A lesson from St Francis of Assisi

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The Independent Online

Another nature ramble with Uncle Geoffrey today, as he takes his niece and nephew, Susan and Robert, on a midwinter walk through the countryside, looking for those signs of life which are always there if you know where to look.

"Nice to see the sticky buds coming through," remarked Uncle Geoffrey, as they strode down the lane, crunching on the icy puddles. "We think that because the country is frozen, there is nothing growing. But nature likes to think ahead!"

"Is that really true?" said Susan. "If it were, would not the birds even now be building their nests for next spring?"

"Instead of which, the lazy little things aren't even stocking up a few sticks!" said Robert.

"Birds are just like human builders," said Susan. "Always putting things off."

"'Do you want a new nest, guv?' "said Robert, trying to sound like a Cockney bird. " 'Blimey, I think we'll be looking at next spring at the very earliest. Can't get the twigs this time of year ...'"

"'Nor the moss, neither'," said Susan." 'Moss is a horrendous price midwinter' ..."

Uncle Geoffrey said nothing. It didn't do to get involved with the children's back-chat. He would much rather just keep quiet and dream about their untimely demise.

"Oh, that packet of birdseed I gave you for Christmas," he said, changing the subject. "Did you give some to the birds?"

"We certainly did," said Robert, "and the birds were suitably grateful. Of course, we did it with a heavy heart."

"Why so?"

"Well, we always think that giving birds seed in winter is a bit like giving starving countries free food and making them aid-dependent. We don't want birds to become seed-dependent. You remember the old ballad of St Francis of Assisi ..."

"I don't think I do," said Uncle Geoffrey, innocently.

"Oh, you'd like it," said Robert, and he began to recite ...

St Francis of Assisi

Took birdseed everywhere,

He threw it in the water,

He threw it in the air.

And all the birds of Italy

Came to Assisi town,

Saw the kindly saint there

And they came hurtling down.

There were no birds in Naples,

There were none left in Rome.

All the birds in Italy

Had upped and left their home.

The robins and the starlings

The sparrows and the owls

They ate up all his birdseed,

And opened up their bowels.

So the pavements of Assisi

Flowed with bird ordure

And Assisi High Street

Smelled like an open


"Is there much more of this?" said Uncle Geoffrey faintly.

"Much much more," said Robert firmly.

The Assisi District Council

Went to the saint and said,

"Look, Franky, very sorry,

But we need these birds all dead!

We know you get a sainthood

Through kindly acts like these

But you're exposing everyone

To deadly bird disease!"

"Sod that," said old St Francis.

"I'll feed them all I can.

I have to, in order to fulfil

My sainthood business


Robert stopped. There was a strange noise behind him. He looked round. Uncle Geoffrey was bent over a five-barred gate. He seemed to be weeping.