Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

1st June 2024

For Mark Mattock, April in the woods was clean, green and dubby.

“It’s great when you can’t quite understand a lyric, it brings you in.”

– Iggy Pop. b. 21st April

In the wood April begins naked, or at best runs around in the skimpiest green. In reptilian scaled stockings of dark ivy. Or scant bloomers of honeysuckle. By the end she’ll be near fully dressed. Only glimpses of bare trunk below leafed hems, or flashes of bare limbs through the sun-spangled understory, in dazzle-ship crowns. Right now all is scant and dull.

A luminescent male brimstone glows sulphuric across the path radiating summer’s inevitability, then drops to refuel on an early rogue bluebell in the emergent green verge. It hangs from the drooping floret bells like a fallen leaf temporarily caught on something unseen. The little vignette like an image of colour harmony on some paint company’s Instagram. A siskin sips ditch water. Wriggling tails on bloated and bulbous tadpoles ripple tannin-stained pools as if rain is falling. Saturated forest floor. Beautiful exploding orange and rust bacteria blooms fill the wet ruts and ditches looking like the images of the Carina Nebula from the James Webb telescope. A freshly emerged speckled wood rises soggily just in front of me, I’m guessing my disturbance causing its premature maiden flight, its wings yet to fully dry and stiffen. Female brimstones, blanched, pale anaemic green, mimicking leaves lacking chlorophyll, deprived of summer light, search the budding woodland edges for buckthorn on which to lay their tiny ribbed bowling pin eggs. In the grove of megalith stag oaks a small bird flits up from a shade-pool of crisping leaf litter and silhouettes, quivering on the end of one of the twisted elephantine boughs. Shivering red hot. A feathered ember that startles the ancient site back to life. Flick-tail fire starter: charcoal black face mask, fierce ash-white brows, flaming breast, hearthstone grey back. Little phoenix. Fire bird. Male redstart. Magnificent. Early? I’ve yet to see a swallow. Sun’s out. In a garden greenhouse size thermal a coiling pair of of dry rusty leaves become sparring comma butterflies when they pause to mug another passing brimstone. Scrub warbler ensembles: blackcaps, chiff chaffs, willow warblers; a garden warbler.

In the haze over furzeland from which greenfinches wheeze and stonechats chat, Kes, wind slapping. Glides away as I get too close. Back lit barred plumage echoing the dry fronds of last year’s bracken. Out across the vastness of the gorse in bloom, the butter yellow petals as overwhelming as imagining the Milky Way, or ‘Buttermilky’ Way! The skylarks become orbiting satellites sending complex scrambled sound signals back to earth.

First light and outside a great tit is pumping out his flat monotone un-melodic two note territorial declaration. He and his mate are furnishing the improvised nest box made from a section of log with a woodpecker hole in it. Are the beak fulls of the particular hair from some road kill somewhere? It’s like being woken to some euro beat still going from the night before on a device where the batteries are running out. Or an antiquated alarm set off by the wind. It’s blowing hardcore outside. Every branch in every tree is rocking, swinging, bouncing, you can almost hear the creaking lignum tendons at each roaring gust. Bits crashing on the roof. The tit switches signal to an alternative frequency, these two notes have more chink. It’s still grating. Then a sudden genuine alarm call and he goes quiet. I’m grateful to the passing hawk. Try to get a few more winks. No burning sky dawn this morning.

A huge heavy mat of loose gut weed had been dumped by the last night’s high tide, smothering the purslane spreads at the end of the inlet to the right of the footbridge. As green as a snooker table cloth. Which looks as if it has been torn off and left crumpled in a chair. So fresh it looks delicious, even with the constellation of desiccated toy-doll-pink crabs entangled in it. I feel should be checking out some Japanese inspired soup recipes.

As I approach her, one of the skittish pair of stock doves flees from Golgotha’s big bare right limb and heads out over the marsh, as if it’s been ceremoniously released by a powerful sinewy outstretched arm at the climax of some ballet performance. They nest somewhere in between the oak’s gnarly shoulder blades.

