Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

24th September 2023

August at the cabin brings Mark Mattock shore crabs, downpours, and tote bags full of ceps.

August: Catch a fire

‘If our eyes saw in these infrared wavelengths, forests would glitter as though on fire.’ – Oliver Morton, Eating the Sun

I’m deeply nested in the sagging hammock. I’m sure looking like a giant cocoon. Sweating. Squinting through salt-sore eyes. Squeezing shut every time the sun’s electromagnetic rays score direct hits through gaps in the hard green leaved canopy above. Softly rattling in a gentle breeze that fails to cool. Sounds of a hot summer day: trilling crickets, distant crow cawing, mewing solitary buzzard, twittering swallow. Piercing screeches of a black headed gull who looks like it just stuck its head in cappuccino. Winter plumage emerging, already! Salty swamp spume and rotting algae taints the acid dry briny air. Far off human voices: exited, happy. Deep bass drone of a hornet passing overhead, flying repeated sorties out to hunt grasshoppers in the crisping marsh grass. Tiger-stripe arsed hover fly, with big maroon compound eyes, buzzes like a whisper, dead still, just above me; darting away with G-force defying speed at the sound of big flickering dry cuticle membraned wing-blades approaching. Several species of hawker dragonflies, out in force, like patrolling helicopters. Up and down the giant surf-wave-wall of oak leaves splashing bright green fattening acorns and knopper galls. Kool and the Gang’s’ Summer Madness,’ Roy Ayers’ ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine,’ drowsy old school summer vibes from the Bluetooth speaker perched on the corner of the deck. I’m still glowing from the fight I got into last night with a lagoon beast of a bass of 65cm. Biggest of the year.

No wait! Scratch that, that was last year, this is summer of 23. The bass was last night. Phone notes summary of the day: ‘dishwater dull. Calm. Bag of mushrooms though. Big Shirleys (bass) in the bay… ignoring perfectly presented ‘patch’ (bass lure). Marsh draining fast, tide’s been high. Camera trap gone, fuck it, tide stole it. Noisy irritable buzzard doing my head in. Some machine wheel that needs oiling. Musket (male sparrow hawk) passes this evening.’

Morning. Staring out, dispirited. It could be November but clearly it isn’t, as not a single leaf is releasing its grip from the violently swaying branches. The distant tree line is repeatedly smudged out by wafts of fierce mizzle. Perk up when the lone head bobbing greenshank suddenly bolts as a gang of four brilliant white egrets are blown onto the pewter coloured mud, stage-set like empty polystyrene cups. They look like some Clockwork Orange inspired bird band. Quickly gaining composure, Lance and his Lancers begin, arrogantly, menacingly, stepping and stabbing their way up the filling rivulet. In the tightly packed ripples panicking mullet fry fizz in all directions from the advancing yellow feet and keratin daggers. Heavy losses. Stab, flick, snap, swallow. The sky is lightening to the south west.

Fresh Polish larger cans floating on the leaf litter, shining in the dark gloom of the forest understory, or accompanying wet wipes under the yellowing bracken fronds, usually mark the beginning of mushroom season proper. However this morning the first of this season are still being held by some approaching foragers: two young guys and a young woman, already looking life-weary, and a couple of kids. I smelt the drifting cigarette smoke a while back. I see almost immediately, on passing, that the two drinkers look at me in disdain as I greet them all with the usual deliberate nondescript and disarming ‘hiya.’ (I’m conscious of what I must look like to some, particularly if they are on their own in the woods). We all know that we’re at the boundary of a prime cep location. I have a bulging tote bag! The woman giggles, she knows, I giggle, we exchange pleasantries. Beyond the gravel car park is the big pony-grazed green, surrounded by furze-land; a moraine of dry pony shit and cow dung (good solid stuff, some even flagged with a mushroom) specked with small yellow hawkbit flowers; on which, as I pass, dogs run, bark, shit, while their owners smoke, vape, scroll, bitch about someone with a voice on loudspeaker. As I hit the single track road a trio of expensively hissing lycra and Gortex clad, sunglass blinkered, incognisant cyclists grunt and pant past on feather-light carbon fibre bikes.

