Blessed by an Otter

HALF-EMPTY MASON JAR

By LESLIE SMITH TOWNSEND

Facing away from the small resort town of Leland, Michigan, out toward the Great Lake, I survey the water for the best vantage point. To my right, the docks of the marina, empty of boats in autumn, catch my eyes. To my left, the gray-shingled cottages of a restored fishing village, Fishtown, skirt the marina parking lot on one side and a canal emptying into the lake on the other. I choose the docks and walk out to the farthest point, the dock rolling gently under my feet as I scan the lake in all directions for my whiskered friends: river otters. I saw them last night while friends and I ordered dinner at a restaurant on the canal. In the distance, as the sun set pink and mauve, three black creatures split the surface of the water, diving and surfacing like synchronized swimmers. As we chatted and laughed, my friends savoring their seafood while I picked at chicken, I stole glances at the otters until the night turned black and faceless.

My adventures with otters began years ago on Silver Lake, the harbor at Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. While paddling my kayak around piers and anchored sailboats, one playful fellow broke the surface next to my boat. I saw his whiskered face, perfectly perpendicular to the surface, so human-like in that instant, I grabbed my chest and screamed. Immediately, the critter’s features scrambled with horror and he dove off, disappearing into the harbor.

The next day, an otter loped across the sandy lane where I was bicycling. Another day, while I sat in my boat waiting for my husband to climb into his kayak, an otter popped up on my port side where I greeted him with glee. He dove and swam to the starboard side. “Hi, fellow.” Next, he slid beneath the surface and rose with an 18-inch fish squirming in his teeth. “Good job, little guy.” And that was the end of our conversation. The otter swam into a hole in the grassy bank at the water’s edge to feast and nap the afternoon away. I felt like I’d made a new friend. When my husband and I returned to Kentucky, I grieved the otters as I would my relatives.otter

It’s a windy day on Lake Michigan and cold for early October in Northern Michigan, temperature in the mid-40s, but I’m warm in my pale blue high-tech climbing jacket, hand-knit hat and mittens. The dock bobs gently with the waves as I sit watching the water. “Please come,” I call the otters. I long for them as a smoker longs for a cigarette after a good meal. I lust for them in the way my friend, Claudia, lusts as she shops in town for the perfect purchase—the right book, one-of-a-kind purse, designer coat. I tell myself I have a special relationship with these creatures—that I, of the human species, have been chosen—the first one picked on an elementary school kickball team or the belle at the ball. The otters’ arrival in response to my call would seem a supernatural occurrence, a confluence of time and meaning, a crossing of the normal boundaries that exist between human and critter, domesticated versus wild, one tied to her power of reason and the other to the autonomic responses of a limbic system. I want an encounter that validates me as unique and worthy. I want to commune with the Divine.

Until this moment, I’ve always thought of lust in reference to sex or power, but how can I mistake my craving for contact with otters to top off a great week on retreat with friends as anything other than lust, greed or gluttony? I want it all. I lust for a story to tell when I return from my walk, a re-creation of Ocracoke, a blessing, not of the animals (though surely I will bless them), but by the animals—a holy pardon for all we, who are human, have done to spoil their habitats and kill off their food supply.

But really, what I want is to be the one selected from the many. I want an intimate eye-to-eye engagement with a soul mate. If these wild creatures choose me, I will fall into my own pure wildness—that place where convention and accommodation cease and I am once more in the “now” of childlike delight.

The otters never come. I’m disappointed, but I comfort myself with the understanding that if I could call them and make them come, I’d have tamed them and stripped them of their wildness. It’s their freedom to do as they please—to be otters— that makes our encounters sacred.

Otters remind me there is a piece of myself that will always remain wild and untamed, the tiniest sliver of a hidden self that refuses to come when I’m called or to carve myself out to fit others’ expectations. This is their gift. When clean streams disappear and wildlife becomes extinct, here is our loss. We will have sacrificed, not only a species, but our own truest selves.

Assistant Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice.  A composite excerpt of her memoir appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism (The Healing Project. 2008).


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1 comment

  1. Leslie, you will have your encounter with the wild otters…I’ve been captivated by your previous stories. Well done!

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