The full spectrum of electromagnetic waves, from ultra violet to infra red, now flare down unimpeded onto the flooded marsh, creating dazzling kaleidoscopes of rippling, shimmering, glinting, gleaming, sparkling. Psychedelia of wet colour: streaking metal blues, phosphoric yellows, blinding flash whites; soiled with patches of mud rust and umbers. The yellow dwarf’s radiant energy, the dynamo for the metabolism of all life, evidenced in the dirty foam froth forming long threads where currents and ripples clash. Black headed gulls caught like paper bags in the ferocious turbulence above, screaming irritable. Disorientating brilliance into which I whip the lures komomo and sasuke to see if I can tease up any bass lurking in the eerie calm below, with their seductive side flashes and wobbles feigning wounded or panicked bait fish under the white ponies of the turbulent water. Hunter and hunted all hyper in the fierce tempestuous high, in the pressure front thrill. The unstoppable tide still creeping towards the cabin. The footbridge is now submerged. The gale increases, six inch waves pound the margins. A peregrine surfs the gusts effortlessly, wings arced and angled for maximum speed and control. As it passes over I just make out the high pitched panic notes of various passerines from the swooshing branches of the boundary oaks. It’s impossible to cast the lures now, I head for some respite in the tranquility and peace below the trees behind the cabin. It could be another planet.

The goshawk is calling again from the same intangible haunt somewhere beyond the cabin; concealed in the phantasmagoria of bole, bough, bark, branch, bud; cut slices and torn shreds of blue sky, as I watch huge oaks sway in the relentless wind. Tens of tons of the hardest wood now pliable and pliant. Above the violently swaying crowns, somehow muted, the female Marsh Harrier stares directly down at me as she crosses, somehow with complete serenity, the wooded promontory to the marsh on the cabin side.In the calm warm aura of a bursting sallow, buzzing with early honey and bumble bees, crashing around the glowing spiky pom pom flowers, hover flies take turns to face off with me, inches from my nose. I put my reading glasses on to engage them. One hangs its hind legs to wring pollen from its micro yellow slippered feet, as if in glee, or as if trying to hypnotise me. At the foot of the pink oak carcass, still standing, bark skinned and sunburned, a brimstone probes a primrose. Ravens above.

This time the flood tide edge reached the fourth farthest oak from the deck. Around the base of its trunk another massive sodden verdant gown of fresh gut weed. Wrinkled facsimile, as if the deep furrowed barked tree had sloughed its mossy skin of impossible green, of the purest grade chlorophyll, like some giant tropical emerald tree boa.

Blearily glance out as I stumble over to the kitchen corner to fix up the first caffeine hit of the day. Something’s different. All is weirdly and unnaturally neat. Swept, tidied, all the way to the footbridge. Now draped in more ragged green mermaid wigs than yesterday. The white stem bases of grass blades shining like flattened mini leeks all combed towards me. Fuck! The penny drops. I rush out onto the deck and all is revealed. A mini tsunami, and I missed it! A massive carpet of gut weed now surrounds and rolls right under the deck like loft insulation. Tatami mats and herringbone floors of twigs, sticks, reeds, tightly packed all the way to the calor gas cylinders below the kitchen window. The outside fire pit area trashed. Small scenes of breach and wreckage all along the absorbent oak and marsh boundary. The strangest being the neatly stacked bundle of 40ft long hazel poles — replacement deep channel guides, some painted red — in the small inlet to the left. The work of storm Kathleen, a conspiracy of celestial bodies: full moon and gravity, air pressure, temperature and wind; sucking, pushing, pulling; swelling towards a reckless climax at a little after midnight.

Cold wind still howling, tree tops sound like waves hitting a beach. I’m wreathed by bird-song-soaked oak wood, staring out over cleansed marsh. A wren lets off piercingly loud and clear. All seems in a state of relief, release. Exhilaration. Exhilarating. Nutrient rush. Spring clean. Cleansed.

Zephyrs of pony shit, sweat and breath, vintage and authentic, conjures dream wafts of deep past as I cross the badlands of ancient heath from lark song to stone chat. Mistake a distant troupe of bleached dog turds for St George’s mushrooms. Reach the cabin at 2 o’clock. The cabin hazed in the salty estuarine funk of rot. The frowsy mats of gut weed now leached of colour and nutrients like rancid fleeces of putrefying flood-drowned sheep, still damned up against the deck supports and oak boles. The ebb tide nearly done. Washed mud the colour and texture of boiled liver. A tree creeper sticks onto Golgotha’s midriff, ascends gecko-like, searches her three navels in fidgety urgency. I can only follow its white chin, when it momentarily freezes it simply vanishes.

