In the Hall of North American Mammals

Recently I was standing in the delicious dim of a museum I had not savored since I was a small boy, many years ago, when the dinosaurs were young; I was staring at the otters in a sort of trance, remembering being in this exact reverie nearly fifty years ago, and thinking Manhattanish thoughts of salted pretzels bigger than your hand, and slightly burnt, and roasted chestnuts, and taxicab drivers cursing in Urdu, and drifts of straw near the horse carriages, and the whistle of hotel guys flagging cabs in their long gray cossack coats, when I noticed a small girl gaping at the otters also, and an eternity went by like a meditative freight train, and we have been absorbed by otters for many thousands of years, right?

Certainly thousands of us have stared at them thinking meat thoughts, and how to steal their excellent coats, and how to persuade them to harvest fish for us, perhaps, but I’d bet far more millions of hours we gawked at them in sheer wonder, a quiet crush, a sort of yearning astonishment, as if they are our smaller cousins, easier in the world, muddy and playful, water-addled, never still for a moment, until they’re stuffed and frozen in time in the Hall of North American Mammals.

After a while an uncle or dad comes to reclaim the small girl, and she leaves reluctantly, and she is me, and it is my father saying do you want to spend your whole day with the otters?

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of ten books, including, most recently, the novel Mink River.


  1. That ‘quiet crush’, and the longing for an easier muddier, water-addled world is thoroughly recognisable, and I love it. Children should be, must be mesmerised by otters, spiders, cuttlefish or seagulls for as long as they wish! Preferably live ones, but really in any form.. See my book, ‘OTTER COUNTRY’ coming out with Granta Books in September. I am that gaping little girl! Love your piece.

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