Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Dexter Petley

30th December 2015

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s contributors and friends take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months. Today it’s the turn of Dexter Petley.

Thin forgotten January. Sour recollection of cannibalistic mice in the yurt, falling on trapped brethren like the stripped skin skies which fell at dusk.

Come February, time begins to build like they had the plans upside down.
One night in the mist, a still small mewing follows me through the muddy grass. A smoke ring of a kitten blown from the ghost of last year’s mouth. Thrown from a car window, lost in the woods, he fitted in the palm of my hand. A mind reader and fellow flames-in-the-stove watcher, he is now my right hand cat.

In March came something concrete; best carp of the year, worst photo, 54lbs nonetheless in the drizzle of a dusk as filthy as a ruptured sewer.

In April a vixen does for the chickens, but the words open like an old door kicked in. Such stuff I write, till a grunting hare in a thicket surprised us all. Then sitting on the hide toilet under the trees, watching a woodpecker, holding my coffee cup between sips, two blue tits tumble through the slats. One lands on the rim of the cup, the other on my knee.

One May evening, the angelus rang out from the village church as a tawny owl rowed across the daylight air over the lake, straight as a crow; we stared at each other as he swooped into my eyes, brushing past, head turned to keep me in sight, face like a cat with a question. That night, woken by a shindig; owls and crows fighting in the dark around the yurt like 70s skinheads up from Rochester.

One lone mayfly between swirling showers on the park lake. The first swifts, three of them like Spitfires; the mayfly dips and sits out the air raid on my rod butt.

Squeals in the woods all night. Tiny boar, the marcassins, prance across the lane, yellow as goslings in torchlight, striped as an old hatbox, they lose themselves in tall wheat where the laie is impatient to move her sucklings northwards.

June. 3am, two-up in a 6ft coracle, skimming across lac de Ste Cassien. Rods, nets, mat. Bait, water, food. One sneeze and we’d be over. Alex has a rescued pigeon on his shoulder, fresh from Italy. The sky jabs lightening on us like Gestapo prodding haystacks for hidden maquis. We hit the other side and throw ourselves face down under bushes. Electric forks splits over us, our hair on end, rods thrown as far as they’ll go. Later, we fished as columns of giant ants shouldered our bait and portered it away. The carp came and went like the lightening.

Midsummer’s day I turned sixty like the mantle clock you have to wind with a brass key then push the hands that last minute to make it strike eleven.

July, Oh my darling Clementine, a 49ner:

August, I forget. Or were there…was there… did I light a spark which one day might become a blaze? One evening I took my ex-wife’s 10 year old boy Rowan on his first fishing trip. A dammed gorge in the Suisse Normande, leaf boats, beachcombing, he talked of giant skate and fools on water skis till a fish we’d seen swirling by a sunken wall made a dash for it, with my bait, and lit the touch paper:

September, digging up late spuds which bury there like unexploded bombs.
From the lane, the yurt is invisible now. Green as the oak leaves above it, like tree smog hardened into crust on the once white canvas. The field has slowly turned to scrub, scattered willow, last year’s acorns shooting up their hands like a rally of fanatical oaklings, rogue ash and the battered orchard I planted five years ago finally hanging red apples out like pennants at a gala. Long-tailed tits in dancing bands rumba through the willows. All day the bellowing bulls, the ghost ship song of the stag in the night-mists, grieving cows wail at dawn for their calves gone to veal. At last the Parisians have covered their swimming pools and headed back to their arrondissements and the countryside is ours once more.

Lock-up on my internet satellite fails. Days of fruitless pointing and compass work force me to call a man in. An Algerian antenniste in his bright peach cords and flip-flops tiptoes through the grass to plug his diagnostic box into my dish head. He says I should get a mobile and watch TV. He shows me all the English channels on his 3,000 euro yellow box as the horse flies flak him and the brambles unstitch his town wear. The nettles sting his toes but he continues to admonish this place, all these trees which block signals and the lack of concrete to keep my pole straight. I block my ears to his infidelity and we agree to demarcation; Astra relocated, he heads home for an evening of FIFA and Laure turns up with a duck which we roast on the open fire. Shooting stars like scratches in a lino cut sky. Owl packs hunt as the fire dies. In the morning, Autumn unfurled, dewy blackberries big as plums, sweet and untouched, staining drunk hands.

Swallows gather, nuts fall, big spiders make winter-ready webs for trapping dusty smoke from the stove. Ants nest down in the car, mice in the air intake stashing acorns. The first pied de mouton push in a ring of moss, an Elizabethan ruff round a stump. A young fox dashes into the maize, barks every evening, a new donkey brays a mile away, the trees drip on the yurt now day and night, the acorns pelt and the leaves spiral down one by one. Tempests are forecast.

Nature heads into bacteria, pests, parasites, decomposition. Food, fruit and foragings have peaked. Abundance lies elsewhere, within. Nature heals year round; cures and anti-bodies, both corporeal and of the psyche. So as it pushes me towards indoors, September is a time of taking stock, doing the books. One thing this life has taught me is that if you truly live as nature does, hygiene and health become merely contextual, or irrelevant to consciousness, the life at hand. How I look, dress or smell hasn’t mattered for over 25 years. These days social contact is a weekly trip to a muddy farm shop for bread and cheese or Aldi for poor man’s other grub and cat food. Even so, 2015 was a year of refining that silence, extending the philosophy of the carbon toe-print and taking all previous rejection of civic and sanitary dictatorship to new limits. Life’s accumulated achievement so far being stuff like: last dentist 1977, last barber 1983, last doctor 1989 (though I did have acupuncture in ‘91), no underpants since 1978, no flying since 1989…you get the picture – all social conventions, gatherings, considerations ignored; human contact creates extra waste. By default I’ve been flung into a parallel economy where the usual rule of civics and state responsibility do not apply. Loss of all UK based rights (voting, bank account, old age pension – all denied.) In France I have no rights at all; no pension, no healthcare, no vote, no right of abode, so the French keep telling me. Society stripped to basics. My home is bio-degradable. So am I.

