interlude: World Otter Day

Man and Sea Otters. Susan Point (Musqueam), serigraph, 1981.

There are many reasons to love the place where I currently am, and to appreciate being able to live here. Some of my reasons are simple basic human ones: there are seasons, it’s sufficiently far south to be below my inherited SAD risk-zone, food and air and water are good. Some are larger human ones: people, culture, work, living in beauty.

At a more complex and higher level, this place is a conjunction of people and land (and air and water), with a sense of being a whole environment, and one that includes other dimensions and worlds. A layering of fictional versions; I first consciously saw Vancouver on the X-Files, read SF set here or in alternate Pacific North-Wests for years starting with Ursula K. Le Guin nearly 40 years ago, and had carried an imaginary place around for a very long time.

This place is also, like some places where I have lived and where I am “from” and “of,” a place that is at once the here and now, and a layering of those other alternate selves and further possible ones, and also its past selves and lives.

A place of the living and the dead and the others. A haunted place. A place whose beauties include darkness and ruins, ruination and horror, whose inhabitants include people who may look too easily like ghosts; people too easily avoided or ignored, dismissed as not really people or not really there, blinkered and blanked out.

This was one of the Vancouvers that I didn’t know before I moved here; or rather, an integral part of a larger single thing that includes all these layers and more. Layers that flow in and out of focus and field of vision. Every individual part, and person, is a richness and enriches the whole and one’s learning about it. Living in Vancouver has taught me a lot about riches, wealth, the valuable, and values; it’s no coincidence that my thinking and scholarly work have turned to medieval (Aristotle-infused) ideas of “true nobility,” to a perception of “courteous values” that isn’t restricted to a court that is an exclusive and excluding place of (inherited) power but is centred in open welcome and hospitality, and to “consent” and its associated network of C- Words.

My appreciation of this place is thanks to this place and what it shares. To quote the UBC Vancouver Aboriginal Portal: “The land [the UBC Vancouver campus] is situated on has always been a place of learning for the Musqueam people, who for millennia have passed on their culture, history, and traditions from one generation to the next on this site.” I am grateful to my hosts here, for their hospitality, from whom I have learned and continue to learn every day; including learning about hospitality, and learning (for more obvious practical purposes in everyday work) about teaching and learning languages, and doing so all the while thinking about what languages and learning are, as bigger things and parts of a larger whole. What is there in this world that is greater, a greater enrichment, and a greater wealth than learning every day? I would like, then, to acknowledge that we are gathered today on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking xʷməθkʷəy̓əm people.

I would also like to acknowledge sea otters, and how much they have brought to my life. I had never met a sea otter before. I only saw a real live one fairly recently, and one “in the wild” (itself an imported idea here) very recently.

The first otter I met was a river otter, Tarka, in the book (Henry Williamson, 1927) and the film (David Cobham, 1979); meeting both of them around the time that I was first reading Ursula K. Le Guin, her Earthsea trilogy.

Otters and ottering are life-changing.

This World Otter Day, then, I’m thinking about ottering and otium. About the ludic, about humans as animals, as homo ludens; and about Johan Huizinga’s eponymous book. (It’s very much a time for reading and rereading humanities, humanistic, humane scholars like him.) About learning as an integrated and integral part of life, of a life of learning and of lifelong learning; one in which work and play and learning are interwoven, flowing in and out and around one another. But not a life (pathetic excuse for a life, pseudo-life) in which a colonialist “protestant” “work” “ethic” of “Western Civilization” turns everything to work, all “success” to false riches, and humans to resources for use, dehumanised mechanical cogs in a capitalocene anthropocene machine.

“Run to the riverbank, otter-dreamer, slip
your skin and change your matter, pour
your outer being into otter – and enter
now as otter without falter into water.”
The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

Jackie Morris


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