Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

27th April 2023

Mark Mattock sends the first of a series of missives from an undisclosed location.

March: The Shining

‘It is good to have trees at one’s back, to feel that everything that does not matter is on the far side of the trees.’ — J A Baker

I’ve been spotted! From the mature oak bank way across the estuarine mudscape a raven rises into the imminent dawn sun’s glow and casually drifts over towards me. He’s curious because he does so quietly. I watch him approach in the cavernous, crisp sky with the last stars lingering, until he’s directly above me. He circles.“You back then?”  “Yes brother, and it’s so so good to be so.” Always talk to Raven: spirit bird, messenger, intelligent, trickster. He sees, he hears, he remembers it all, he shares it. The silence is broken by the irritable caws of two crows who scramble to intercept the bigger corvid, clearly threatened by his casual swagger. But his curiosity has been satisfied and with a couple of lazy flaps of his lustrous anthracite wings he turns and glides out of ‘their’ airspace. They return to their scots pine base, smug.

6 am. Morning coffee on the rickety little floating jetty, slats missing and the screws holding the remaining panels squeezed up like tiny metal mushrooms. A ritual for near exactly two years to the day.

Pointing east to the rising sun and just thirty meters from the cabin the jetty still feels like some VIP platform, a privileged seat with the clearest view of the impending open air events that kick off daily, different every time. The tide is out. I’m staring out over the vast mudscape. Yellow foot (Egret) is carefully stepping, precision lancing his way up the out-flowing rivulet. Redshanks is skanking along the thin foam line.  Short machine gun blasts, complete with reverb, begin as three Great Spotted Woodpeckers compete in a sound clash. Then enters the heavy bass cronk cronk of the ravens onto the stage. A hooting tawny is immediately answered by cock pheasant’s double screech and a wing blast. This is dawn chorus dubwise. Salt marsh mix.

Hints of the classic dawn chorus break in from the woodland behind the cabin. Robins, blackbirds (where here some nest on or near the ground like their thrush cousins, nightingales); a song thrush, chaffinch, wrens, tits: blue, great, marsh and long tailed, and the first Blackcaps make up the current choir. As I walk back to the cabin to brew another coffee the music, as if the turntable has been bumped, suddenly jumps to an entirely different track: it’s called ‘hawk’. I look up as the Male Goshawk nonchalantly passes over the star-shaped gap in the leafless canopy immediately above the cabin’s front deck.

I feel the first delicate blast of warmth from the giant fusion reactor upon which all life depends, slowly lifting from behind the distant oaks. Eyelid-piercing light turns mud into metal — molten platinum and silver lunar landscape.

Overwhelmed retinal photoreceptors add green and purple halos to the floaters in my ageing vision until the relief of sunglasses.

The ‘wilderness’ equivalent of Hilda Ogden’s wall ducks — a pair of mewing buzzards — ride a thermal as a few thin clouds rock up to diffuse the lighting a little. The glare forces my gaze away. Below me in the gravel-bottomed run-off channel a triangular inch of microbial scum, cornered between a length of old nautical rope and tiny mud ridge. In this light it’s a snippet of silk shimmering on the stream’s ripples. Mesmerising.

It’s syncing precisely with the eerie tremolo calls of the curlews on the marsh, as if a miniature speaker membrane. Joining the buzzards, now way up, a more angular raptor. It’s a tiercel (male peregrine). Four wood pigeons cross over the salt marsh to the wood on the opposite side. They obviously know its safe to pass under the peregrine, but how?

It’s rained all night. Not so unfamiliar noises wake me. They stop when my phone’s screen lights up, time check, it’s 4am. Phone off. They begin again. It’s in the kitchen area. This time in the phone’s brighter torchlight all is revealed. As suspected it’s Walden. Walden is a woodmouse cabin burglar, quite bold enough to drag away slices of Hovis thick white — mullet bait — and it’s like watching a removals van driver dragging a double mattress through a small front door. I curse him, tell him I hope one of the tawnys gets him and go back to sleep.

Dull dawn and it’s still raining.

