Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

15th November 2023

Mustelids, owl lore and rejuvenating silence: autumn is in full swing on Mark Mattock’s latest trip to the woodland cabin.

October: Return

“Here is a present
Which has no place,
Perhaps I manage, and I cry out in
The night of the owl…”

– Mahmoud Darwish, Night of the Owl, 1995

YEESSS! A dark, handsome, long, sleek, smooth, agile, elegant mustelid is ferreting around the base of the uprooted trunk that lays just beyond water’s reach, in the small bay under the oaks, to the left of the cabin, partially obscured by thin hawthorn and holly. After hours and hours of footage recorded over the last four months, at this covert pinch-point of activity; of squirrels, wood mice, rats, shrews, woodcocks, owls, a weasel; moths, slugs, beetles even; this cut-through, worn smooth by fox, badger, roe deer, fallow deer and muntjac — finally. The mythical, ultra-elusive creature it was all set up for. The bouncy apparition I sleepily glimpsed bounding away in the crepuscular pink-rinsed rush bed one early dawn last May. On the two-inch screen I watch the pine marten — and I’m sure it’s a she — lithely, enthusiastically, smelling everything; glowing eyes in the ghostly grey infrared footage. Olfactory receptors working overtime in the rich emporium of odourants: secretions, excretions, shit, piss and pheromones. I can hardly contain the thrill of what I’m seeing, I need more caffeine. She’s beautiful, boisterous, graceful, I’m surprised at her size, the length of her tail. But have to imagine the colours — her rich conker coat and pale yellow bib.

I’m in love.

Wave upon wave of dancing hirundines, like swirling blasts of wind-crisped leaves, fill the afternoon sky with chatter and twitter. Fluttering tropical pied papilios over the smooth sliding river. Some nimbly dipping to peck a drop from the thin freshwater surface layer before re-ascending over the oak crescent, southwards. Surround-sound cinema of a slowly leaking summer. Fork-feather-tailed summer spirits — swallows, house martins — leaving on the season’s ebb tide. Africans enthusiastically returning home, some for the first time.

A mad-eyed juvenile cormorant bobs up, literally out of the blue — the reflected sky; wet jewels slipping off its head and back, a rod’s length from me. We stare at each other but it couldn’t give a fig. Maybe a bit of contempt. Unbelievably it dives and just carries on fishing. From the jetty looking down into the deep crystal-clear water I watch the weird bipedal aquatic reptile scuba-hunting with phenomenal piscine speed and dexterity. Bobbing back up every thirty seconds as if to check I’m still there. Why? As I’m videoing it all with my phone the deranged jurassic pre-bird looking aquanaut disappears under the platform, under my feet, then pops out the other side, tightening up a bait ball of bass fry it corralled, terror swirling around and around them. As it picks a few off, I actually hear the snap of its beak. At the same time two large bass roll up, fins flaring with dragon fish aggression, and snatch up stragglers. Is it symbiotic? I check my footage, and realise I’m wearing polaroids: most of the incredible action is obscured by the reflected sky.

Sat on the deck in the peacefully narcotic dark, the frowsy air faintly flavoured with briny fermentation and wood smoke. Ensembles of crickets chirp soothingly from the barely discernible plumes of coal-black oak billowing up into the darkest grey starless void. It’s still insect warm. From the marsh emptiness beyond the trees a curlew cries a lament and a heron screeches. My stomach gurgles loudly. To the left, a row of twinkling halogen suggests an horizon. Then the the owls start up. The first hoot rolls in from the eastern oak bank across the empty lagoons. Is almost immediately answered by a deep quavering twoo from a bird in the branches just above my head. A piercing keee-wick from another tawny just to the right. I feel my invisible neighbours moving about above me like big soft bats in the velvet dark. A double act constantly shifting and calling out now from bough to post, roof to canopy. Another now joins from directly over the main river, beyond the marsh. And, incredibly, another two faintly answer from opposite points in the deepest distance. I stare out into the obscurity as if blindfolded, spellbound by an overwhelming sense of immense space totally redefined. The tiny vestibular hair cells in my ears feeling the square miles of unpolluted soundscape, without boundary, in intense clarity, via owl lore and rejuvenating silence.

