Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

11th February 2024

On his latest trip to the cabin, Mark Mattock adds to his box of (very) local archeology.

December/January: Still life

“Why is it you wake up one day and an oak tree hit by the light in a certain way will produce these extraordinary feelings of glee and absolute enjoyment, exhilaration at actually being alive. Another day you can wake up and that same tree will seem like some Caspar David Friedrich; symbolic death, it’s dark and negative and awful?”  —  David Bowie

Sporadic gusts send cat’s paw ripples skimming aimlessly over the cold metallic water surface. A million piece jigsaw puzzle of brittle leaves skitters across the ground and deck like an army of locust hoppers on the rampage. Under oaks now totally defoliated. Naked. Hard. With tightly clenched buds. Cold. On the farthest mud bank, smooth and bare, forty cormorants like sodden black leather harpies sprouted from dragons’ teeth strewn in some pre-history. A few standing open-winged like trench-coated Goths, ready to be frisked by doormen.

The night was long, too long, a forever dark. Cabin nights midwinter are fourteen to fifteen hours of dark. Last night was dark dark, ear piercingly silent. Moonless, starless. A smothering disorientating dark. Claustrophobic. Outside without dimension, definition, distance. The void filled, choked, muted; pressing in, pressing down. No soothing rustling of leaves or pitter patter of rain. Even the brown owls were silent. It’s when you wake for the third or forth time — intermissions in the serial dreaming, each episode a little more dystopian, long gone the reassuring glow, heat, scent and chatter of wood burner, candle and dinner — that the sensory deprivation becomes challenging. Peeping out from under the double duvet to see how far the water has risen in the bay by its barely discernible glow of the reflected blackboard sky, desperate for the full lagoon that will mean dawn is imminent. The relief of a lone worn patch of light in the light retardant cladding, emerging in the south east — the lid prised from the coffin exhumed at the last minute.

It’s a raven morning. An avian monologue is being performed spectacularly. A winter’s equivalent of the nightingale’s, where time and space are being described, extolled, through one single being’s energy. Right now the deep musical gurgles from the ever-curious anthracite phoenix soaring over the far eastern oak bank — the only sign of non-vegetal life — in absolute crystal acoustic clarity. The big corvid’s utterances filling the huge briny amphitheatre without any reverb, all soundproofed by the dense seamless cloud blanket and nude, exposed, mud like a vast padded recording studio. Between the bird’s guttural notes total silence, just the fine white noise from the inside of my head. I go and make a contribution to the soundscape with a saw: I’m getting low on wood.

Then out of the monotonous, colour-drained landscape, shocking in its suddenness, a blast. With the brightness of a welder’s oxy acethylene torch in some huge iron-girder-construction site explodes spring in the form of a great spotted woodpecker’s drumming in the southern oak bank. Like the raven’s cronking without any of the usual reverb, so pure it could be in one of the trees immediately out front, not four hundred meters away. The hibernal solstice still a few days off, the worm yet to turn, but these two birds have just pulled me free of the bleak mid winter, with light as sound. With promise.

Skimmed ice patterns on the frozen puddles and pools as if made by feathers at the moment of freezing, like some fossil evidence of the very last breeze. Irresistible temptation like the glass in the window frames of derelict buildings in the landscape of my youth. I’m smashing a clear trail of immense infantile satisfaction across furze-land. Some of the dark spiky bushes brightly petalled yellow in the winter grey already. Fieldfares bounce and chuckle across the pony-cropped turf.

Paradoxically the loosening of the grip of winter is manifesting in the honeysuckles around the cabin. The first greening in the tangles as their sinewy coiling twines continue to slowly garrotte the hazels up which some climb. The winter thrushes: redwings, fieldfares, stormcocks and blackbirds — visitors and local — have stripped the hollies bare of berries. Out on the water: teal, wigeon, mallards and the odd white flecks of black headed gulls, like litter. On the mud: Brents, Canadians, curlews, redshanks, mostly silent. In the gullies greenshanks and yellow foot the egret stabbing, lancing and probing in the shallows and along the water line. Over all of which a hundred plus strong flock of flapping peewits swirl, spooked by the marsh harrier. Much higher, a pair of buzzards spiralling casually in an insubstantial thermal, and an irritable sounding crow.

