Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Stephen Rutt

2nd December 2022

Every year, we give over all of December (and usually most of January) to a series called ‘Shadows and Reflections’, in which our contributors share highs, lows and oddments from the past 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Stephen Rutt.

Photo: Miranda Cichy

This time last year you were in your bear fleece. Low cloud clung to the landscape and no birds flew; they were hunkered down, as if waiting for Hogmanay, while we were just finding our feet with you: working out how far off-road the pram wheels could go, how much we could do deprived of sleep. In the hide we took you out. Held my binoculars up to you as a joke. A few minutes later all the sleeping waders shot up, panic rippling. A male hen harrier – the same silver as the sky – skimmed low over the ground, the shock that woke the saltmarsh up. Two weeks earlier you were in your pram when I pushed you past an otter. Now you’ve seen a hen harrier and you can’t even sit up. I was 17 when I saw my first of both.

There are things about my first full year of fatherhood that I expected: the candle burnt at both ends, the endless laundry, the sudden and overwhelming importance of what’s in the nappy. Then there are the things I didn’t. What struck me most is the way that you reminded me of an essential truth, something I knew of in the abstract but now is tangible fact. That we are animals. The things that upset you were traceable to your basic animal needs: food, warmth, comfort, contact. Like any mammal, anywhere, at any time, whether hunkered in a cave, around a fire, or sleeping on me on a sofa while my out-of-reach laptop cycled through two series of Stranger Things. It’s all the same.

Spring was slow in the woods; spring was a blur of tasks without end: the fraught relay race that is parenting without childcare. A return to the day job. Tiredness seasoned with guilt for not being there four days of the week. We bought you sunglasses that made you look like Elton John. We snatched a May afternoon, a few days after the swallows finally returned and before the leaves had properly unfurled. The pied flycatchers of the wood just beyond town were flicking through the dying ash trees and hurtling around the oaks, black and white blurs, before stopping. Singing. Black and white can be bright, particularly against the bolt of green from leaves just bursting from buds, against the shock of a blue sky. You were in the sling and I showed you each one. You were more concerned with pulling on the strap of my binoculars. A few weeks later you would learn to take your sunglasses off and they’ve not stayed on since.

It was summer when you noticed a bird for the first time. Birds, to be accurate. You were in your paddling pool in the garden. A swirl of crows cackled across the sky. I can’t say if it was the sound or the movement (or perhaps some fluke of genetics, a fourth-generation disposition to notice birds) that caught your attention. But it did. You stared up, not blankly, then followed with your head as they flew across the sky, mouth open. Later you saw a cat and found something about it indescribably funny.

Your first autumn. Your first fly agarics on the forest floor under the birches and not for the first time I want to know the inside of your head in ways that I can’t, not for years yet. What do you make of this world where white-speckled scarlet bodies can bloom like flowers? Or the beech trees nearby that for a few days look like something from Klimt’s imagination? On the Isle of Skye you saw leaf-strewn waterfalls; mountains black, angular and angry like story-book dragons; rainbows cascading over sea cliffs. At Talisker Bay you saw your fifth white-tailed eagle in two days but your fingers were more interested in tweaking the eyecups of my binoculars, pinching the plastic and rubbing it slowly between index finger and thumb. You crawled off the blanket and poked rabbit poo. Curiosity without bounds: another animal instinct, easily forgotten to our cost.

Winter again, the first days you have seen twice. You repeat the word ‘cat’, over and over, to cats, dogs, birds, light-fittings, family. We are fully off-road now: only lunchtime holds us back and there is still so much life to show you, so many places to go, things to see and be curious about.

And I am knackered. There is the over-familiarity with the dark hours of the day, the job-juggling, the bottomless coffees and the emotional rollercoaster of laughter and tears, learning and teething. I’ll cry at anything now. Some days the candle burns out. But then, no other year will be like this.


Stephen Rutt is a writer and amateur naturalist, specialising in creative non-fiction prose and birds. He won the Saltire Society’s first book award, for his debut, ‘The Seafarers’. His second book, ‘Wintering’ was one of The Times’s best nature books of the year for 2019 and his third book, ‘The Eternal Season’, has just come out in paperback. His writing has also been published in The Guardian and The Scotsman. He is normally found in Dumfries, where he lives with his wife, baby and cat. He can be found on Twitter here and Instagram here. His website is here.