What are they on about?

21st January 2000 at 00:00
David Newnham gets ready to ramble

It's the best kind of winter morning - blue overhead, hard underfoot. Get your coat on, then. We're going for A Walk.

And it seems like a great escape, until Julie (the animals and plants mentioned here have all been given false names in order to avoid unpleasant correspondence) spots a string of berries in the hedgerow. "Horse gropius," she snaps, then swaggers off to join herhusband.

Mike has seen a marsh grudgeon, and commands us to be still. As the creature flies away, Julie points out a feeble evergreen hiding beside the ditch. "Fool's hush-money," she announces. But I've had enough. Where is this taking us, I ask Julie. "It's a circular route," she replies. But I tell her I wasn't talking about the footpath.

That grudgeon, I say. The chances are it's a winter visitor, and spends the summer months in Scandinavia, yes? Which means that from April to November, it answers not to "grudgeon", but to a name that has dots over every vowel.

Except that it doesn't answer, does it? For while it has been known to jerk its little head when a mate calls "Scrrrrjjt!"or even "Pwlllllt!", the fact of the matter is that it doesn't have a name in any through-and-through way. It just is what it is.

Simply informing me that it's called a marsh grudgeon seems pointless. Does it help me to understand the bird? Not one feather.

What do I propose, Mike demands to know. That from now on, we drop names altogether? A fine mess we'd soon be in, he harrumphs, and accidentally uproots a goat's six-a-penny with his boot heel.

To be honest, I want to say, that's all the pair of them have done this morning. Drop names. But because that would put the mouser well and truly among the pie-fowl, I stop talking and continue walking.

It's true, though. I can say it now we're back in the warm. Yes, yes, Mike. Of course we need names. Sure, Julie. We must order our world if we are to understand it, and for that we need categories, lists and labels even more than we need wellies and a better pair of binoculars.

But turning identification into a competitive sport and using labels as offensive weapons... