Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

1st July 2023

Pine Martens, pub singers, and the late Judy Blame: on his latest trip to the cabin, Mark Mattock contemplates fervent life and keenly felt loss.

May: Rapture

‘…and dark closed over him so absolute that he became without boundary to himself, as large as all the universe and small as anything that was” — Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

Warm rays from the low sun penetrate deep into the tall dark pine plantation, illuminating almost luminescent splats of glistening sap bleeds hardening on the scaly boles. As if revealing some furtive space; some horny, hairy-thighed Satyr’s debauched lair, or pleasure grove! The air is thick with the trees’ pine-scented antibacterial aerosol.

‘Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki’ repeated from somewhere in the pins and needles canopy. Sharp Goshawk eyes.

In the main river pulsating side-plate size moon jellies, their purple, almost neon, set-of-four circles in the translucent bell, gently jet propel past in waves with the rising tide. As hypnotising as the large, tightly packed shoal of finger-length mullet and their rippling aquatic murmurations. Warming water.

Along the verges, the sharp tips of phallic Wild Arum flowers appear above the bluebells and yellow archangel, like the spiked hoods of some religious sect. A procession of Lords and Ladies passing through the bowing blue, anointing with wafts of bio-chemical pheromonal cow dung from a fleshy purple club-shaped spadix1. The waxy protective spathe2 of some already drooped. Fertilisation facilitated by kidnapped muck-loving midges having been completed. Familiar poison-red berries to follow.

In the lane a little lad insane — the first male orange tip butterfly. Spring clean snow white and bright orange. Quintessential seasonal affirmation.

On a morning so still that the only thing moving is blue tits plucking nest material from the door mat and bouncing back to the requisitioned woodpeckers’ nest sawn from a fallen log, the first cuckoo… finally!

But it’s still not very warm.

Judy’s ashes were finally interred yesterday in Brompton Cemetery. I had felt torn because after a lot of deliberation I had decided not to go, choosing to stay here at the cabin. Would Judy mind? And despite the joy of catching up with friends and faces, particularly those with whom the last deeply intense days were spent in his small Stoke Newington flat — his nest — seeing him safely to the pearly gates. Judy eventually slipping free of the immense bubble of love that he had been cocooned in peacefully. Sometime on the day of his passing I felt compelled to pop out for a moment of reflection on his balcony. During the moment I felt a familiar presence. High over the rooftops the silhouette of a musket — a male Sparrowhawk — circling in the cold pale blue February sky. I wasn’t surprised. Since my rural youth the appearance of one has always been taken as a message. Either as a warning, or as reassurance that all is cool, depending on the context of that appearance. It’s been heeded every time and proved prescient.

There’s nothing more potent for its size than a musket, intense ferocious little yellow-trousered dandy, ‘pure and fierce’, two words commonly used by Judy for things that excited him. Ever since that day I think of him every time I encounter one, often saying hi. On the day of Judy’s cremation in Poole five years ago I’d pressed a sparrowhawk’s feather into the wicker casket just as he left us for the last time.

Yesterday, as I sat on the jetty, on the other side, amused by the fat mullet below, and I guess when everyone would have been at the Garden of Remembrance, I was alerted by the calls from the trio of Lesser Black-backed gulls that had been hanging around. Coming out of the sun’s nebulous glare towards me a very large bird escorted by the agitated gulls. It clearly wasn’t the heron, its aura was immediately palpable and I knew I was about to become witness to a vision long anticipated. A magnificent real flesh, blood and feathers Phoenix rising in the monumental form of an adult White-tailed Eagle. A feathered ‘barn door’ was casually passing right in front of me stressing every other bird under it, including the pair of Marsh Harriers — that I’d hitherto not seen this year — rising from the reed beds. In the bright haze the ancient deity’s magnificent warm ash-grey plumage, big white fan of a tail — Judy loved his feathers — intense gaze and a bill-hook of a beak all in great detail. Absolutely nothing, nothing, could have been more appropriate, and unbelievable. The timing beyond comprehension. As the vision disappeared over the oaks I had my answer. He had not minded.