A fresh, fleshy beefsteak fungus in the hole of a neat green moss-covered bole looks like a tongue in bearded mouth singing la, la, la, la, la… lala, la, la… (‘The Passenger’). A nuthatch, close by, ‘chuck, chucks’ his version of the song. A sparring pair of speckled woods spin endlessly in the warm sub-oak air.

While I sit on the deck reading, a flash mob of passerines comes sweeping through the trees. From leaf litter to king twig; fidgeting flits, flickers, flutters and beats of small wings. Taps, picks, pecks, snaps, as each species works its preferred niche: great tits ripping open the sticky galls, treecreepers working the furrowed bark, flycatchers snatching flushed insects out of the air. Delicate sounds of avian contentment, harmonies of gentle pips, peeps, chucks, chats, chinks, trills; from blue, great, coal, marsh and long tailed tits; willow warblers, chiff chaffs, blackcaps, spotted flycatchers, firecrests, chaffinches and tree creepers, all easy picking and pecking in the time of plenty. Essential fuelling for the migrants in particular.

It’s just getting light when I wake, the oaks out front regaining form after spending a serenely still night as beautifully intricate and delicate black paper cut outs. Over by the footbridge kingfisher is sitting on post like a small lighter flame. A teenage polly dishwasher (pied wagtail) is running up and down the jetty snatching at micro insect morsels. Tawny blasts a couple of hoots from somewhere in the dark hollies.

But this morning there’s a roar drowning out the familiar delicate early morning acoustics. Like a giant blow torch. Which is exactly what it is. A huge excess vapour burn off coming from the oil refinery, a fossil fuel toxic temple, a hell-scape of tarnished, chemical stained, polluting, towers, tanks, pipes, flues and chimneys. The largest in the country, with a poor safety record, just three miles away as the raven flies. It’s totally unnerving to see the enormous flames from the burn-off flue. I can’t see it from the cabin, only when nearer. But I often hear the distant alarms.

The marsh is slowly re-flooding. Heron is on his favourite preening perch looking like a giant grey fruit bat hanging the right way up. The Osprey is over the bay, it’s just spectacularly missed a mullet. I’m observing the seriously questionable — from a different species perspective — dating etiquette of a large male shore crab being pecked by tiny gobies below me. Already having been fought off once he’s now hitting on the next. Waving his substantial pincers — pinchers? — at another passing female. As she pauses, he quickly scuttles over and jumps on her, encaging her with his perfect-for-the-purpose legs before she turns. Holds her still a moment then begins delicately caressing with the huge mechanical claws. When small bubbles of presumably some kind of reciprocation — or submission — trickle from her sides he then ‘manoeuvres’ her off to the riffling jacuzzi in the middle of the flowing rivulet. They bed down tight in the gravel, let the rising water ride over them, fade from sight as the water deepens.

A group of canoeists enter the bay at the far end. Through binoculars I see it’s a TV presenter and her entourage, and guide, who should know better, have been briefed, about not leading people up the creek. I know they can see me, they’re trying not to. They soon paddle away.

Crossing through the wooded promontory, to get to the riverside, I pass a large spread of huge parasol mushrooms looking like something from a spinning plate act on a seventies talent show. Over this side is the only place I get a signal, to catch up with some texts and mails. A perfect spot to watch the sun set. As I’m reading a big old bruise of a cloud is creeping towards me. A tatty mauve rinsed grey and yellow-frayed-edge rug sliding over a polished floor. But upside down. As it pulls away from the horizon I feel a blast of warmth as the heavy sinking sun is suddenly peeping at me like a giant ancient mythical God’s eye. Burning bright orange iris in a strip of clear smooth duck egg green sclera from under a heavy bruised eyelid. The cloud darkens considerably as it sucks up the sunset beams, saturating its colours, fronted now by deep golden amber nicotine-stained ethereal glow.

