Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

27th August 2023

Grass snakes, abundant butterflies and an early fungal bounty make up for a damp July on Mark Mattock’s latest trip to the cabin.

July: Crimson Tides

“They do exude a fluid from their anus, which is meant to be foul smelling, and for most people it is…I love the smell of it.” — Chris Packham on Grass snakes.

Curved dusky scimitar primaries, with ping pong ball buoyancy, float effortlessly by like fallen swifts. The geese are moulting. The sun is setting.

Gentle ripples liquify a burning vapour trail crossing the indigo abyss above, transforming it into a lone, luminescent, wriggling elver, swimming against the ebb-flow of its deep dark voluminous reflection below. As the distant horizon finally swallows the red sun, dusk sounds of trilling crickets, splashing mullet, and the pitter-patter of freshly exposed shore, increase. The aircraft too far, too high, to sound-pollute the serenity. Sudden loud claps from the dense oak crescent behind as two woodies try to flap each other to death, probably over a good roosting spot. How ‘well hello’ this must sound to any passing goshawk in this hunting prime-time. It’s the third evening that flocks of chattering swallows have passed overhead, going south. Am I hearing the last screams of swifts for this year already?. 

A large dark moth fluttering out over the water suddenly drops, as if whacked by some invisible force, onto the surface. Was it evading a bat? There’s a trio of them right now.  Firmly held by the surface tension the moth seems to accept the miscalculation and its fate. It’s not struggling, even after a mullet rises to mouth it with its thin, pale toenail-clipping lips. Through binoculars I can just make out she is a rare light crimson underwing, Catocala promissa. The intensely rich crimson and black underwings, with delicate white trimming, like fine silk lingerie inadvertently revealed from under her camo coat by the mishap. Is she being lured by the mercury vapour moth traps placed in the lane, this week, by the local wildlife trust? A perfect spot to lure males for herself. I make a chivalrous attempt at rescue by casting a lure at her, hoping not to hit her, but close enough to splash her free. It works. I wish her luck. 

In the darkness I stumble my way back, spooking the Muntjac who barks in annoyance as he indignantly stomps off, crashing through the bracken. Entering the cabin I’m greeted again by the same sickly death tang that had contaminated the usual welcome-back wafts of eau-de-old-village-hall on my arrival days ago. Again it dissipates. In the morning, though, it is overwhelming. I’ve been sleeping with a corpse. It doesn’t take long, even with my olfactory incapabilities, to work out it’s coming from under the bath tub. Removing the last screw I lift the panel away. There, laying peacefully at rest, as I grimace at the overwhelming rancid fragrance, a little body… Walden! On the stained chipboard floor greasy maggots crawl, wobble-and-roll unsteadily in ‘telescoping peristaltic movements’ away from the serene little body, trying to escape the sudden light. I lift the wood mouse in the dustpan and take him out to the crabs under the footbridge, who will recycle him quicker. I open all the windows. Wonder what killed him.

Immaculate new blue morning sky. The exposed rivulets trickling the same blue. The metallic mud’s pock marks and dents filled with the wet blue sky. Way above a plane is about to crash into the waning moon, still visible. A crazy-paved path of peace signs, embossed onto the cloven hoof skid marks all over the mud, walk away into the distance. Yellow foot was here. Earlier the mullet, browsing, scooping up mouths full of mud with those kinked bottom lips, leaving the strange looking aquatic spoor upon which he trod. Peewits and curlews increasing in numbers on the marsh now breeding is over. Their respective eerie calls, mixed with cooing wood pigeons, dominate the soundscape. Somewhere over the horizon a man is calling in his cattle. Snippets of a staccato conversation coming from way beyond the oak tops. The builder turns his radio on for the morning news.  

A pair of oystercatchers tap tap tap the harder mud on a bank like woodpeckers. A herring gull drops down to grab a crab. With its gape near splitting I watch it violently head-banging the crab into its throat. It eventually succeeds, neck swollen impossibly, more serpent than bird. 

