This will send you to sleep all winter

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The Independent Online

"We are getting towards the end of autumn now," said Uncle Geoff, as he and his nephew and niece, Robert and Susan, set out one chilly clear day across the fields. "But do you know how you can tell when winter is nearly here?"

"We are getting towards the end of autumn now," said Uncle Geoff, as he and his nephew and niece, Robert and Susan, set out one chilly clear day across the fields. "But do you know how you can tell when winter is nearly here?"

"It's when the football correspondents start saying 'It's a three-horse race for the Championship!'" said Robert.

"It's when Mummy starts getting lots of brochures for summer holidays," said Susan.

"Or when Daddy says at breakfast suddenly: 'Bugger! I'd better not leave it too late to take the mower in for servicing!'"

Uncle Geoffrey was silent for a moment. What they said was true. But it displayed a sad dislocation from the workings of nature. What was the word posh writers used? "Alienation", that was it.

"Well," said Uncle Geoffrey, "I was really thinking about the sudden absence of all the bird and animal life we have been used to. The swallows have long since flown south for the winter, but now we are also missing the things like hedgehogs and bats."

"My goodness," said Robert, "I had forgotten! Uncle Geoffrey's lecture on hibernation! That is the true sign of winter!"

"Ah yes! What is the old country saying?" said Susan. "'When Uncle Geoffrey clears his throat/ And strikes a professorial note..."

"To lecture us on hibernation/ It is the clearest indication..." said Robert.

"That winter now is nearly here..."

"And so is Uncle Geoff, we fear!"

Part of Uncle Geoffrey felt flattered at being the subject of spontaneous doggerel, but another part of him that fiercely resented it. While these two parts were fighting it out, Robert clapped Uncle Geoffrey on the shoulder in a friendly fashion.

"Don't take it amiss, Uncle Geoffrey. We always enjoy your little talk on hibernation. We know very well, for instance, that hibernation is quite different from sleeping."

"We know," said Susan, "that a hibernating animal's heartbeat slows down, as does his metabolism and temperature, because this is the best way of surviving a cold period with no food."

"Indeed," said Robert, "it is quite possible for some animals like frogs to be frozen during hibernation and thaw out later."

Good Lord, thought Uncle Geoffrey. It usually takes me 20 minutes to explain that. And they've done it in 20 seconds flat.

"This is our very own survival technique," explained Robert. "Because we fear we may not survive your entire lecture, we have chosen the escape mechanism of summarising it very quickly, thus avoiding the necessity of you spelling it out in full."

"During which time we might starve to death, or atrophy," amplified Susan.

Uncle Geoffrey fantasised for a moment about a world in which Robert and Susan had actually starved to death, or atrophied. What a very pleasant world it would be.

"Not to mention 'estivation', Uncle Geoffrey," said Robert.

"Eh? Estivation? What's that when it's at home?" said Geoffrey.

"Opposite of hibernation," said Susan. "Hibernation comes from the Latin word for 'winter' and estivation from the word for 'summer'..."

"Estivation is what an animal does when it's too summery," said Robert. "The desert hedgehog in Africa runs out of food in midsummer, so it estivates. Temperature, heartbeat, metabolism all right down to near zero. Waits for the weather to get colder. Then out it comes out again."

"Estivate?" said Uncle Geoff. "Never heard of it."

"Oh, it's very fashionable," said Robert.

"All the best animals are doing it," said Susan.

Uncle Geoffrey knew they must be pulling his leg, so he looked it up when he got home, and much to his chagrin they were quite right.

Dear little nephew, dear little niece/ How I wished you were both deceased, thought Uncle Geoffrey.

Well, it nearly rhymed.

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