The dawn cracked across the sky, spilling its yolk of pinks and reds across the ghostwhite sand. Bony rocks sat uncomfortably against my back as my body squirmed. We had been here for one hour already, dad remaining still as leaves quivered around him, reflecting his excitement as his eyes sifted the shadows for the outline of an otter.
Ten-year-old me cracked my neck, the sound reverberating through our little den, earning myself a pointed look. My invitation had been predicated on a promise of silence. My vow of obedience. Love for him corseted around my body, righting my back, making me stay still. Gaze fixed on his definite form as his searched for potential life out on the pancake Hebridean sea. Jealousy mixed with salt and the stink of kelp on my tongue. I wanted to release a forbidden snort with the ridiculousness of it; this furry mammal transformed from fodder for cute photos to a rival for the precious resource of attention. But it could also be a bridge, if only I could find a way across.
Dad tries to spot otters every night we are in Islay, which we have visited each year since I was two, heading away from the farmhouse through the grassy fields to clamber down the rocky path at dusk. The otters like a section of the coast that is slightly further away from the sandy beach where we spend most of our time. They don’t mind the hard, hard rocks. Making us sit and wait until we have numb bums. Their comfort at our cost. And ours theirs. Rubbish in the water, on the beach even here. We’ve been playing this game with them for so many years that they feel like family. The litter feels like an insult.
Dad takes his binoculars and his ubiquitous fleece but no cushion to while away the hours on the hard ground. This is a serious mission; there is no room for luxuries. At first, he won’t even concede to insect repellent as a nod to comfort. June is just the wrong time to be anywhere in Scotland other than the lowest of lowlands. The midges are starting to gain confidence with the lengthening days and the sun. Eventually, he caves in, begrudgingly rubbing the ointment into his tanned face.
In Islay, we thought we’d be safe from the midges in June. Like many times when I thought I’d be safe, I was wrong. Even an otter-lover as hardy as dad cannot stand the midgies for long and he doesn’t see any of the creatures, only the few traces they leave behind. Broken bits of urchin spat out here and there. He curses because he is missing the endless evenings, the kind where light’s milky hands stretch out to shove the night away. If he were back on the mainland, this time would normally be eaten up by the wall he is building that stretches down the length of our garden like a dragon’s spine. Guilt closes my throat because it was due to my complicated diary arrangements that we came to Islay in midge season rather than earlier in the spring. I have no bend. Inflexible. A straight, ugly word.
As I try to unwind in the bath with its brown water and peaty smell, a question bothers me as much as any insect. Buzzing around me over the years since that first otter-spotting trip, tugging at my sleeve. It asks, why can’t you sit still? It asks what it means if the nature cure doesn’t apply to you? Does that mean you can’t be cured? Do you even want to be?
Interactions with nature often involve ritual; the morning walk, the Sunday stroll, the after-work run into the woods, the swim in the biting ocean on the first day of the year. Sometimes these rituals can save us, sometimes oppress us – and sometimes it is hard to tell which. As someone living with PTSD, I love structure yet struggle with stillness. Planning in advance is far more soothing to me than actually engaging with the present. I relate to the flies trapped in the spiders’ web in the barn, succulent as raisins before they are sucked dry. They grapple with an unknowable force, holding them in place. I also feel invisible threads hanging on my body, jerking me this way and that, causing me to disrupt dad’s mission.
Like dad, I need ritual but I am not a manual person. Even as a toddler I hated doing anything with my hands, getting upset if they became dirty after finger-painting at nursery. It has taken me a long time to foster any healthy rituals of my own. Before, I would hurt myself in various ways, sometimes on the edge of a razor, other times by dying on the cross of embarrassment when pursuing disinterested posh boys with floppy hair at uni. Trying to look nonchalant-yet-sexy in clubs, deleting social media so I couldn’t message anyone then re-downloading it when I was drunk. Timing to the exact minute, the second, when would be an acceptable point to reply to a DM, oh so casually. Power exercised by the powerless – or those who feel they are. In Islay, I regress, acting like a teenager again and snapping back. But not all regression is bad – or so I am learning.
When I was old enough to trot down the rocks to the water without making lots of noise, I was allowed to start going otter spotting with dad. This was an accolade that made me thrilled and nervy with the weight of expectation all at the same time. Like being allowed to watch rugby games, I knew going to spot otters was something I must not ruin with talking. Chirruping, dad called it. He wasn’t unkind about this, he simply taught me that the otters wouldn’t grace us with their presence if I spoke too much when we were hidden in our mossy nook.
The best times to see them are early morning and dusk, so we scuttle down before 6.a.m. to get in position. The trick to staying still is to carefully select the rock on which you are going to rest your bum for several hours. If you do this well it can be surprisingly cosy to hide out in a rocky crook surrounded by mustard-coloured lichens and soft ferns that stroke your arms, like the outdoor version of a snug sitting room. Still, I find it hard to sit peacefully. The problem can’t be consigned to my body or my mind, but the two colliding against each other like waves to a rock.
Although we are well-camouflaged in our mucky clothes sitting in our perch, we have no luck seeing any otters. This is partly because, despite my best efforts, I am restless and partly because the midges drive us away. Perhaps the otters weren’t there in the first place, but I have a feeling it is more likely that they didn’t want to be seen. Yet I am not so disappointed. There will be other opportunities on this beach which has a timeless quality, even as it stands as a marker for the various stages of my life. When I glance towards dad staring out to sea, across to the mainland that is obscured by an incoming haar, I see him looking content and peaceful. A growing rarity, as he finds it increasingly difficult to find respite from the thoughts of ecological catastrophe that swarm his brain like locusts. An old hippie who has hardened into a dedicated environmental defender with a suit as a shell, he has devoted his whole life to the environment and now even on this remote beach he cannot escape the signs of impending disaster.
A few years before, we went for a walk on a late summer evening where we took in the gentle, rolling fields of lush East Lothian from a low hill. I remarked on how pretty they were. He scowled.
“I can never see it like that. I don’t see nature or the countryside, I see the ways we destroy it.” I snatched my hand away from his involuntarily. His words burnt long after they were spoken, an image from a too bright sun imprinted onto my vision.
It is something I have often thought about since as I have looked at landscapes across the country, as varied as they are beautiful. How we look at the same views and see them so differently. Some scales fell from my eyes in that moment which I hoped dad could use on his; there is no harm in naivety from time to time if it helps us live. I do not mean to make my dad sound joyless. He is a person who tries to squeeze laughter from a sometimes difficult life. It is just that there is a layer of sediment below the current of the day-to-day which will not shift.
As my heart surges towards him watching happily for once, I realise that it wasn’t truly the otters that I came here to spot.
Elspeth Wilson is a writer, researcher and poet who is interested in embodiment, the environment and how our identity impacts on our relationship with the natural world. Her non-fiction work has been shortlisted for the 2019 Nan Shepherd prize and received a special mention in the 2020 Spread the Word Life Writing prize. She has also recently been shortlisted for Penguin’s Write Now for underrepresented writers and is passionate about creating spaces for other marginalised writers through her work and in her facilitation practice. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found in or near the sea or spending time with her elderly dog.