Miles Kington: Nature: a storehouse of goodies and a minefield of poison

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, children, we went out for a nature ramble with Uncle Geoffrey and his nephew Robert and niece Susan, and a fat lot of good it was too, as they were being most unco-operative and didn't talk about nature at all!

So I am sending them out again today on the strict understanding that if nature is not elucidated for us, then heads may well have to roll. For that, at the risk of anticipating their conversation, is what nature is all about, is it not, children?

Here we go, then!

"I think the best of the autumn hues have gone now," sighed Uncle Geoffrey. "Indeed, apart from a few flaming beech trees, you would not know that there had been any autumn tints at all. The dank, dreary days, the gumboot and glove days, are with us now till Christmas and well beyond."

"On the other hand, it is strange to reflect that we pay any attention to the colour of the leaves at all," said Robert. "Our ancestors would never have waxed lyrical. Oh, yes, there might have been a few ladies and gents who had nothing better to do with their pampered days than write verses and do a bit of waxing, but for the vast majority life was a struggle just to get enough food and warmth. Nature-spotting was not on the list of necessities."

"Yes," said Susan. "Here we are, keeping an eye open for pretty hues and scenic views, while they would have been keeping an eye open for fallen trees to cut up, logs to take home and burn, and dry twigs for kindling. Nature in those days was a source of supplies. That's where you got your medicines, and your fuel and your builder's materials."

"Nature was the nearest thing they had to online shopping," said Robert.

Uncle Geoffrey felt his heart sink, as he always did when someone mentioned words like "on-line" or "Blackberry" or "download". He had recently come across the word "podcast" for the first time. He had assumed it referred to the spreading of seeds.

"Don't suppose it helped our ancestors with Christmas shopping very much, though," he said jovially.

"Au contraire," said Robert. "Everything was there. Fir cones. Berries for garlands. Bowls of nuts. Beeswax candles. All on-line in the hedgerow – and all local produce!"

"And all free," said Susan. "All that holly and ivy, at give-away, knock-down prices!"

"We must be going mad here at Medieval Woodlands!" trumpeted Robert. "Because we're giving it all away free this year! As we have done every year since AD 1236! Just a few wild boar left now!"

"I don't want to seem a wet blanket when it comes to medieval on-line shopping," said Uncle Geoffrey, "but I don't think they actually swapped presents back in those days. The stuff you're talking about, that's decorations, not gifts! 'Deck the halls with boughs of holly!', that's what the song says, not 'Give each other boughs of holly!'"

"You may be right," conceded Robert. "In which case you wonder how they got on with health and safety. Have you ever put on old Christmas tree on a bonfire? It goes up whoosh! like a bag of fireworks. A Christmas tree would be a death trap with a few lighted candles on board, especially if it went up in a hall decked with holly."

Susan said: "Holly and ivy are just as bad: 'The holly and the ivy/When they are both full grown/Holly rips you to pieces/Ivy poisons you alone'..."

"Customers at Medieval Woodlands are warned that they take anything free at their own peril!" announced Robert. If you think you may be allergic to an arrow in the back while caught hunting the king's deer, please consult a physician first!"

"I don't understand," said Uncle Geoffrey. "So what is nature? A storehouse of goodies? Or a minefield full of poisons?"

"Alas, Uncle Geoffrey," said Robert, "the answer is, disappointingly, the old chestnut: 'somewhere in between'. Yes, nature is a box of chocs sometimes. But it is also full of karate chops."

"That's all," said Susan. "It isn't much, but it may, after all, be enough to keep us our job."