Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Dexter Petley

5th January 2009

In which, as the year comes to it’s end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

i started to write this in mist and dripping trees, blue tits mashing on a soggy loaf gone to bagpuss, sunk to a baker’s hernia on the bird table. a real backwater month, december is still the dawn of spring before winter truly begins, which it did on christmas day as my pond iced over and the taps on my rainwater tanks snapped off as i went out for the morning coffee water. the nuthatch hogs the birdtable, the bullfinch disapproves, the tits are held at bay and the robins fight among themselves. 2008 on a birdtable. minus 5 and falling, the woodstove is cranked up to boil-a-kettle heat and i think the caravan is cracking like charlie chaplin’s boots.

a year then, of pushing civilization even further into the background than ever, i found myself in a town maybe only twice these last 12 months, usually through navigation error. shopping was achieved entirely in local villages or direct from the farms. the staples from bottling, preserving and freezing my way to the end of the world with produce from the garden of resistence. i’ve lived by sun and rain for many years now; no watch, no appointments, no mobile, strictly no society. drink when it rains, plant with the moon, fish with the winds, ear to the trees, nose for the mushrooms, sleep only with the wind on my face, laptop keys always black from mud or red from beetroot dye. all plugged in to the green fuse. but 2008 was a haywire year, even more derooted then the previous years. time and the seasons now behave like the humans who have sabotaged their cycle. in 2008, i lived with a gang of months instead of an orderly succession; the want-it-now generation of 12 greedy calends not satisfied with their lot. the 2008 mob denaturing their territory; june wanted autumn’s mushooms as soon as the bluebells faded; six different months in feud for the blossom of a fruit tree, and they all desired to be the cruelest month now that april regularly burns holes in the curtains and november nicked the primrose. these are momentous times. the parsley failed, all four sowings. this has never happened in my lifetime. potato blight two years running. onions like an average pair of bollocks, or granny’s bunions. not one single mirabelle-prune on the mother. french beans contorted like the air was boiling acid. one lone black cherry nicked by a blackbird the day i decided to pick it. butternuts bloomed but lack of sun deprived them of that real buttery heart and they rotted in the cellar. 2008 was biblical in both catastrophe and joy. no ladybirds, no acorns, no fields soaking with poppies. only the chickens went egg mad and i’ve probably omletted my way to paradise already. the apples split the tree and it’s apples till easter. sprouts like golfballs, jerusalem artichokes enough to build the new jerusalem. raspberries till doomsday, and just as well. perpetual spincach lives up to its name. but once there were parsley bombs and spuds left over for the spring tubers and the seed bank was an investment, blue chip brassicas and sure-fire salads. no more the certainties of wheelbarrow philosophy. 2008 meant counting every bean.

so life and death goes on, but under rules which anyone who cares to can devise. globaling-down has come to mean that the globular among us can defraud the whole world instead of just a few locals in the public bar. and do i care? i say strip society clean, let the money collapse, who needs woolworths or any fucking shop. civilizations have always thrived on auto-clean and hung its profiteers and spivs. society is perpetually post-war, and the error has always been to wait for a new america to emerge and unravel the chaos. let’s not forget in the mob hysteria that any president is only in the white house because he believes in the american dream, he believes in the dollar and the greatness of nationhood: the biggest flaw in history.

now bring on the rivers to wash all that away: the year of the river, 2thousand & eight went round every bend there was. l’eure, l’huisne, l’orne, sarthe, seine, le loir, la loire, la donette, la cloche, rivers great and small, from trickles where a leaf gets stuck to waterways half a km wide with a shipping lane down the swim. neck high in nettles or floating downstream in a death&glory (inflatable version) with a three day supply of breakfast, rivers were the midsummer theme after spring on the the eat-your-heart-out gravel pits which died after june, the carp up to their gills in the great pea-snail rush. fishing the seine was like retrieving life’s centre; watching the barges go by, like gaining an extra minute of life for every wave they make:

one of many rushes this year: the wild bee swarm which spirals my way every june, emerging from the ruined house of the beekeeper who beat his wife; it usually lodges in the oaktrees in the field behind, but this year, to my surprise as i stood there watching them do their neutron collider dance, they decided to take up residence under the top skin of my caravan roof. they built their honey caverns over my hatch and i’d fall asleep on summer nights listening to their honey choirs humming three feet above my head. then one night in september all was silent. they’d gone while i’d been out fishing, and before i could get to the honey the mice moved in and cleaned up, honey sweepers, borrowers from hell who’ve turned my cat, a garfield look-a-like, into the reluctant jinx swimming in the dark like his black arm bands for bagpuss are a pair of float-aids.

living on wild boar highway, there were nights when i was woken as the pigs came through, la meneuse, the big mother busting through the fence and lone males at the rear tusking the squeelers on across the field. they paused to root around the oak tree and i stood there many times with my cat in the moonlight listening to the herd beast its way through the clumps and into the next set of trees on their trek south.

shadows fall as shadows will, 2008 was the year of scumbag’s litter, as monitored from the public waters where i fish (no coddled private pools for me). the staggering piles of filth that line the banks and lanes and wild places were my biggest cause of despair.

the reluctence of the wild mushroom to appear in the forests was for the second year running a despair of equal calibre. have they sensed the pollution of the beer can and coke bottle too? we’re not worthy of their generosity. christmas day we foraged for chanterelles to cook with the goose. it was a long shot, a cold snap in a dry fortnight. we circled the dead braken a dozen times before scraping it back to find them sheltering in rings around dead stumps, invisible to the world, great ragged chanterelles, the very last of 2008, eaten before a blazing hearth, a 12lb goose and sandy denny live singing “where does all the time go”. who needs to write about which of my novels failed in 2008 when it comes good like that on the final straight and the sun sets on a frozen field in normandy as you’re driving home with a bottle of champagne in the back of the land rover.