The sun lifts clear of the eastern crowns at 07.36, at a point directly in line with the marker stick at the confluence of channel and lagoon entrance. In the morning quietude the mud pinks and pops, the rivulet riffles, a raven mutters and an osprey calls — he’s still here. OP comes flapping hard out of the sun, no thermal to glide on. Crosses the marsh to the main river. Working his way upstream he stops to hover every hundred meters, with all the gracelessness of some metal cast heraldic raptor. He needs to drop his fisted talons to help hold position, a bit like the club-shaped haltere counter-balances on a cranefly. He makes one dive but swoops out at the last minute. Crossing the marsh a mob of peewits harass him like giant flappy butterflies all the way to the tree line. The outer reaches of the canopy now scorched autumn. Some individual trees heavy laden with yellowing and rusting acorns like giant coral polyps. Among which willow warblers and chiff chaffs, like pale green olives, flit; fattening up in the plentiful invertebrate larder. Oak and samphire still in sync, each samphire stem now completely drained of chlorophyll, now exactly the same colours as the acorns. It’s warmed up enough for a double crucifix of common darter dragonflies to pass, in coitus.

The hawthorns hang heavy with branches dripping crimson blood. The hollies over-decorated in bunched baubles of scarlet, like tacky Christmas decor. A small flock of drivelling mistle thrushes gorge themselves stupid on the heavy berry bounty. I stop to watch. One in particular, incapacitated, stuffed, unable to close its beak, a berry still visible in its gape. Filled to the brim. I continue, muttering “not a sss-single, sss-solitary, sss-cep,” over and over, trying it in Family Guy’s decrepit Herbert the Pervert’s soft southern high pitch voice, with whistling “S” lisp, as I pound a heavy pacy footstep beat through a red specked land of haw, hip and berry. To the village an hour and a half away. A mild earthy metallic taste in my mouth. It’s unexpectedly un-fungal despite perfect conditions. Has been since mid September. But within minutes of reducing the mantra to just “sssingle, sssolitary, sscep” one appears right in front of me, as if an answer to the spell I’m chanting. I’m still not seriously looking, but then, another cep. Now I am. Thirty minutes later, with a bag of bounty, my tongue successfully finds the sweet spot behind my front teeth as the songline becomes “sssudden, sssweet, cccep, sssuccess” for the rest of the way. Under sweet chestnuts yet more seasonal bounty, tempting; the nuts fat as mini conkers, but it’s one effort too much.

Mid afternoon, the bright sun behind me, polishing the deep petrol blue plumage of the passing swallows. Lighting up OP on his favourite perch; penetrating deep into the black sub-oak shadow between the bare boles under the hem of the canopy of the eastern bank. In the wide flooding side-channel, midway between me and the trees, it irradiates the two mute swans into a blinding luminosity. It simply doesn’t look natural. And something looks wrong. I raise my glasses. The slightly smaller pen is clearly being pursued by a big puffed up cob. He’s seething hot, solder-bright aggression. She beaches, slap walks up the mud onto the purslane and samphire flats. Her mistake. The huge male makes his rush, catches her up, violently mounts her, pinning her. As he stamps down on her, huge wings thumping, he grabs her by the back of the head as she stretches her long neck taught in a pitiful desperation to get out from under him. He bites and chews on it like he’s trying to twist it off. Some long ugly minutes later another puffed up male — her mate? — sails up, in full threat posture. She makes her escape as her attacker releases her. The two cobs face each other off, in grotesque posturing circles. Then they clash. Sparring snake necks twisting and writhing for domination. The relentless pounding of huge white wings reverbs around the salt marsh. It’s like this for twelve minutes, before the aggressor cob gets the better and mounts the other like he did the pen. The mounted bird desperately drags himself towards the reeds as he’s being savagely beaten, and bitten. There is no doubt I’m watching a grisly attempted murder, I’m sickened. The big male over, and over, tries to break the other’s neck, as he stamps down on him at the same time. It’s twenty minutes now. They finally part, surely through exhaustion. The victim tires to flee, but again is chased down. Now behind the reeds I lose visual contact, I fear for him. I see them both again in the far distance out on the main river, it still looks nasty. Fucking hell! The fraudulent myth of the snow white symbols of purity, peace and ‘mate-for-life’ love totally exposed.

On Sunday the 8th of October, as I’m sat on the train, I get a text, completely out of the blue. From an old long time friend, reaching out from New York. She’s Palestinian… It hauntingly reads:

‘This is the beginning of the end.’

