This was the other day, after she had been out walking the dog, and I could tell from her tone of voice that she was not asking the question in a search for knowledge. It was a search for ignorance. My ignorance.
I think I may have mentioned before that to while away the boredom of living in the country, living with a dog and living with each other, my wife and I have spontaneously evolved a primitive kind of nature quiz in which we try to spot things while out on our walks that the other may not have seen. She goes for birds and river-life, mostly. I tend to go for trees and droppings. But for all the droppings I had seen, I had no idea how a kingfisher defecated. I suspected I was about to find out. I was right.
"It sort of shakes and shivers a bit on its perch, then does a sudden squirt and flies away. I saw one doing it this morning. Quite dramatic."
"Do you think it is aiming at anything?" I asked. "Or is it just a random squirt?"
"There's no need to be jealous," said my wife. "You just wish you'd seen a kingfisher defecating."
Not quite true. I just wished I had seen one defecating before she did. A few days later I tried to trump her kingfisher with a tree. Two trees, actually.
One is a willow and the other is a sycamore, and the sycamore is growing on top of the willow, about 10 feet above the ground. There is a big fork in the willow at that height, and a sycamore seed must have lodged there in the past and grown in the rotten leaves. The roots of the fully grown sycamore tree now reach 10 feet down to the ground, swarming round the willow trunk, with the sycamore as tall as the host in which it sits. A strange sight. Strange enough to try out on the wife.
"Do you know the willow growing down by the river bridge, where the buses stop?" I asked.
"The one with the sycamore in it?"
"Yes," I said.
"And have you seen the willow on the far side of the river with an oak and ash growing out of it?" she asked.
"No," I said.
I had not won any points there at all. In fact, I think I may have lost some. A few days later I tried to regain lost ground by expanding on something I had seen on the canal.
"It's a curious optical illusion with canals," I said, "that you often think canals are flowing like a river. Of course, canals don't flow at all. But the reason we think it's flowing is that the wind blows objects along the top of the water. Yesterday I watched the wind blowing along a small collection of leaves and vegetation, for all the world like the little swirling bits of chive, tomato and cucumber that the Spanish sprinkle on gazpacho soup."
She thought about it for a moment.
"That's overdoing the imagery a bit, isn't it?" she said.
Her attention wandered. I still had not made a hit. Later, on a cold, clear evening, when I was walking the dog in the dark along the field by the railway, I was struck by the view up through the branches of a tree bearing its last leaves, with the stars above, a lone aeroplane shining high up in the last rays of the vanished sun, and a bat flitting back and forth under the tree. It was right by where, four months earlier, I had seen a cascade of climbing roses growing in a tree by the railway. I had no idea how garden roses could grow on a wild patch of railway until an old lady living locally told me that it was exactly where the railwaymen had had their allotments 30 years ago, and the roses were probably a living relic.
I tried to tell my wife about the scene in glowing and vivid language. She looked impressed.
"Red roses growing wild? In November? Amazing!"
"No, the roses aren't out now. It's where they grew in summer. I'm just describing the spot. It's because the railwaymen had their allotments..."
But her attention had wandered again. It's difficult to win points these days, I can tell you. So if you should be passing through the wilds of Wiltshire this Christmas season and you see a bent, thoughtful figure wandering along, staring hopefully into every tree and behind every hedge, when everyone else is at home having Christmas dinner, you will know who it is.