Cold wet gloom returns and smudges the horizon. Once again I’m staring out at the flooded salt marsh, now an infinite sheet of rain-hammered metal. The pair of what must be the Poole Ospreys calmly glide into the bay not long after the rain ceases. They remain an hour preening in the oaks beyond. Conspicuously two white points in a vast bank of darkest greens.

My side is still aching. Overreacting last night I had botched the removal of a barely reachable tick discovered whilst in bed. Ripping it and a nip of accompanying flesh off with tweezers by head torch. Overkill. Had to be sure.

‘Overkill’ was the name, I thought, of the Union-Jack-bunting-wrapped house I passed yesterday, just after the cattle grid, en route to the supermarket, an hour’s hike across wood and furze-land. I thought it appropriate before realising the K was an H. Returning I stopped to chat with a Garden Warbler through a YouTube intermediary on my phone. It annoyed him.

Tiny floaters of pulsing light, slithering micron-thin fibre optic gossamer flashes in my peripheral vision as I scan the calm starling-egg-blue sky. I’m looking for mad Gos (resident Goshawk) who for the last few days has unleashed an avian reign of terror from up high.

The manic super raptor has gone all Peregrine — which I earlier thought he was — with spectacular displays of sheer ferocity, speed, power and persistence.

He turns up again as I watch a feathered bait-ball in the form of somebody’s racing pigeons cross nervously over the bay. One breaks loose, big mistake, a small high altitude speck germinates rapidly into a missile and locks onto the go-it-aloner, adeptly twisting as he plummets. As they level off it’s clear Gos can’t quite achieve a peregrine’s velocity. Like many of the woodies previously, the pigeon escapes. ‘Drat, drat, and double drat’.

Day after, I’m watching a large bass rooting out crabs from right under the overhanging sea purslane in the margins at high tide. The warm still air rank with the stench of damp crispy-crab-corpse-littered fleeces of rotting gut weed. A double stiff-feathered whoosh whoosh rips past just above my head. The chasing Goshawk (Gos) reaches the fleeing and they clash violently, talons ripping, slashing, gripping. All this to ‘I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane’ by a pub band with the singer that, between songs, sounds like a piss-take of an 80s radio DJ, booming across from the pub garden way over the salt marsh and river. Nope, I’m not making this up.

Early rise to catch the ebb tide and hopefully intercept the big bass vacating the draining lagoons at the pinch-point before the footbridge. 4.45am. Waning gibbous moon glowing directly above itself in deep blues. New dawn is soft-lighting the scene from the left. Intense electrostatic calm. Two Canadians, necks stretched, float under Golgotha, looking concerned, but not because of me. As I slide open the glass I startle something in the emerging rush and sedge beds. In the still half light an unfamiliar mammalian shape bounds away along the long soft mattresses of greens. Like a squirrel, but it’s bigger, I don’t register a tail. Like a fox, but it’s smaller, shorter legged, and more elegant. I know what it is but I don’t believe it. I see it — them — again, clear as night vision, confirmation, on checking YouTube videos when I get home days later. The phenomenally elusive and ultra rare Pine Marten.

Warm night, light fading, tide turn, two screaming bird ninjas scythe high across an impossibly immaculate celestial spectrum — hot orange to deep indigo — lightly punctured by the first pinprick stars and fat fingernail moon. Nothing screams summer — literally — more than a swift. 

I cast the Teaser (soft rubber lure) out into the dark, listening for the plop. Wait for it to hit the bottom. Slowly retrieving it I feel the river bed like a kind of brail. Knocks, bumps and the vibration of the lure. Stones, shells, mud, gravel, wrack, wads of gut weed; drifting debris, jellyfish, mullet. Total suspense, any moment the heavy electric shock thump of a bass hit. 

