Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

21st May 2023

From his cabin in the woods, Mark Mattock watches spring do its thing.

April: Slow release

‘I watch the ripples change their size. But never leave the stream of warm impermanence…’  – David Bowie, ‘Changes.’

From over the brow of the only hump on this long straight road — with the acid heath’s yellow prickly furze maze spread out either side and a vast unblemished blue sky above — a dirty silver car approaches, slowing as it gets closer. Stops.

Window already wound down a man reaches from the driving seat, over his soggy dog passenger. “Are you on strike?”

Voice in my head: Wtf? Out here, all alone? I mean, loads of reasons to be so. Can’t be what I heard. What rhymes with strike? Hitch-hike? I’m clearly carrying a heavy rucksack. Bike? I’m on foot. As he’s about to repeat. Shrike! Shrike rhymes with strike.

“Wow! Is there? No I haven’t.”

I want to tell him that I’ve only just got off the train at the one-horse station, but he’s so dangerously, precariously stopped that I just thank him and promise to look out for it and quickly continue.

He meant a Great Grey Shrike — ‘Butcher Bird’ because of its macabre larder management — as a few overwinter in this area. I would love to see one before they leave.

I count twelve hi-viz yellow Brimstones, two Red Admirals and a Comma; the first butterflies that underscore the type of long yearned-for day it is before I reach the cabin two hours later.

Peggy and Polly Dishwasher just had sex at the end of the jetty. It was quick: it had to be, they’re birds, Pied Wagtails. There’s danger everywhere. Only last evening, over the other side, as I was staring at the Rothko-painted sky, a group of their neighbours outed a hunting female Sparrow Hawk. All frantically rising, twittering accusingly above her like dry leaves caught in a willow-the-wisp as she slipped like a speed-skater low over the marsh.

I’m woken yet again by the dawn raucous. I binge dreamt all night and was on the last episode. Two protagonists in particular bare most responsibility: a cock Blackbird and Chaffinch. Are they drowning each other out, is that why it’s so loud? This morning the slightly grating din is also mixed with the incessant monotonous barking of a Muntjac in the impenetrable holly thicket. He’s working his throat sore.

From my chair behind the sliding glass front, something catches my attention in the main channel from the river into the salt marsh, which is slowly filling. From the point where the channel separates, and leads into the bay in front of the cabin before being funnelled under the foot bridge and on into the maze of creeks and lagoons, is about seventy meters. There’s a gentle chop on the briny surface and there are ripples in the ripples. A bow wave. One that could only be made by a heavy body. I go over to the broken footbridge from which I can see everything entering and exiting the swelling or draining lagoons. The bow wave turns in my direction. The sun is dipping in and out of the cloud, like a giant dimmer switch. Fully on, and through my Polaroids, the whole aquarium lights up. The marauding bow wave continues. My growing doubt that it is one of the first big mullet increases as this creature is clearly prowling, searching; mullet don’t, their bow waves appear random. They are sheep, this is a wolf.

I lose track of it, another cloud dims the sun. On again and now I see puffs of sediment billowing from the dark patches of wrack, rising to join the sweeping curves of marbling scum-slick on the surface. I just make out a large tail working hard — it’s a bass rooting out crabs. Another cloud, loose sight, nervous anticipation, I check behind me. There he is in a tiny bay, crabbing in water so shallow his whole back comes out, looking like some kid’s lost plastic Neptune sea monster. I drop like a sloth to my knees and clip on a Chappy (a Japanese Bass lure) at the same speed. The bass gently glides back into deeper water. With the hi-tech Japanese carbon wand I whip Pokémon Chappy up the channel and dog walk (lure working style) him back over the surface towards me. Chappy’s ignored. Process repeated and the Bass lunges at Chappy with full commitment. But we don’t connect. A Bass hitting a surface lure is like the upside down of an Osprey plunge. He’s not spooked surprisingly. Third time. As Chappy nears he flares into full samurai pose and strikes again. The attack is spectacularly aggressive, we connect, hell breaks loose, adrenaline gushes, he’s bigger than I thought…

58cm. First of the year. 

He lays in the grass still pent up: glistening, sharp, spikes and blades, intricate animate silver. Dopamine rush. I see me in his eye as I take his portrait. I return him to his element.

A sun dog morning. Obviously a freezing night. I carry my steaming sacramental caffeine-wine over to the still glittering altar. A sparkling micro-diamond-dust emery cloth is still covering the jetty. But the duck-egg green old chamois leather lobes of lichen have begun to engorge the thawing moisture. Shimmering satin surface is becoming glistening wet gloss. As I sit sipping in front of the rising sun I watch a millimetre high forest of impossibly delicate fractal geometry shape-shift into a billion tiny orbs, each with its own glinting reproduction of the sun Goddess. As I begin to feel her thermodynamic power I loosen the grip of my clenched teeth a little.

Barely discernible ripples on the smeared mirror water surface. It’s coming from under the main overhanging branch of Golgotha (the oak). It’s a moth, an LBJ — little brown job. Held firmly by the never-hardening superglue of powerful molecular forces that form the barrier through which we all passed millions of years ago. It looks like an Early Grey, Xylocampa areola, appropriately named considering I’m surprised to see any large insect in these temperatures. Just beyond reach it hopelessly spins round on an invisible spot like an aquatic Catherine-wheel. Vibrating ripples like growth rings on a sawn oak log. Ten ripples a second, one ripple a year; are we riding just one ripple through the void that is eternity? Splash, germination, big bang. 