Heavy sleepy eyes. Lulled by the constant gentle but relentless pitter patter of the March rain, on cabin roof, on leaf mulch; with the intermittent bong and chime of big drops on the metal cap of tall wood-burner flue — spiritual retreat vibe.

The cabin is located at the end of a long wooded promontory, a kilometre from the nearest road, on a large S-bend of a snaking two-way flowing tidal river. Sitting peacefully under an oak canopy that hid it from the google earth cameras when they last passed over. In the current satellite image you can almost make out the individual slats on the jetty, but not a sniff of the cabin.

Main river one side — behind, or ‘otherside.’ Rich, vibrant salt marsh the other — front.

It’s a childhood fantasy come true: den, crib, base, hide out, nest, earth, sett, retreat, rehab, hole in the wall, happy place. It is also a luxury sliding-glass-fronted hide, from which all concept of time can be lost staring, watching, day dreaming, until the rain stops.

There are four oaks in front of the cabin, the nearest touchable with the tip of a bass lure rod from the edge of the deck. But it’s the furthest, and clearly oldest — a stunted leviathan bonsaid by salt — upon which so much imagination has been run with.

A Francis Baconesque crucifixion work in wood. Its solid twisting bole, drooping cormorant dragon bird head, sinewy arms nailed solid to the sky barely holding up the heavy torso. It’s punctured in the side, a wound in which blue tits nest. It’s phoenix rising, or, huge ambiguous angel trying to escape its inevitable, possibly premature end by saline poisoning, delivered in homeopathic doses twice a day, by increasingly higher tides…

In the evening glow however, especially after a cider or two, the vision that against this morning’s dark skies looked like an old Hollywood creation of the tree on the hill of Golgotha, metamorphoses — staying with the Hollywood vibe — into some time-tunnel vignette, sensuous apparition of a twenties party girl in a very low side cut silk dress, stood tipsily in an ornamental lily pool. Flat chested, boyish, arms held out wide with champagne bottle in hand, trying to keep balance. The old broken swing rope becomes the broken shoulder strap.

The morning of the day I need to return home. A metric ton of soil is being delivered for the new raised beds.

On the sun-splashed deck watching, through binoculars, half a dozen foam clots race each other across the glaring, choppy water surface. The south-westerly wind has been relentless all week. The spring solstice, new moon, extreme tides deliver, once again, at midday, the foam and flotsam right up to the nearest oak. Voles flooded out of their beach view burrows run, swim, to and for the safety of dry ground: panicked, exposed, vulnerable. And right on cue, high pitch alarms ring out from the tit flocks in the branches as a peregrine blasts past very low along the new temporary boundary between oak and estuary, clearly aware of the opportunities.

Way out in the sparkle and glitter that is the salt marsh turned open sea the second swallow of the year dips from his flight path to snatch a sip of water. The first was ten minutes earlier.  In estuaries the surface water is the least saline.

Even further beyond redshank stands adrift on a small log like a worn out paddle-boarder. He’s still there an hour later. A gang of  five slippery cormorants are synchronised fishing the full lagoon out onto which the jetty now floats. This could be significant. Are they suggesting — it seems so, they’d know best — that the mullet are returning, meaning the bass I’m fervently awaiting will be not far behind?

In the furthest distance something has disturbed the wintering teal flocks, brent geese and noisy Canadians (canada geese).

They’ve all taken flight and swirl around agitated.  Some maybe just itching now to get back to their tundra breeding grounds. But it is all also the typical reaction to the presence of a predator. Moments later I sense a dark shape fill the slither of light between my eyebrow and binocular eye cup. Wow, wow, wow! You can’t make this up.  It’s the Osprey, big wings outstretched, holding perfectly steady in the gusts just above and out from the oak tops as he scans the bay the cormorants have only just slipped away from. He has his tail-end to me but as he momentarily twists his head round…eye contact.

He too is back.

Bliss. Blessed.


Mark Mattock. Artist. Photographer. Publisher. Rabbit Fighter. @the_rabbit_fighters_club