A case of nepotism in the woods

Time for another instructive nature ramble today, children! So let's join Uncle Geoffrey as he goes with his nephew and niece Robert and Susan out for a wintry walk in the Wiltshire woods. (NB: They were actually some woods in Berkshire, but I was loath to lose the alliteration.)

"Have you noticed that beech trees often keep their leaves long after they have died?" said Uncle Geoffrey as they strode along the lane which divided field from woods. "Brown and useless as they are, they still cling on to the tree."

"Why is that, Uncle Geoffrey?" said Robert curiously, abandoning his usual supercilious manner.

"I have no idea," confessed Uncle Geoffrey, similarly abandoning his usual omniscience and feeling all the better for it. "I just thought I would open it up for discussion."

"That was very avuncular of you," said Susan. It was a word she had learnt recently and had been hoping to use in conversation soon. Now, thanks to Uncle Geoffrey, she had. So he did have some uses after all.

"Strange word, avuncular," mused Uncle Geoffrey. "I suppose there must be some disused word in Latin for `uncle' like `avunculus'. And yet there is no word meaning aunt-like. If uncles have character, you would think aunts had character as well."

"Same with nepotism," said Robert. "Why are nephews involved in family favouritism, but not nieces?"

"It's sexism," said Susan. "It's always the male who gets in the spotlight, never the female. To take another example, why is there a word from Latin for `brotherly', namely `fraternal', but nothing for `sisterly'?"

"Well said!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "But this isn't increasing our knowledge of nature at all! Let's stop for a moment."

Uncle Geoffrey had once read a remark by the rural writer Duff Hart-Davis to the effect that time spent standing still in a wood was never wasted. He was much impressed by this remark and often repeated it without attribution. He also stopped still in woods quite often and stared about him, which led to a reputation for terrible indecision, and had once caused him to be picked up as a suspect in a kidnapping case.

This time, however, he thought it paid off.

"Listen to that birdsong!" he said. "The trees are full of birds singing their little hearts out! I can hear robins and tits and blackbirds - ah, and a chaffinch! What melodies they bring us!"

"Melodies?" said Robert.

"I know what you're going to say," said Uncle Geoffrey, still avuncularly. "You're going to say it's not about joie de vivre, it's about territory and mating and breeding and unemployment among birds and immigration policy protests and heaven knows what, and I expect you're right, but what lovely song all the same!"

"I hate to contradict you while in such blithe mood," said Robert, "but it's the use of the word `birdsong' which I dispute. These birds are swapping info about territory and feeding and mating. To do that, you have to talk. When you exchange threats, you don't sing them. You shout them. It may sound like singing to us. But it's their way of talking."

"Not singing?" said Uncle Geoffrey.

"No," said Robert firmly. "Singing is a spare time activity, a luxury, an added-on artistic experience. But in nature there are no spare time activities! Everything must have a function! Birds do not have artistic hobbies! In bird terms there is no such thing as singing! Birdsong does not exist!"

Uncle Geoffrey knew instinctively that Robert was right and fell gloomily silent. Susan sensed his unhappiness and slipped her hand into his.

"Never mind," she said softly, and perhaps even maternally.

Study notes

"Avunculus" is a Latin word meaning "maternal uncle".

"Novercal" is a rare word meaning "in the manner of a step-mother", from the Latin word for step-mother: "Noverca".

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little