As expected, and like last year, following a week of sub-zero conditions, I arrive at the cabin for the first time of the new year to burst pipes. Unlike last year when both pipes supplying boiler and cabin had been disconnected by freezing water and the outside shower pipe having been split, it’s the piping in the actual boiler that has burst. But the direct cold water pipe is fine. Temporarily sorted again with spanner and screw driver. No weekly hot bath though. A continuous hot water supply via saucepan and wood burner. All’s good. Coffee brewing. Look out over the low tide marsh: drained, bleak, barren, empty; the monochromatic mud like an expanse of cheap faux beige-brown leather, moulding slightly where the last smudges of gut weed cling on the tops of the mounds. Trip on the idea of the sheer force of thermal energy and water, that splits metal and swells oceans. Watch redshanks — the only bird in the whole matt vista — uncharacteristically swim across the foot deep gully that cuts through the bottom of the lagoon. His long twiggy legs must be paddling frantically underneath! Or maybe the clawed tips of his toes are just reaching the mud?

Cozy night, spent wrapped in triple duvet like a hamster in its bedding-crammed jam jar, reluctant to emerge, but morning looks promising. Absorbing heat and caffeine as the sun rises in the Scots pines right of the Wellingtonia, glowing like a messy fried egg in the thin strips of cloud. Each rise now creeping incrementally along the tree line, north to summer. Reverberant woodpecker drumming from the eastern oak bank still in night, dark without definition, detail and texture yet to materialise. A goshawk calls repeatedly from the forest murk. The lagoon slowly filling, the rising inch deep water’s mirror dark surface, like the trees, creating illusion of depth, in time and present. Dribbling robin notes, a great tit’s territorial decree, blue tits’ higher-pitched wheezy chatter, are suddenly blown away by the sonorous explosion of a diminutive avian incendiary in the form of a tightly wound single wren, venting. Panicked wings flap above me as a pair of stock doves turn sharp, alter flight paths. The hawk calls again. The first rays strike me directly, replacing coffee warmth with soft solar. The black-emulsioned cabin shines orange, the canopy crowns glow gold as beams penetrate. On the bare branches and boles emerging from the gloom the clinging lichen like old stained snow. Two redshanks in the shallows trailing delicate sparkling wakes as they probe. Above the gilded crowns, in the turquoise layer, two vapour trails sharp as scratches. Patches of soft breeze disturb the surface as if invisible fish are cruising just under. A jay screeches because that’s what it does.

The oak buds are starting to unclench, but it’s way too soon to say they’re swelling. A posse of long tailed tits, directly above me in the canopy, urgently search them as if there’s one with a golden ticket. Clearly it’s worthwhile but how infinitesimally small must the titbits of micro life be, or is it the actual buds they’re feeding on? The skittery bud pickers chat incessantly in ticks and hi-pitched zips. Suddenly they drop down like featherweight lollipops to the spindly top branches of the hazels, the fresh catkins dangling from the spidery tips jolt violently, wobbling like elastic bands when the bumbarrels land, as if they were as heavy as marbles. No pollen puffs though. Mouselike movement in the glossy, waxed and polished, racing green leaves of the nearest holly; a burning bright flame-headed firecrest hangs briefly like a pent-up pre-spring bauble of intensity on the tiniest dry grass stem of a leg, as it searches for invisible morsels of invertebrate life on the paler matt green undersides of the lethally spined leaves. The day is warming considerably. Vivid sky blue filling every single gap in the latticed canopy. It feels like I’m in some giant bio-dome, the black sun ray absorbing cabin creaking like an old electric heater. Above in the dead still oak crowns, small flitting wings, passerine sub-chatter. Then an approaching droopy buzzing; the first hairy bombus. The down thrust from its wings scatter the crisp dry oak leaves underneath it as if it’s clearing a path across the deck. It rises heavily, crashes tipsily into the glass door with a heavy tap but keeps its wings running, maintaining body heat, as it clambers along the sill. I pick it up and throw it into the air, it drops spinning back to earth, pulls out of the free fall, inches from the ground, at the last moment. Clearly in the distance it is windy, white horses on the main river. I take a stroll over to the other side, it’s at least ten degrees cooler. Cold, still winter, another world; today, like the past. Back in my bio-dome I’m not surprised at the sight of the first butterfly of the year, flying sorties out over the bay between the sun and its blinding twin radiating seamlessly into the smooth deeper blues on the water surface. It launches from a warm sun spot on Golgotha’s twisted bole. I bet it’s the same red admiral that I offered the cabin to last autumn, it’s flying the same way around the bay, re-familiarising. I’m now just in a tee shirt, arms outstretched, yawning, at one with the resurrected soul. It feels like April’s coming, my birth month, its life promising light permanently imprinted. Giddy on the high of its inevitability.