Up close what just looked like a stick at the end of the jetty is, incredibly, a discarded pipe fish, I’ve never seen one before. It’s otherworldly, literally a seahorse stretched out, a tiny wind-dried crispy dragon. Left by a bird that had clearly been interested in the eggs. Like seahorses it’s the males that carry the eggs. I feel it’s a gift, a talisman, some special beneficial gris-gris.

Sometimes the dawn chorus really does sound like a late seventies King Tubby dub plate, in the pauses in the bass: shrieks, shrills, stutters; whistles and wheezes; croaks, creaks. All is still. Windless. Drumming woodpeckers and crow caws. Above us all a thin warm grey sheet of cloud that only ripples at the white trimmed edge where it meets the morning bright turquoise strip beyond the eastern oak bank.

I need to go get a bottle of Rioja and a birthday cake. It’s my birthday. And World Earth Day. Bit like World Women’s Day. Like Eve, her garden — her Eden — gets blessed with a whole day, wow! Yesterday was World Curlew Day. It’s also thirty one years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racists. Tomorrow is St George’s Day.

Unperturbed, picky female linnets continue fastidiously selecting the finest white hairs from a pony’s toilet, back rubbed and kneaded into the tight cropped green, as I pass. The dandy rose blushed males bitching in little electro trills as they scatter. A wrist0-thick ivy vine snakes up the trunk of an antediluvian crab apple in humming blossom. Along the dusty cut through, spills of bluebells, stitchwort, celandines; peeping devils and angels (wild arum). My phone thinks I told it that ‘cooker is cooker win’. Not surprised it doesn’t know what a cuckoo is. They’re still here though, just got back. Freeze at the chatter blast from a Blackcap in the huge bramble dome to my right, close my eyes, see his hollering gape now as an enormous voluminous cavern dripping with crystal sounds and lightening bright lyrics. Some of his phrases approaching Nightingale virtuosity. So close I can almost hear his tiny pants. He suddenly stops. He’s seen me.

Reclined and mellow on the deck, half a bottle and three jam doughnuts into the idle afternoon. Above, the canopy unfurling lush new growth in red-yellow ochre and wine-bottle-green. Dangling strings of pendulous catkins — inflorescences — of yellow beads. Tiny elastic band looper moth larva with a big head hangs from an invisible micro bungee cable of silk right in front of me. Trying to haul itself back up with its crude claw like true legs at its front end, a soft slipper pair of prolegs and an anal clasper at its rear, nothing in the middle. It couldn’t look more ill equipped but what do I know? It swings in and out of focus, twisting, contorting, body gurning. Every time I look away it gets lost in the abyss between me and Golgotha, who this morning, in the first light gloom reminded me of the nude in the bath in Kubrick’s The Shining that turns into a walking corpse. Now, right now, she’s Iggy 1973, a writhing, sinuous, deviant torso bursting from pants or dress, with the oak Stooges front and side. A gnat enters my ear and screams furiously in high pitch indignation. Gets milled by forefinger.

Over the other side sunset is spectacular, made so by the impromptu pop up of avian shadow theatre over the reed beds. Silhouetted against the deep flaming backdrop three marsh harriers air dance: swirl, dip, dive, softly collide. Their curving primaries like splayed fingers gesturing, gentle touches, taps and plucks from deadly talons on gangly stringy reptilian legs. With their shallow V profiles they look like black origami birds gliding without dimension, or effort. I stare in absolute awe as behind me the huge oak crescents like the advancing front of a massive deep red desert sand storm. A vast amphitheatre with an honoured audience of one, losing his heart on the burning sands.

All night whining vampire diptera prospecting for blood — mine. Minute membraned wings scintillating in the full moon’s cold incandescence filling the cabin. Another dull morning. Curlew tremolos and distant church bells. In the southern sky, blue rinse cloud smeared by atmospherics. Midday, a stained semi-glow over the marsh as the sun tries to wipe gaps into the thinning cover. Peace and calm. Barely discernible tidal surge advancing invincibly up the rivulet suffocating, smothering, the trickling run-off into submission, and silence. Myriads of diminutive rings pulse across the surface as tiny fish fry peck at the thin scum from below, looking like the beginning of a shower. Waves of swallows pass above. Sudden great black backed gull’s agitated calls trumpet across from the main river. Cant see what it’s about. A kite soars over then swoops at something. Now I see. OP the osprey perched unperturbed on the green marker pole out in the main channel. He nonchalantly slips off, glides out across the marsh sucking up a piece of it in his wake in the form of an infuriated curlew that pursues him all the way to the eastern tree line.