Uncle Jim gets carried away with sewage

Continuing our Christmas nature story, in whch Uncle Jim takes Sally and Peter for a walk on Boxing Day and tries to persuade them he knows more about nature than they do.

"So, why is it called a sewage farm?" said Peter, wrinkling his nose as the acrid rural smell drifted slowly across the field. "I mean, it's not really a farm, is it? It doesn't produce anything, does it? It doesn't produce sewage, does it, even though it's called a sewage farm? It's not like a beef farm, which produces beef, or a dairy farm, which produces dairy produce ... OK, a sewage farm takes sewage in but it doesn't send sewage out. It sends clean recycled water out, I think, but it doesn't call itself a water farm. So why ...?"

"So why don't you just stop talking for a minute and let me have a little word in edgeways?" said Uncle Jim, a small vein beginning to throb in his forehead, which both the children noticed with a glow of achievement. It sometimes took a lot to wind Uncle Jim up, but he was reacting nicely today.

Uncle Jim breathed slowly and deeply to relax himself. He felt better.

"The word farm is often used in a jocular and inaccurate way to denote a workplace," he said. "Think of the expression 'funny farm'..."

"What's a funny farm, Uncle Jim?" said Sally.

"The phrase 'funny farm' was introduced to replace the phrase 'loony bin'," said Uncle Jim. "There was a long time when the nature of mental illness was not understood, only slightly feared, so people shortened 'lunatic asylum' to 'loony bin' to defuse their fears. Then 'loony bin' came to seem rather a cruel phrase, so it was replaced by 'funny farm'. 'Funny farm' in its turn fell foul of political correctness, so that has also been phased out."

"And what has it been replaced by?"

"Well, the Tories couldn't think of a new name for 'funny farm', so they decided to turn all mentally ill people out into the streets. This is called 'returning them to the community'." There was a pause.

"And why is it called a sewage farm?"

"Well, you have to remember that what we think of as a farm - a jolly place full of chickens in the yard and rabbits in the field - has been replaced by something much more bleak, and much less like the place depicted in children's books. Pesticides, modern genetic crop experiments, EEC directives, mechanisation - all these have transformed the old-style country farm into an outdoors factory. When people use the term 'factory farming', they usually refer to the indoors totalitarian chicken battery or intensive pig breeding unit, but in truth all farming today, except on some free range or rare breed farms, is factory farming. A farm is a large outdoor green factory. 'Farm' has become another word for 'factory'."

"So 'sewage farm' just means 'sewage factory'?" said Peter slowly.

"That's it," said Uncle Jim happily, never loath to depress the children. "Any other questions?"

"Yes," said Sally. "Is this the start of winter or the end of the autumn?"

"Well," said Uncle Jim, "theoretically winter begins on 21 December with the solstice, but nature is never quite that neat. If you look in the hedgerow, you will see that there are many red berries still on the hawthorn tree and a lot of old man's beard still hanging on the bushes. Now, those are both autumn sights, as they are all part of the great fruit and seed scene. But if you look carefully at the hedge again, you will see that there are already catkins hanging on the twigs. Catkins are a springtime sight, yet here they are already."

"I thought catkins never came till the new year," said Sally.

"That's only because we have been taught not to see them till the new year," said Uncle Jim. "Everyone is taught that catkins and sticky buds come after Christmas. This is rubbish. They've been around for weeks. It's just that we don't notice them till after Christmas. Look at the chestnut tree. It's stiff with sticky buds!"

"When I look at the hedge," said Peter, "all I can see is nasty broken branches."

"That's because the farmer has been flailing the hedge," said Uncle Jim. "Of all the nasty, destructive, ugly, useless methods developed by modern farming, this is undoubtedly ..."

Miles Kington writes: I'm sorry - I thought Uncle Jim was going to be a cheery old soul. He's turned out a right misery. I think we'll pull the plug on him right there.