A full moon sits deep in the bare charcoal canopy like a lost football. Radiant and ancient. Casting long charcoal shadows across the deck. It looks so close, almost reachable. Against the black branches the luminous bubble lifts noticeably, invincibly, free of the lignum mesh towards its zenith among the waiting stars pricked across the infinite void. In the diamond-hard clarity, microscopic sounds define the immensity, I can hear proximity and distance, from oaks to marsh, and the occasional high altitude air traffic. The muffle-plumed tawnies duet loudly in the near distance. Tawny owls can breed very early, depending on rodent populations, some of whom have been renovating in the cabin ceiling directly above me for the last few nights. Company I suppose. Not bothered by the menacing and blood-chilling hoots and shrieks, undeterred by my banging with a landing net handle. Wood mice, clearly, just don’t give a fig.

The substantial morning frost markedly stops below the furthest reach of the boundary oak boughs and intertwines with the current high tide line, on which I see I’ve been left a couple more ancient ubiquitous plastic shotgun cartridges, in bright veridian, to add to my story boxes of local (very) archeology and forensic evidence — still life. Full spectrum skies and reflections, delicate yellow and pink through oranges and blues to deep indigo. The goshawk is calling as I step down from the deck, from somewhere so close in the understory I can feel its palpable static wake. I follow the concealed dawn assassin slipping through the perfect hawk light, although it is clearly not hunting, from branch to bough by the loud calls, almost cowering as if in some weird avoidance of its fierce unseeable stare. Obviously it sees me. Then a trail of small bird alarm calls fading away eastward toward the rising sun tell me it left. The hawk calls again from the distant eastern oak bank still in darkness.

Sitting on the jetty still frosted, circled by drumming woodpeckers, near and far, I manage to pick out the higher pitched and longer rolls of a rarer lesser spotted woodpecker. Two nattering ravens approaching above and behind me. Look up just as the lower bird spots something. It turns sharply and drops its scaly scimitar-ended claws, spreads its primaries and angles its tail up to dump lift and spiral down to whatever has caught its attention out on a bank. The sleek shining corvid shape shifts into raggedy black velvet cloaked scavenger, loose feathers vibrate audibly as it drops. It lands cautiously near, bounds over the purslane and picks up the half-a-curlew in its powerful thick stretched-brazil-nut mandibles. As it returns to the air the bird’s partner croaks in praise. I watch the rising water for another hour looking for signs, dying to finally establish whether the big estuary bass come up the lagoons during these coldest months. Nothing passes under the footbridge except a lot of briny water, a dabchick that didn’t notice me and the kingfisher.

In the distance a flock of Brents, that I didn’t realise were there, rise in obvious alarm, clearly bothered. Above and behind them the unmistakable majestic profile of an approaching white tailed eagle. It passes heading north. I was actually taking one last look at it all before departing for the station. The male goshawk passes overhead as I turn, low enough to make piercing eye contact with his eternally raging orange eyes.

On the heaths the first melodious territorial songs of woodlarks.


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