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Come along, children! It’s time to get out and about again in the English countryside, and to see what nature is up to in this apparently inactive time of the year. Or perhaps not nature so much, as Uncle Geoffrey and his two favourite young relatives, nephew Robert and niece Susan, who have been roaming the lanes of Middle England this very weekend

. . .

'I think the best of the autumn hues have gone now,' sighed Uncle Geoffrey. 'Indeed, apart from a few flaming beech trees, you would not know that there had been any autumn tints at all. The dank, dreary days, the gum boot and glove days, are with us now till Christmas and well beyond.'
         'On the other hand,' said Robert, 'it is strange to reflect that we pay any attention to the colour of the leaves at all. Our ancestors would never have waxed lyrical. Oh, yes, there might have been a few ladies and gents who had nothing better to do with their pampered days than write verses and do a bit of waxing, but for the vast majority life was a struggle just to get enough food and warmth. Nature-spotting was not on the list of necessities.'
         'Yes', said Susan. ' Here we are, keeping an eye open for pretty hues and scenic views, while they would have been keeping an eye open for fallen trees to cut up, logs to take home and burn, and dry twigs for kindling. Nature in those days was a source of supplies. That’s where you got your medicines, and your fuel and your builder’s materials.'
         'Nature was the nearest thing they had to on-line shopping' said Robert.
         Uncle Geoffrey felt his heart sink, as he always did when someone mentioned words like 'on-line' or ‘Blackberry' or 'download'. He had recently come across the word 'podcast' for the first time. He had assumed it referred to the spreading of seeds. Oh, how wrong he was!
         'Don’t suppose it helped our ancestors with Christmas shopping very much, though'” he said jovially.
         'Au contraire,' said Robert. 'Everything was there. Fir cones.  Berries for garlands. Bowls of nuts. Beeswax candles. All on-line in the hedgerow – and all local produce!'
         'And all free,' said Susan. 'All that holly and ivy, at give-away, knock-down prices!'
         'We must be going mad here at Medieval Woodlands!' trumpeted Robert. ' ‘Cos we’re giving it all away free this year! As we have done every year since AD 1236! Just a few wild boar left now…!'
         'I don’t want to seem a wet blanket when it comes to medieval on-line shopping,' said Uncle Geoffrey, 'but I don’t think they actually swapped presents back in those days. The stuff you’re talking about, that’s decorations, not gifts! ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly!’ that’s what the song says, not ‘Give each other boughs of holly!’ '
         'You may be right,' conceded Robert. 'In which case you wonder how they got on with health and safety. Have you ever put on old Christmas tree on a bonfire? It goes up whoosh! Like a bag of fireworks. A Christmas tree would be a death trap with a few lighted candles on board, especially if it went up in a hall decked with holly.'
         'Holly and ivy are just as bad,' said Susan. ' ‘The holly and the ivy/When they are both full grown/Holly rips you to pieces/Ivy poisons you alone’ . . .'
         'Customers at Medieval Woodlands are warned that they take anything free at their own peril!' announced Robert. 'If you think you may be allergic to an arrow in the back while caught hunting the king’s deer, please consult a physician first!'
         'I don’t understand,' said Uncle Geoffrey. 'So what is nature? A storehouse of goodies? Or a minefield full of poisons?'
         'Alas, Uncle Geoffrey,' said Robert, 'the answer is, disappointingly, the old chestnut: ‘somewhere in between’. Yes, nature is a box of chocs sometimes. But it is also full of karate chops to the back of the neck.'
         'That’s all?' said Uncle Geoffrey.
        'That’s all’, said Susan ‘It isn’t much, but it may, after all, be enough to keep us coming back for more.'
       Uncle Geoffrey fell silent and did not say another word till they had returned home

Miles Kington writes: I would like to issue an apology. What I had hoped was going to be an informative discussion on the bounty of  Nature has taken an ugly turn into a discussion of rampant commercialism.

The Independent 27th Nov 2007

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