I might need to get up in a minute, I can smell the approaching rain. I look up again. Too late. Like some cinematic depiction of a biblical sandstorm I watch the rain cross the water like furniture cleaner sprayed on a shining mahogany table top. Hiss builds rapidly to taps then to full on roar. I turn to look behind me. I’m suddenly a tiny figure in a renaissance depiction of Dante’s Inferno. I scramble to find shelter. I’m crashing around in a wood that’s suddenly a huge soaking wet foundry of cold fire rain. A hot blast furnace of cool water. I’m being drenched, rapidly. I try sheltering in the dense hollies but it’s pathetic. Millions of drops of flame burst, splash, into cold wet sparks on the black shiny leaves, the needles prick like being hit with little hot shards. The air scintillating with fiery spittle. My Realtree hoodie heavy sodden, water trickles from the peak of my hat. Whole trees burning impossible orange, the scene a kaleidoscopic light show of refraction, an intoxicating hallucinogenic vision, raw elemental baptism of fire… water, earth, air. The gold taps of each turned to max. In a state of total exhilaration I reach for my phone desperate to capture it all, but it doesn’t work, my wet fingers on the wet screen render it uselessly waterproof. I reach the giant oak that I’ve been ritualistically photographing every sunset since May. It’s now glowing so shockingly orange all I can do is hold out my arms and make wild man photograms against it. Images only I will ever see; burning man shadow effigies in a moment of worship of something truly awesome. Re-passing the parasols that now look like a fleet of flying saucers, I reach the cabin. Over the marsh on the horizon, at the end of the world, where salt river becomes sea, a massive chute of a vapourescent rainbow, no full arch, being sucked up into the apocalyptically coloured sky. I remove my greasy sodden hat. Wipe the wet from my bald head with a flattened hand… the beauty, the beauty.

The sun has yet to fully reach the open sky, which is crowded with horizontal vapour trails, like multiple stretch marks, the same as yesterday and the day before; a timetable in slashes. The tide out, the mud matt, covered in large areas of flat soggy green, like a well worn pub carpet, shining only where pools remain like spilt beer. Once the sun clears the tree line steam begins to rise from my clothes spread out over the ramshackle jetty, and the mud rugs. As it continues to heat up the hawkers re-emerge, cruising more lazily, like mini helicopters carrying under-slung water tanks, dowsing the embers of last nights forest fire.

A hornet is hunting grasshoppers. As I watch I realise as determined, as ferocious, and as cunning as any bass or Goshawk. Flying low over the grass she intimidates them, pouncing on those that falter. Or relentlessly pursues them into the jungle of grass stems, her path trackable by the fleeing little herbivores. I often hear her still at it in the dark.

No moon last night so the cosmos spectacular.

End of season Silver Washed Fritillaries, still hanging on, like little storm-torn umbrellas fervently feeding on the hemp agrimony as I pass along the lane, fluorescent brimstones on the fleabane. I’m taking a long foraging route to the station. Approaching a gate an hour in I feel an inexplicable pull to go check an area to my right. I never ignore these vibes. Within minutes I’m walking directly towards two ceps before I see them. (Recent neurological scanning technology has revealed that we subconsciously know what we’re going to do up to seven seconds before we consciously do). Approaching I scrutinise the whole scene, it looks hot, ticking every box: tree species, moisture and light levels, land lay, associated mushroom species. And it smells deliciously heady. Ping! Another one. Head down, gaze range set to optimum distance. Another, then another. They’re nearly all astonishingly perfect; solid, maggot free, slug free, nibble free. As my wide eyes jump from one to another it dawns on me that I’ve just slipped through some invisible portal into a long fantasised about mycological nirvana. A major, major local flush of ceps. A once in a foraging blue moon moment. And no competition. Grinning ear to ear, I’m a fox in the pheasant pen. Three full tote bags. Dried, enough to last to next year. Tonight will be a luxurious treat of raw porcini salad: thin slices, best olive oil, pinches of the best salt, feathering of the finest parmesan. Pure little piggy heaven.

On the train now, reeking of tramp and culinary sophistication. Don’t care.


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