Recent studies show moths to be more efficient pollinators than bees. Hi-tech digitalised neurological scans of tiny bee brains lead some to suggest bees are sentient beings. Another example of science catching up with ancient and indigenous knowledge?

While we witness a catastrophic insect Holocaust anaesthetised with indifference.

‘What we do today ripples in eternity.’

Undetected by fish or fowl the Early Grey reaches one of the bright green gutweed-topped mud mounds that look like miniature Hebridean islets, and drags itself free of the surface tension onto the shore. But the tide is still rising!

‘April is the cruelest month,’ ‘it even snows sometimes.’ Right now as I pathetically shelter in the skinny desiccated pine plantation, hail flicks my ears raw. A few puny, cowering bluebells violently jolt when a little ice meteorite scores a direct hit. It’s made worse by the taunting of the blue sky I can see in the near distance through the branches. The cloud above reluctant to go fill it and leave me alone.

This is its cruelest week.

Another dull cold monotone day is momentarily lit up by the lighter flame mohican of a tiny Firecrest as he flits nimbly around needle sharp spines in the nearest holly, deftly picking micro-specks of invertebrate life from under the glossy leaves. In addition to better quality hair colouring, it’s the heavier eyeliner that distinguishes him from a Goldcrest.

Cabin life is simple and in a week like this, not easy. Wood-burner management is priority. If I’m not walking through the sodden understory tapping dead wood like the spotted woodpeckers — we both look for the same concrete hard oak wood, for me it is its combustion properties; for them, resonance — then I’m sawing, chopping, and ‘putting another log on the fire for me.’ As I sit as close as I safely can to it I can’t help but think of all those struggling right now. I’m still fit, savvy, dexterous, surrounded by free fuel, and this ‘adventure’ is chosen. What kind of cruelty makes warmth unaffordable and also an existential threat when neither have to be? It’s not just April is it?

A Shelduck couple splash down and ski to a halt out in the main channel. Female and a big guy — drake shelducks have the bigger bill knob, like mute swans. They seem tight. Another then lands near by, a smaller male. She drifts away from big guy towards new guy, like he’s familiar. He starts head rocking. Big guy does the same. Small guy rushes at big guy — she drifts aside — but it’s bluff. Things calm down, they all start preening. Then a new gang flies in, all males. Head bobbing breaks out big time. Like competitors, the local team, with team colours, in an elaborate gobbing competition where it’s not only about how far you can gob, but also, in how refined a manner you can do it. Five eager suitors, which is she going to choose? 

Does she have the same ‘cock-blocking’ ability of female Mallards, allowing her to try all of them, while being totally able to decide who she’ll give paternity? The complex genital structure of ducks discovered by biologist Dr Patty Brennan, bringing enlightenment regarding often traumatically witnessed park-pond duck sex.

Imagine if Darwin was a woman, and science free of male hegemony. 

 As I pretentiously sprinkle primrose flowers over my lunch of St George’s Mushroom and nettle tops risotto, to make it look all ‘chefy,’ (for who?), the sounds of another avian commotion breaks the peace of what had been, up to now, a morning checking in: arriving Swallows, House martins and Sandwich terns. Mute swan and noisy Canadian pairs finally clash after days of antagonism. Weaponised wings and webbed feet. Heavy pounding air thuds reverberate across the lagoon. Slapping, splashing, honking. Running — flapping? — battles between the pairs continue all week. Later. as I’m eating out on the deck, I hear what, unbelievably, sounds like a woodpecker tuning his wood instrument, or finding the sweet spot; tweaking the dials on his drum machine. Longer drums than usual and ‘played’ on a scale — different notes. I grab my phone and find a YouTube of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming — whom I suspect — and join the jam session. There’s two of them (with me now three). But it’s too much for the resident Greater Spotted Woodpecker, who turns up to break up the band.  Turf and hormones.

Today is absolute calm. Raven cronks from the distant oak bank. The otherworldly mudscape between him and me like an exploded Lynx aerosol incendiary, fallen from last night’s shooting star show. It was mild enough to sit out. Oystercatchers bickering. Quadraphonic Robin song. Curlew and Song Thrush. Distant soft renaissance sky. Irritated Black-Headed Gulls and a chilled Blackcap. Urgent Great Tit. Ear piercing Wren. Warmth finally. Tall stiff bracken stems, first leaves unfurling, rise from the drying leaf mulch like mini telegraph poles. A Chaffinch decrescendos. A Chiffchaff is chiff-chaffing. Way, way up high the faint roar from a shiny full tin can of speeding people. The first swallow of the morning crossing in the opposite direction. The sun still low enough to catch the red throat. A newly arrived Hobby is chased away by mad Gos (the resident Goshawk). Small bright backlit wings flicker among bright new leaves through the thorny understory. Chinking blackbirds find and relentlessly taunt the Tawny hiding in the holly. A pair of sparring Speckled Woods endlessly spiralling in and out of shade. The dense snow white blossom of snow bushes (blackthorns) turning to slush. The mud and the canopy slowly greening, how similar and synched they are. Taurean idol Iggy Pop’s birthday and World Curlew Day. I’m unbelievably listening to both. Next day mine and World Earth Day – just the one? 

Far off in the absolute epicentre of the whole magnificent scene, two small black and white flags on bright red sticks. Through binoculars, an oystercatcher is clumsily mounting his patient wife.


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