Miles Kington: In which that pesky punner Robert gets his comeuppance

'Every time a branch falls out of a tree, or a tree falls down, it's nature pruning itself. Leave nature to itself and it gets on perfectly happily.'
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The Independent Online

Autumn is almost upon us, so it's time to take another ramble with Uncle Geoffrey and his nephew and niece, Robert and Susan, as they explore the countryside looking for significant changes in the seasons. Today they are out and about in the local woodlands ...


Ahead of them, in the woods, they could hear the rising and falling noise of machinery, as if some giant dog were worrying at a bone. Which, moreover, someone was trying to take away from him.

"Sounds as if the tree men are out doing some felling," remarked Uncle Geoffrey.

"I hope we see them," said Susan.

"Hail feller, well met," said Robert.

The other two ignored him.

"I heard a Radio 4 talk about trees the other day," said Uncle Geoffrey, "in which several tree experts said there was a trend away from keeping woods too clear and tidy.

"Up to now they have tended to remove big fallen trees because they clutter up the place, but they now think that this may be a bad idea, because it removes a supply of all that lovely rotted down humus."

"I've never liked Greek food much," said Robert.

The other two ignored him.

"But by leaving a tree there, you allow that huge trunk to gradually get broken down and return to its natural state," said Geoffrey.

"Perhaps we should do that in a garden as well," said Susan.

"Well, gardens are different," said Uncle Geoffrey. "There is nothing natural about a garden. There are no lawns or flower beds in nature, and nobody prunes a fruit tree in nature."

"I suppose nature doesn't get pruned at all," said Susan.

"That's not quite true," said Uncle Geoffrey. "Every time a branch falls out of a tree, or a tree falls down, it's nature pruning itself. Leave nature to itself and it gets on perfectly happily."

As they turned a corner in the woods, they saw the tree men ahead of them, pausing in their work and laughing about something.

"The most happy feller," said Robert.

The other two ignored him.

As they got closer, they realised that the tree felling was quite extensive. They had in fact come to the railway line, where it ran alongside the woods, and the tree men were taking down every single tree that grew on railway property.

What had been a gentle wooded slope had turned into an area of devastation.

"Gosh," said Susan. "It's like those pictures you see of the First World War. Passchendaele and all that. Shattered trees in a wasteland. I think they ought to have left them all growing."

"Oh, it's no use reasoning with Network Rail," said Uncle Geoffrey. "I tried it once, when they were cutting down lineside trees near my house, and I discovered that they see trees as the enemy.

"Leaves on the line, they say. Leaves on the line. It's a mantra. Do you want trees or do you want trains running on time? That's what they said. I said if they chopped the trees down, we wouldn't have either, but they didn't listen. Anyway, it's hard to argue with a man holding a chainsaw."

As he spoke, a man up a tree gave a shout and another huge branch came crashing down.

"For he's a jolly good feller," said Robert.

The other two ignored him.

"I have to say," said Uncle Geoffrey, "that most of the trees they are cutting down are sycamores, which are not my favourite tree. They spread faster than anything.

"If you walk across a meadow in springtime, you will see that there are baby sycamore seedlings everywhere. If it wasn't for the cows eating them, most fields would become sycamore woods. Still, it's always a shame to see any tree being cut down."

"It makes a feller feel ashamed of himself," said Robert.

It was at this point that Susan and Uncle Geoffrey left Robert to his own devices and walked home without him.