Miles Kington: Beech can send you nuts. Conkers drive you bonkers

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The Independent Online

This is the time of year when hundreds if not thousands of people suddenly get an urge to go out into the country to look at the glorious seasonal foliage. Don't waste your time! Let Uncle Geoffrey do it for you! Yes, today we follow Uncle Geoffrey on another nature ramble, together with his favourite nephew and niece, Robert and Susan ............ 

"What a nice day," said Uncle Geoffrey, as they strode along the country lane, their feet splashing in the fallen leaves.

"Nice day?" said Robert. "Oh, come on, Uncle Geoffrey – you can do better than that!"

"Why, what's wrong?" said Uncle Geoffrey. "I just remarked that it is a nice day. You cannot dispute that."

"But everyone says it's a nice day!" said Susan. "The Americans tell us to have a nice day and think they are being sincere. The British say, apropos of nothing, that it's a nice day for it, and think they are being witty. If the weather shows signs of improving, everyone says it's turning out nice after all. Nice! Ugh! Come on, Uncle Geoffrey, you are our genial nature guide! Inspire us!"

"No," said Uncle Geoffrey. "I am happy to point out the ways of nature to you. I am not happy to put on a home-grown poet act. Why not do it yourself, Susan, and show me the way to describe a nice day? Describe today for me, Susan ..."

Thus challenged, Susan closed her eyes, opened them again and said: "Today looks like a summer's day, smells like an autumn day and feels like a winter's day."

And she was spot on. The fluffy white clouds in a blue sky belied the chill in the air, and there was a definite tang of autumn in the nostrils, that indefinable mixed scent of leaves, damp, fungi and old stones which, if you could put the essence of it in a bottle, would not make Evelyn and Crabtree rich overnight.

"Good!" said her uncle.

"You're right about the smell," said Robert. "And I always think it depends on whether it's been raining recently too. We've had nearly a week of sunny weather, so the fallen leaves have gone dry and crumbly. You can feel them going to fragments as you tread on them. They make a desiccated smell quite different from damp leaves, which smell more like old overcoats left out in the rain."

"Not to mention the nuts," said Uncle Geoffrey.

"Sorry?" said Robert.

"At this time of year we are usually walking on nuts as well – look at all the conkers under that big chestnut, and crunchy beech mast over there. Walking on beech nuts is always a bit like trampling on breakfast cereal ..."

Robert felt that the talk was all getting a bit too sensitive and lyrical, so he said: "But it's the low sperm count of the trees that worries me."

It was Uncle Geoffrey's turn to say: "Sorry?"

"Well, we know that nature tries to propagate plants by producing millions of potential offspring and hoping that a few will get through, but these trees seem to have a particularly low success rate. Look under the horse chestnut. Do you see any little seedlings coming from last year's conkers? I don't see any. Match analysis – shots at goal, a million; goals, nil."

"It's like the old country saying," said Susan. "Conkers, conkers, everywhere, Not a baby tree to spare."

"A million conkers in the tree," said Robert, "but not a baby tree to see."

"Conkers, conkers, drive you bonkers," said Susan.

"Produce no heir, drive you spare," said Robert.

Uncle Geoffrey digested all this for a moment.

"Where on earth do all these country sayings come from?" he said eventually.

"We make them up," said Robert. "Susan and I."

"Occupies the long winter evenings," said Susan. "Country sayings, country lore – that's what the midnight hour is for."

Uncle Geoffrey fell silent and did not say another word until they had returned home.

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