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Indicator species - by Octavia Cade

There were too many otters to name. Niall had named them as a child, the few he had managed to see; they were better than the friends he didn’t have at the school he didn’t go to and the home he didn’t want to go back to. As a young man, he’d forgotten the names he had given them, and the river was a place of temptation and absence, somewhere he’d had to be fished out of when it all got too much, and for many years after that, he’d avoided it. Careful in his footsteps, careful in his medication, and the latter helped, but the former didn’t. He was too cut off, spent too much time looking down as if concrete and paving stones would make sense of his life, would map some sort of route out of depression and into health. The first time he went to sit by the river after, he remembered the taste of river water in his mouth. A muddy taste, and not unpleasant. Thinner than he might have thought. The riverbank was bare, mostly, and the water was brown, mostly, and he sat and watched and hoped for movement because that would mean he was watching something other than the memories of himself. Across the river, he remembered, had been a holt, and it was the first experience of the river that didn’t involve shame that he could recall. There had been a holt and a slide, and an otter, once, in a city where he had not thought to see otters or not many of them. He watched, and there was nothing, and he walked, and there was nothing, just the vertical stretch of city up above him, and he might have called it looming if it weren’t so indifferent to life. It took him a week of walking to remember that otters were more active at night and another week to find one, a small, sleek presence hanging on in a place inhospitable to it, and Niall felt admiration for it, a small, yearning seed of kinship. Mental health, so he had been told – by pamphlets and doctors and counsellors, by academic reading and the distant, hurtful recollections of childhood – improved with access to nature. Perhaps by helping the otters, he could help himself. Perhaps it was possible for them to be so connected, instead of isolated creatures wary of crowds and being seen. Otters, glossy, sinuous predators, could only thrive in numbers if the food web beneath them was stable and well-filled. They were an indicator species: a measure of health and riparian life. There had been so few of them when Niall was a child. He’d wandered the banks of the river, of all the city’s rivers, and he’d pretended there were more otters than there were because if there were more otters, then there was more everything, and he lived in a better world than he did, one greener and more hopeful. 48 49 Part 2: Oceans Water, he thought, should be more than a reminder of emptiness and a temptation to drown. It should be a place of planting, because if the riverbanks were leafy, pleasant places, they offered stability, too, and bulwarks against erosion. It should be a place of clarity because water, when clear enough, could be seen through, seen ahead, and obstacles more easily navigated. It should be a home for the creatures that lived in and beside it, who came to drink there and feed there and play there because then it was a welcome rather than a reason to turn away. He’d started with the planting, on his own, in an out of the way corner that was mostly rubbish and broken bottles, an ugly place for a man who felt ugliness all the way through him. He didn’t ask permission. He didn’t think he should have to, and besides, he was afraid of other people and their judgement. Looking back, he thinks he shouldn’t have been. They were strangers who came to help him, at first. Half an hour here, a borrowed tool there, and it occurred to him that he was not the only one who felt cut off inside, who felt small and ugly and alone, and who wanted to live in a place full of life so that they could feel connected to that life. And then there were more people, and more, and more plants and more insects and more fish, more birds. More otters. Over the years, so many of them, and the people who had worked on the river went away, some of them, to work on city walls and city streets and little city corners of concrete misery and pigeons, because pigeons were all that could survive there, and they made the city a greener place, a river place, full of parks and wetlands and so many otters Niall could hardly name them all. It didn’t cure him. He still took his medication, still had appointments with counsellors and health workers. His illness persisted, but it wasn’t all of him, and it was less than before.

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