It never seems stripped down enough, so this year the figures harden: In 2015 I washed my hair twice, cleaned my teeth 12-15 times using 12-15 mugs of water -1 tube of toothpaste every 3 years. I used a total of 50 litres of water for my weekly wash down in an enamel bowl, 2 litres a day all other usage. One bar of soap – 2 years. That seems to be a limit I’ve no wish to cross. Plates are wiped in a thick sheaf of long wet grass, knives and forks swiped through the field, left out if there’s rain. Shaving I will do, washing water re-heated, once a week, the beard is not for me. Cooking from April to September is on an open fire from scavenged wood. My coffee pot has not been washed in ten years. Coffee mug neither. Dry toilet, sawdust, wood ash, composted with vegetable waste, mixed with straw on raised beds in the garden. My hair I cut with kitchen scissors, all hanks left out for the birds, who take it for their nests. There is nothing as fulfilling as finding a nest constructed with your own grey hair woven with moss and beast bristle. It’s like nature has a use for me. It’s a rare exchange; nature does not need us, generally, but what it needs we must give. Our usual way round is hardly ethical. Perhaps all this offsets the daily exploitation I can’t avoid, the carbon trading which still leaves me with the bad taste of deficit in my mouth; being poor I drive an old diesel, all my carp tackle is probably made in China and Taiwan and wrapped in carp murdering plastic. The avocados, bananas, Greek Yoghurt, monkey nuts or potato crisps I cannot live without are murderous trade-offs which for sure have asphyxiated something or thrown locals somewhere out of a job along the way. Short of eating my own crap and becoming a wild animal I don’t know what else I can do beyond exploring new depths of parallel reciprocity.

A big month, September. There was more. The first heavy rains fell after the swallows had gone. Old tyre ruts in the field brimming with mud coloured water. Thunder shakes the forest. One Friday night the rain gauge fills for the first time since spring. In the woods, a salamander has come-to under wet leaves. Another is unearthed after a summer hiding in the straw of my potato bed. Of all the creatures in my territory, I root for the salamander (terreste), with their backs saddled in spilt yellow paint, the way they horse their heads in the rain and stake out the sacred. Once a year they gather in their dozens after making their way from all corners of the field and forest. Always on the wettest, warmest night when the air pressure is under a thousand. Come late October, after dark, I watch for them if the puddles fill and the barometer plummets.

Hunting begins with the pop of guns in a Sunday mist. Milk caps, russullas, webs in the morning dew like rigging on a ghost ship. Cèpes like darning stools. Rain pummelling on the yurt is trebled. Even when it’s over, the raindrops off the oak tree, the acorns and twigs make it feel like I’m living inside a snare drum. Impossible to hear the radio, so I fail to hear the big solitary boar troughing up the tufts ten feet from the yurt. That was some September.

October, when no year is ever a year without the chanterelle. Gilbert comes round with his usual gift, a dead muskrat in the boot, his shaggy griffon Milou squat on the front seat, pulling on the rat’s leg. Gilbert, old as Maupassant, as French as his terroir, lives in a hovel, dogs, cocks and rabbit hutches, sleeps in his clothes within blackened walls and never washed anything in his life. He wears the landscape on his back and his heart on every tree, field, apple, beast and bale in the parish. His cider apples are piled outside waiting for the first frost, when the mobile crusher comes. He hangs his moles on red string from all the gateposts in the lanes and delivers the parish magazine. The day the Gilberts of France are no more, I’m out of here.

Cèpes like scent bottles, puffing out flies as you squeeze them. They look so perfect, but they’re mummies, their innards have been sucked out. The hops are cut down and hung inside the yurt like an oast house. Sweeping skies, southerlies which polish stars and bring the rain. In one night the deck is yellow with leaves.

The geese stand proud as rain hits their backs and the chickens sulk indoors.
Clocks change, storms come. I listen at night as trees crash down around the yurt. Crack and thump, barely a second between. In the midst of the St Jude I realise I’ve forgotten my piss-bucket, out under the trees beside the compost. Wellies, gortex and headlamp, I’m shunted forward in rain like a thirty foot wave. I bend to pick up the bucket and there are the salamanders, all over their place, heads lifted, spilt dulux shining like tournament colours, out to meet in the storm and discuss the down to earth business of forest and field. The year is blessed.

November, the first cold night, my landing net frozen as I pack the rods away at dusk.

France is under attack, not just from men in black with Russian guns, but from within, the urban paysans in white vans with big Stihls, men who hate oak trees and love the money China pays; I wander the stumps and muddy ruts where this time last year I felt blessed by the orchestras of trompettes de mort we found beneath the fallen leaves. Now just the mort.

December, the year’s last throw. Sitting on the bog outside, this time a jenny wren pushes through the dried ferns to land on my bare leg before realising her mistake. Snout sized pig holes in the gathering mud. On mild days, bats at dusk, bumble bees on the marigolds, a month clinging to life as the blinds of winter reach the sill. And looking for a phrase to end this, six minutes to midnight on December the 8th, I step outside for a piss under a clear sky only to see a shooting star unzip the universe.

Dexter Petley on Caught by the River