Last days of October. A morning sunbeam finds a momentary gap in the cloud and delivers golden photons, at warp speed, through the slow chlorophyll-draining canopy. Illuminating the acorns and wind brittled leaves all over the deck. It catches my breath as if I’m exhaling cigarette smoke, as I peer out from under the duvet. A tiny pom pom of avian energy is hunting spiders, their silk glowing all around the window frame, with characteristic urgency. The wren’s tiny pale spidery feet like little gripping alien hands. I need to get up.

A pent up, hormone high, fallow buck is booming long guttural bass-burping proclamations through the trees and out across the steaming salt marsh. He’s been at it for hours. OP is still here, usual perch, and somehow I managed to check on him at the very same time a Goshawk turns up on the branch below him.

They glare at each other, the female hawk seething, her barred tail fanned to the max, the osprey, actually, almost nonchalant. She lifts off and pounces on him, to dislodge him, her vicious talons grasping at his head, he just ducks, she slips off in frustration. He’s as if it was nothing. It was the last day I saw him. Senegal called him home.

Nights are constantly being woken by relentless rain pounding the roof. Very high tides. Mornings soaked, sodden. My feet now like herb encrusted feta cheese. Squelching around barefoot, under the circumstance, makes life considerably easier, just need to avoid stepping on the massive greasy chihuahua-turd-looking gastropods, all over the leaf litter, in three colour ways: arion ater the black slug; arion rufus the red slug (brick red) and a sickly beige washed out variant new to me. With the bright orange foot-fringe they look tropical though. Tips of oak branches are strewn all over the place, the crowns wind-pruned by violent threshing. Another layer of debris: acorns, galls, twigs and leaves. So much rain has fallen that the flow of the main river, despite a rapidly rising tide, remains flowing downstream. The water deeply tea stained from the forest tannins.

Finally a clear night. The rising moon near full. It shines bright behind the oaks out front, silver gilding the leaf edges, creating intricate backlit black-on-black filigree. Its doppelgänger shimmers on the glassy water like bare bulb reflected on an old flat insect-flecked windscreen. It’s bouncing a faint ethereal glow under the heavy low boughs. Out by the footbridge Teal whistle from the lagoons. Bats twirl and twist over the bay. I smash the liquid moon with a white komomo (Bass lure). It wobbles back together, no shiny silver bass under it.

Insanely beautiful morning. Sun clears the oak tops at 8.15. Rising through an immaculately smooth graduated spectrum of orange to azure. Together with its brilliant incandescent double gently rocking on the water, from almost exactly the same position of last night’s moon, the solar twins blast my shadow and its double against the flaming oak boles. Thinking the disturbance in the margins is a bass crabbing, I cast a lure over to within inches. The dabchick pops up — sorry!

The white tailed eagle appears, low over the eastern tree line, drifting towards me. A huge raft made of keratin plumes floating on warm marsh thermals. I drop the rod and raise my glasses in anticipation. It’s clearly a juvenile this time. Closer and closer until it suddenly spots me below. Startled, it makes an abrupt aero-gymnastic turn, tipping almost upside down. The noise of the air rushing over the wings and through the outstretched primaries, loud, breathtaking. Head still, a fierce angry browed eagle eye locked on me through the whole manoeuvre. I raise my hand to the dusty Phoenix in awed acknowledgement. It slips over the trees northwards. Warm enough now, the red admiral reappears soaring on mini thermals, flashing the ripest berry red on the densest black, splats and frills of brilliant white. Symbol of mortality and rebirth. I know it’s the one that has been here for a month. A lost soul, a psyche, that seems to have found her wintering space. I’ve left the windows open all week, but it’s too early, too warm still, for hibernation. Maybe I’ll still get another chance to offer her the cabin.

I’m racing an approaching storm, through the forest, across furze-land, to the station. The massive indigo cloud bank fills the western sky. I feel guilty I’ve not kept up with events over the last couple of days, I have no phone signal around the cabin. The sounds of an autumnal organised slaughter shockingly bring it all back, the sheer amount and rapidity of firing from a pheasant shoot booming from the western woods suggest utter carnage, before I’ve even re-connected with the rest of the world.

On the long straight heath road the end of a giant rainbow rises from the station pines on the horizon as if urgently calling, guiding.

Tomorrow is another Saturday, again London’s calling, nature — human nature — is calling, a call impossible not to heed…


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