees, with roots awash.  Thirteen had stood there—eleven oaks and two ash trees—but the oak nearest the North Star had never thriven, since the first pale green hook had pushed out of a swelled black acorn left by floods on the bank more than three centuries before.  In its second year a bullock’s hoof had crushed the seedling, breaking its two ruddy leaves, and the sapling grew up crooked.  The cleft of its fork held the reins of two hundred years, until frost made a wedge of ice that split the trunk;” (27).  So goes the beginning of a marvelous story of nature and the power she yields.

Henry writes:  The rising sun silvered the mist lying low and dense on the meadow, where cattle stood on unseen legs.  Over the mist the white owl was flying, on broad soft wings.  It wafted itself along, light as the mist; the sun showed the snowy feathers on breast and underwings and lit the tallow-gold and grey of its back.  It sailed under the middle arch of the bridge and pulled itself by its talons into one of the spaces left in the stone-work by masons.  Throughout the day light it stood among the bones and skulls of mice, often blinking, and sometimes yawning’” (36).  I spent many hours imagining this spectacular vista.

Henry continues: “The eldest and the biggest of the litter was an [otter]-cub, and when he drew his first breathe he was less than five inches long from his nose to where his wee tail joined his backbone.  His fur was soft and grey as the buds of the willow before they open at Eastertide.  He was called Tarka” (38).

This was a spectacular window into the life cycle of a cute and adorable little creature.  Henry Williamson has written a detailed and absorbing story of Tarka the Otter.  This is a wonderful introduction to nature for readers of all ages.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!