Before I cautiously step onto the jetty I spot a conspicuously dark bass hiding, holding itself steady by the gentlest motion of fins, in the small calm slack near the footbridge. Huge scars down his side like heavy scratches on a campfire saucepan, tiny fry pecking at the wounds. Is he waiting in ambush or hiding in recovery? Two herons, out on the samphire beds, are disagreeing in slo-mo flapping and pathetic kung fu kicks. Is it about the bass? Although most likely the scars were made in a seal’s jaws. 

Sweat burns my eyes. Weirdly I decided to take a new long-cut through the woods with a full shopping bag. I stray in a trance through alternating deep cool pools of sluggish shade and shimmering leaved hot-tubs of blinding sun.  Surround sound crickets, English cicadas. A blackcap still finds energy to crack off a tune even this late in the season. Ephemeral attesters of true ancient wood, Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admirals, glide up and down the heady ambrosial avenues of old damp wood cellars and vanilla-flavoured honeysuckle. At one spot, over a densly blossomed bramble spike, two russet coloured male Silver-washed Fritillaries harass a larger olive female as she feeds, miniature kites fluttering just above her, held by spider web strings; she’s not interested, but they can’t pull free. Suddenly I smell horse. Moments later I’m eye level with jodhpur’d thighs and leather riding boots; shining chestnut and black twitching muscle, flicking tails, flies, frothing muzzles; the sound of molars grinding on metal bits. “Good morning,” and “lovely day” and “are you a butterfly expert?” Putting two and two I suppose. Looking up I point out to the four ladies the various species all around us and then on being asked if I’ve seen anything special explain that I have actually, a particular form of Silver-washed Fritillary, named valesina, the first I’ve ever seen, it occurs in a very small percentage of females in large southern populations, the orange-olive-brown replaced by a green tarnished silver look. “Gosh you must feel jolly pleased with the day…” I do.

A continuous, and unmistakable, rustle from the base of a small bramble bush catches my attention. Glimpses of an old olive green belt being slid from the dry thorny loops. A yellow collard head emerges from the other side and rises, pulling a long, weighty body behind it at speed. Without thought I take the opportunity, rushing and grabbing her mid-body as she slips on the pony-smoothed buttress roots of a large oak. Heart pumping, fully aware of what happens next, I hold the writhing body away from me, paying more attention to the tail end than the harmless but threatening-looking head. In the commotion I don’t see the foul pungent ejaculate being vented but instantly smell it. Relieved I kept the stuff off me I put her down. She adopts her next line of defence and goes semi flaccid, feigns death (goes with the rank odour). But not for long. She rights herself and then coils to a more ‘I’m going to bite you’ pose. Probably the biggest grass snake I’ve seen. My first nature obsession was snakes. Awesome creature. Ten minutes spent in admiration. Pin sharp, glistening, supple, forked tongue starts flickering, tasting, checking. A couple of head jolts then she slides rapidly away. 

Hot dry morning. A car crunches and crumbles down the gravel track at speed, sucking butterflies off the brambles. This particular bush already spectacularly covered with them: Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Ringlets, freshly emerged Peacocks and all the three Whites. The dislodged ones swirl and struggle to regain control in the choking dust backdraft. 

Further along, kerbside, scene of a fatal collision; smashed car wrecks in the form of male and female stag beetles, just feet apart. Fatal attraction. 

In a more open stretch of lane I’m passed by a smart-but-casual Lynx-doused youth, on his way to work (safe assumption). “Awrite mate?” Minutes later I’m broadsided by an unseen assailant. An immense blast-wave of nostalgia, without moving a single blade or leaf, has crept through the hedge, punched me on the nose, flooded myriads of odorant receptors. A man on a mini tractor is mowing the hay paddock. I’m suddenly back in my hot cramped bedroom setting butterflies to ‘Life on Mars,’ school’s done, the windows open, house martins bickering; the playing field is being mowed and a Players No6 fag-end stuffed into the roman-snail-shell-ash-tray, with a crimson ‘fuck’ nail varnished on it, is still smoking. Hay, wheat dust, shade, cellar, earth, pollen, dung, two-stroke fumes, Lynx, nicotine, Brut 33, fags, sweat. Space and time. Landscape and memory. 

