As so many young people continue to be ignorant of the wonders of nature around them, I am bringing you today another instructive country ramble with Uncle Geoffrey. Today we find him wandering across the local countryside in the company of his ever-eager nephew and niece, Robert and Susan. What, I wonder, will they spot in the rich storehouse of nature as September turns gloriously to October?
"I think we have seen the last of the swallows go," said Uncle Geoffrey, looking up at the empty telegraph lines. "Our little summer visitors are well on their way south by now."
"Of course, to say that we have seen them go is one of those handy little exaggerations," said Robert. "We never actually see them go. One moment they are there, the next moment they are not there. But how can you tell the difference between a swallow flying past looking for insects and one migrating ? Who can put his hand on his heart and honestly say he has seen a swallow in the air whose next stop will be Egypt ?"
"If he has the good luck to get past Italy," said Susan. "The Italians are so dedicated to shooting little birds that it should be made an avian exclusion zone."
"This year they were in luck," said Robert. "The whole of Italy blacked out ! No electricity ! Italians too busy to go out and shoot birds ! Whoosh - all the swallows in the world pass through safely !"
"Yes, but I'd hate to be a migrating bird in North America this time of year," said Susan. "An Italian with a gun is bad enough. Hurricane Isabel would be worse."
"You don't hear anything about the damage done to birds by hurricanes," said Robert. "Nobody ever says: 'As Hurricane Isabel tore into North Carolina, thousands of birds were made nestless by the fierce winds'. People are so anthropocentric."
"Does that word exist ?" said Susan.
"Well, it certainly does now," said Robert. "Why, we even give our hurricanes human names ! I noticed in the paper this morning that after Hurricane Isabel, Nova Scotia is now threatened with Hurricane Juan."
"How very multi-ethnic and very anti-sexist too," said Susan. "Isabel was a an Anglo-Saxon girl's name, so the next one has to be a Hispanic boy's name. Whatever next ?"
"Something beginning with K, you can be sure," said Robert. "I for Isabel, J for Juan, K for . . . ."
"Well done, Robert !" said Susan. "I think you've cracked their code !"
Sometimes, reflected Uncle Geoffrey, there seemed hardly any point in his being present on these country walks. The conversation was so ably hi-jacked by these two brats. And what pretentious rubbish they both talked. He decided to drag the talk back, willy nilly, to nature and her wonderful ways.
"There is something in what you say, Robert, about us never seeing the moment the swallows leave, and if I am to be honest, I must admit that although I know that squirrels hoard nuts for the winter, I don't think I have ever actually seen one putting nuts into storage."
"Then how do you know they do it ?" said Robert.
"I have learnt a lot about squirrel behaviour from books," said Uncle Geoffrey. "We cannot rely on personal experience for everything we know."
"All the squirrels I have ever read about," said Robert, "were red squirrels. All we ever see are grey ones. And we are constantly told by books that the grey squirrel isn't really a squirrel proper - it's a kind of rat relation. Well, excuse me ! If a thing looks exactly like a squirrel, and climbs and behaves exactly like a squirrel, and hoards nuts like a squirrel, then it's a squirrel !"
"I wouldn't trust books too much, Uncle Geoffrey," said Susan. "If books say that squirrels are rats, and personal experience teaches us that squirrels are actually squirrels, I'd go along with personal experience if I were you."
Just then the first drops of rain began to fall.
"Oh, sod it !" said Robert. "Personal experience tells me it's about to piss down."
"I name this downpour Rainstorm Rupert," said Susan.
"And I'm going to flee from it," said Robert.
Moments later , the two children had legged it home, leaving Uncle Geoffrey abandoned and wet. For a moment, Geoffrey had considered joining their headlong rush. But then he realised how much nicer it would be to be alone for a while with his own thoughts. His own murderous, infanticidal thoughts. . . .
1st Oct 2003