The Otter Spirit: A Natural History Story by Judith K. Berg Ulyssian Publications
reviewed by Kathye Fetsko Petrie
"From Nature's womb, you'll come to me
To teach of water, land, and tree;
There, you'll enter into my soul—
To become one will be our goal... "
Researcher Berg's love of wildlife and nature leads her to want to cap a long career of studying animals in an "atypical captive state" with a study of a species in its natural habitat. To that end, she sets out to observe the North American River Otter, a once-endangered species, as it lives along a 40-mile stretch at the headwaters of the Colorado River. Her hope and goal is to contribute information that will inspire others to care about and want to preserve the otter species.
Berg begins her studies by observing otter trails and scat. Before long, however, she lucks into (or is led by what she comes to call "The Otter Spirit") being able to observe an otter family: a mother and two nursing infants, later identified as a brother and sister.
The brother otter has an asymmetrical white streak above his eyes that allows Berg to instantly identify him. He becomes her "Special One" and it is him she connects with and observes for many seasons and years, taking us along on the journey.
Along the way we learn surprising and interesting facts that go beyond the basics of where otters live (resourcefully, in dens excavated by other animals), how and what they eat (fish), their anatomy (inter-digital webbing), etc. For instance, did you know otters routinely get around by sliding on snow and ice and mud? It's a form of locomotion as well as amusement. It's touching and funny to read how an otter mother teaches this mode of travel to her otter children, and "watch" the children practice the skill.
Berg's immersion in the otter environment is so total she at times becomes one with her "Special One"—One with "The Otter Spirit"—and is able to dream the same dreams as him, feel what he feels, and see what he sees that she herself can't see. As such, The Otter Spirit is a unique and lyrical interplay of observations and imaginations. But the imaginations are anchored in education. For example, the author has seen otter dens after they have been emptied, and uses what she observed to imagine her "Special One's" existence within one.
The Otter Spirit portrays a primarily animal-only world, free from the intrusions of civilization. When humans other than the author—and a Native American medicine woman—enter the picture, it is to show their harmful acts to the otter's habitat. The author includes several pleas for such destruction to cease, including these words at the book's conclusion:
...Everything in Nature holds the spirits. Everything in Nature holds the voices of the Ancient Ones. ... If you listen, you will be guided. If you care for her and respect her, she will reward you. If you try to destroy her, she will turn against you. You are her guardians and she is yours. Therefore, you must each learn to live in harmony with the Mother of us all. She is trying to live in harmony with you.