I was always a little annoyed that Pink Floyd stole the title for their first album from The Wind in the Willows when it was released back in 1967. They were never my band, even though Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive were tracks that could make a chap’s head spin. My heart was always with Ratty… and also with Roly, Otter’s youngest, who encountered the god Pan at daybreak as the book took a weird mystical sidestep from the main narrative about Toad. This happens, of course, in the chapter that shares its title with the album.
So I got up at the piper’s hour on Saturday morning to make my annual pilgrimage in Time. I stepped from the house at five to four, fully dressed for winter, carrying a flask of Rooibos tea and my binoculars. Why is it always easier in practice than in theory? I had already put this jaunt off half a dozen times since May began.
But there I was in the cool grey world, blackbirds already singing hard, a Cetti’s warbler belting out his shouty song from the middle of our scrap of marsh, three sedge warblers very clearly telling each other in song who belongs where.
There was a sudden ferocious din: a modern Broadlands sound that seems to come from centuries back when the Broads were new. It’s the wild, crazy barking of Chinese water deer, exotics, imports, intruders: but they seem as appropriate to the place as any of the creatures that have been here since time and marshland began.
High hopes and low expectations. Always the right motto when you set out to look for wildlife. For there was one creature I really wanted to see and I knew my chances were slight. I’d been concerned they were not longer about so much, because the lack of rain and dike-clearing operations had caused the water-levels to fall.
I sat there sipping tea, occasionally raising the binoculars as a little colour crept into the world. A pair of barn owls hunted just the far side of the dike that marks my boundary: on one occasion one of them passed three feet over my head. Willow warbler, cuckoo.
And then, like a present, like a reward for all my quiet sitting, a quiet miracle took place. I could hear water moving in the dyke that lay three feet from my nearest boot. Not in a splashy moorhen way, this was smooth and gradual. A browny-black shape in silvery-black water: wet fur, urgent business, good speed.
Yes, here was Otter. Or maybe it was Roly, grownup but forever marked by the great encounter of his cubhood. Passing me by as I waited at the gates of dawn. Living his life at the end of the day that few humans visit: yet it’s a strange fact that almost all humans, whether they see them or not, thrill at the mere knowledge that there are otters about, and in greater numbers than they were half-a-century back.
Otters are a conservation success story: and that’s a rare enough thing, worth getting excited about, a barrier against despair. We can get it right at times. When we want to.
The bow-wave died down, the waters levelled and stilled. A whitethroat joined in the chorus, at first hesitatingly, and then with full May-morning confidence. Day was now a fact. The world had once again miraculously passed through the gates of dawn. And I’d celebrated with Roly.
I’d finished all the tea. Time to get back to reality. Or rather, to leave it behind and get back to the main narrative. Enriched, immeasurably enriched by this diversion.