Tiny puffs of air and flickers from passing gossamer-membraned wings flitting all around my head, sometimes just inches away. The bats curious about the vibrating braided line, and even follow the lure before it lands.

Thrillingly enveloped in the cavernous soundscape, even more immense than its familiar diurnal manifestation. Expanded by sounds from beyond horizon. The hypnotic churring of a nightjar from furze-land way beyond. Sensing, almost overwhelmed, by the mighty crescent of leaf-laden oaks behind me. From the deep dark of which Puck’s (the Roe buck) loud barking roars. The double screech and wing blast of the old cock pheasant-that-doesn’t-take-off, his continued presence the success of intelligence over instinct. Tawnies hooting and screeching. Rustling leaves. Near ultrasonic squeaks. Monotone peep of Redshanks. Honks and quacks. Loud pipping and tooting oystercatchers, trembling curlews. Then the bizarre grunt and whistle of a roding4 woodcock, I can just make out his cocky silhouette crossing in the faint silver halo of the moon. 

From the pitch black void close to my immediate left a big weighty plunge, like someone fell in. I nearly speed-slough my skin. A big mullet briefly clears the river of gurgles, ripples, splashes, plops, flicks. What’s with their random leaping?

By the gas cylinders the lost-bead-empty-eye-socket corpse of a fledgling blackbird, bejewelled in diamanté brooches of greenbottle and shimmering slug slime, like glue that has stuck it to the path. Semi-plucked by recent heavy drops from the canopy above. Now crisp again. Pulsating wriggling torso. Nutrient recycling made visible. Inches away a bouquet of Bugle, each flower being scientifically probed by a bee fly and his stiff proboscis. 

A looped green caterpillar drops on an invisible thread onto my cuff from above. It looks like a loose stitch.

Big red and big green — shore crabs — clash, looking like two skinny-jean middle age men in big thick puffers trying to hug.

By the white gasping mouth of an open empty clam shell a one-clawed titan tank of shore crab sensei side-shuffles slowly and deliberately across the wet shining pitter-pattering mud and tide-combed gut weed. Smaller nano-bot crabs side-scatter in all directions as he wades through the flock. Backlit and glistening, his bio-mechanical thighs translucent. He turns to face me directly as if it’s a challenge. Stunted clubbed periscope eyes erect and emotionless. Unanswered he lowers himself to rest his weight in a puddle, grumbling bubbles of indignation from his sides. A final body buzz liquifies the mud and he sinks from sight.

In brilliant pools of light under the yaffle4 green oak canopy — forest doldrums. The brilliant chlorophyll haze heavy with the sweet death and dirty sex odour of the Maythorn (Hawthorn). Backlit dizzy insect air-plankton, like hot sparks, erratically fizzing in high pitch frequencies, drawing tiny ephemeral afterglow flight paths against the deep shade. Sagging brilliant white blossom-drenched boughs glow almost fluorescent, even now long after Beltane5.

Risking the wrath of Gos, Kes is deftly fucking the warm wind6 high over the soft broccoli-green rush beds. Vole haven.

I’m taking a leak at the regular spot near the cabin. Looking down I see I’m peeing onto the bright green four-leaved canopy of an oak sapling. I trip on the thought that I may be responsible for its germination. Casual symbiosis with Golgotha via this acorn? Is it one of hers here in the shadow of its century older siblings?

Who planted it, one of the screaming jays that passed over yesterday, a woodmouse, or, considering the space, did it wash up like a coconut in the flotsam even?  

It was gone two days later. 



In memory of Judy Blame.


1Spadix – spike of minute flowers arranged around an axis in arums.

2Spathe – hood part of arum flower that encloses the spadix

3Roding – territorial evening display of woodcock

4Yaffle – green woodpecker

5Beltane – Gaelic May Day festival

6Windfucker – archaic English for Kestrel


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