I’m staring, again, at Golgotha the oak, from deep green oxygenated gloom. A billion leaves breathing, transpiring; dead still.  This morning feels like an eon ago. A heavy, piss-stained, dimensionless grey blanket of cloud now smothers all to the horizon.  A peewit calls from beyond sounding like someone’s trodden on a dog’s squeaky toy. Golgotha, rooted on the absolute boundary of wood and marsh, soft lit like an old matriarch holding court. Heavy leaf-laden limbs of her taller audience reach towards her in delicate gestures, listening attentively with every lobed leaf. All touching toes, electricity between them, through immense root systems connected by infinitely immense mycelial networks. Above, the branches, intense intimacy but no touching — ‘crown shyness’ —  form a five-pointed star gap in the canopy directly above the cabin. At the moment I’m walking barefoot between and under them despite the pain from stepping on the hard shrivelled aborted acorns fallen on the deck. ‘Breathe, breathe, breathe deeply.’ A gentle hiss begins. Like the static from a stylus lifted onto the beginning of a vinyl LP. A slow intro of fine rain on the hardening summer leaves. Then it sounds like the build up of a large audience on a live recording. The drops multiply and engulf each other on the green surfaces, becoming larger ones that start to slide off. Heavier crackling. The diamond needle hits the first scratches — heavy taps.  A milky way of dark wet spots rapidly materialises and merges on the dry deck. Then it pours. The shining water surface turns matt. The single rippling robin song is drowned out by the roar of the ambient track… 

I’m woken by the heavy baritone buzz and hard taps on glass as a hornet tries to head-butt her way out of the cabin. The air thick with the potent fungal aroma of yesterday’s mushrooms spread all over the kitchen counter: a huge horse mushroom, ceps, oak boletes, scarletina boletes, bay boletes, orange birch boletes, charcoal burners, yellow brittle gills, chanterelles, parasols and blushers. A phenomenal fungal response to a damp miserable July. And welcome bounty. The unseasonably eclectic collection gathered between one horse station and cabin. I slide open the glass and release insect and fungal spore. Go boil some water.

A huge bolete that looks like a pulverised upturned trifle gone hard sits alone away from the rest. With its beautiful palette of colours from dry pale vomit pink through to ruby reds and arterial blood crimson; chrome yellows, rusts, cinnamon, corpse greys and the darkest blue-green bruises, it screams don’t eat me, but its gross, scabbed over textures clearly indicate it’s relished by all from slug to muntjac. I’m suspicious and excited that it may be boletus satanoides, a very rare relative of the ugly and super toxic satan’s bolete, boletus satanas, but the obvious edibility, suggests not. Slicing the firm cap the bright lemon yellow flesh turned, dramatically, ink blue, as expected, but not quickly. I’m pretty sure it’s a rare, appropriately named, nostalgically sounding, oldrose bolete boletus rhodopurpureus. 

(Never consume a foraged mushroom without a 101% positive identification).

Coffee brewed, go out to the jetty. 

A tropical flash of electric morpho-butterfly-blue streaks a laser straight line across the marsh; first kingfisher of the season. Sign of seasonal shifting. Just beyond the rush beds, now looking like thatched roofs after a tornado, I spot twitching ears. The Roe couple watching me, arrogantly postured, from sub-oak shade. Movement just below me in the water, a big mullet suddenly accelerates down to the mud, scoops up a mouth full of it and almost immediately vents a cloud out of the other end as it rises and turns away. In typical mullet behaviour, another cruises up behind, the ‘cloud’ seemingly irresistible. A compass jellyfish stealth-pulses towards the glittering disco-bait-balls of mullet fry, scattering them. A loud single croak-cum-belch from one of the ravens passing close overhead actually makes me jump enough to spill my coffee. I smile to myself, I feel it meant to do that. The pair raised three this season. The squadron of five frequently pass over. The camera traps left out a week ago, which I’ve only just remembered, reveal the creepy muntjacs have a small, not so creepy, fawn. And that a weasel has been intimidating the wood mice. 

The last evening of July was ‘shepherd’s delight,’ so much so that the egrets, in the distance, could almost have been flamingos.

Much later that night I’m woken by a resurrected rodent.


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