Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Dexter Petley

19th December 2017

As the year draws to a close, we ask our friends and collaborators to look back on the past twelve months and share their significant moments. From Dexter Petley:

Every few years, I’m obliged to build myself a new dwelling. These are as makeshift and as temporary as nests should be. They are not meant as force-fields against nature or they wouldn’t do. Nests and dens, hides and holes, they must weather a winter or two, make do and mend, dry out in spring, patch up on a good summer’s day, then be allowed to slip over the finish line and decompose, collapse, shed like skin. The stowaways will inherit – the cuckoo things. When a barn collapses, it usually begins with a loose tile. With my yurt, it began with a bumble bee queen of the Bombus lapidarius.

It was a new moon, an old franc stuck in a shilling slot. I’d been fishing on a cold day in early Spring, golden sunset on a ridge-backed carp, the slow lope home along straight miles of chateau wall, through Medieval forest where builders dump their house-guts now. A rabbit zigzagged in my headlights. The stately hare remained atop his verge, unruffled by this particular passer by. He watched me nonetheless, all madness in remission, eyes in the back of his ears. A roe now reddening for April two-stepped in the bracken shoots, merely waiting till I’d vanished. Such delicate skirting of each other’s realm, you’d think we lived in tolerant harmonia. The squashed hedgehog, the chaffinch woken from its ditchling sleep, the dead cat outside a coach house, the dashing badger within an inch of its life, nocturnal hussars every one of them. I’m a slow driver by day, but at night I crawl. On watch for glints of coloured eye, the startled dash, the charging boar, capitulating bats and chancing owls. They were all abroad that night, switching sides and jousting with Land Rovers. Hardly surprising, then, to find a visitor waiting in the wings. When I shut the yurt door behind me, my visitor awoke.

It sounded trapped, wedged between the sheep felt and the canvas top, way up inside the eaves. Whisking, demented, pitching up like a dental drill, the faulty buzzer on a door phone; every time I touched the door it buzzed me through, only settling when I settled. First light, I assumed, would see it gone.

I prefer to live alone, but share my dwellings and my car with any caller who comes a-scratching, pecking, crawling, flying. From harvest mouse to Jenny Wren, ragtag and bobtail, they’ve all spent the night. At present I have a peacock butterfly overwintering behind my head. Last week I drove around for two days with a robin in the car, and one night, during a blizzard, a sleeping blue tit on the window rim. These cuckoo people will eat you out of house and home, of course. They’ll build their cities while you sleep. Dig their runways as you toil, compulsory purchase on that slippery slope to outstaying the welcome. Returning from a few days fishing once, I found that mice had portered my heap of poisoned wheat, from the luring box beneath the deck, to the inside of my sleeping bag, placed there grain by grain, delicate as cracksmen with their instruments, perfunctory cunning of the perfect murder. My first tin mug of coffee many a morning is a mouthful of slug or baggy spider. My boots are fond of dung beetles, now and then a shoe horn toad. Ants ate my last caravan and killed many a laptop. My clothes have holes at nesting time. Single mother hornets hang their Chinese lanterns in my Gatwick corners.

Its only point of entry was at the angle of the door frame. The canvas edging, not being flush, creates a small funnel the size of a bumble bee hole. I swung the lantern here until convinced it wasn’t tempted outside by light. Inside the yurt, I put my ear to the vaults. A few taps and the bee’s discomfort fixed its position, a sagging hollow between the roof sticks, the weight of the canvas preventing it from crawling out. A further hour in each other’s company found me back outside, unlashing the circumference ropes in the rain, lifting the canvas to reach up inside with my hand. The bee wasn’t there, or out of reach. So I hollowed an escape route, wedged sticks under the canvas, but no amount of persuasion prompted passage into fresh air. In the morning I had to lift the waterproof lining, prod heartily in blind faith until, eventually, a plump unsteady bumble bee popped out like a pea-shot gobstopper, flew around my head in drunken rolls then disappeared into the tree tops.

The euphoria unhinged me. Imagining some mystical payback in contemporary noetic drama, I went fishing, assured the bee had telegraphed the carp. When I caught nothing, the probability arose that the queen had been evicted from her nest. That night I opened the yurt door to a familiar sound, only this time there were more of them. In the following days they droned and multiplied, taciturn as concierges, buzzing me in, and buzzing me out. We lived our separate lives and the colony retained its modest development. In late April, I set off on a two month hunt and left them to their honey pots.

The grass was a yard high, brambles had thickened over the track and nettles poked through the veranda planks. It was a Sunday evening in early July, the bird box in fragments and an oak had toppled within an inch of my last chanterelle. It felt like the cold remains of abandoned civilization, a camp fire doused a full moon ago by your quarry. As I pushed the rambling hops aside and stepped up towards the yurt, the first wave held my advance, a wild flight of jet black dirigibles protecting a large hole in my roof. From a safe distance I trained binoculars on the epicentre. Canvas and rain-liner stripped and puckered, slices of felt dug away and scattered in bun-sized clumps across the roof. Powerful beak or dogged claw, the expert’s list of bombus predators has badgers, foxes, weasels, moles, shrews, voles, mink, field mice, dormice, blue tits,  spotted flycatchers, hedgehogs, swallows, crows, grey squirrels, great tits. I have them all in close proximity, bar the mink, and the way I’d like to see it is they all chipped in, up the chain of command, sorting out their differences over dinner.

In the meantime, the feast had broken up and rain poured in. The colony weathered, still partly under cover. The humidity meter was critical at 93%, wooden surfaces green and furry, the inner cotton dripping wet. By next rain, stained rivulets trickled inwards like the spokes of a wheel, the trace of wounded animal. Slopping out, I plunged through rotten deck planks; shivering timbers, the wet summer’s end the last straw, my second absence all October – there is no leaving a yurt to itself. It pines from inside out; it needs the warmth of your wood stove, your breath of fresh air, your dreams each night. To live inside a yurt is to be its unborn child. You hear the wind’s true voice in the trees, the owl’s frown, night-hedgehogs skipping, the crackle of a full moon, the mycelium choirs. There are no cold corners, no drafts in empty rooms, no wasted space. Your mind is on your back, a house in a hat, a cast, a shell. Your dreams become sagas and you sleep such sleep as you’ve never had elsewhere. But when your landlord is a tree, there can be no contract with nature, no freehold under natural eviction. The bee is always at the door. My yurt has withered, albeit in a proper way; a snow-house melts, a daffodil appears. It’s that simple, the catastrophe of 2017, a year when life fell into place. In summer I shall take it down then build it up again.

Alas, there’s one respect still left to pay, its currency an old one. I’ve made few friends in this life. You live alone, you fish alone, is my motto. Yet one name held fast down 30 years; Bob Crozier. The kind of man you talk to when he isn’t there. The kind of man you talk to when he’s dead. In the cold light of bad day on December 5, his brother Allan drove home from Llandysul where Bob had just died. The snow was deep. A white pheasant flew across the road, brushed over the snow and was gone. It was one of those moments, Allan said. And I said the obvious, that it was Bob. Rare, doomed, graceful, wise and true. Armchair philosopher, carp angler, guitar player, nothing by halves, his kindness floor to ceiling, I’ve never known a man who drank his draft through more of life’s short straws than Bob; a man whose life was like a white pheasant against snow.


Dexter Petley on Caught by the River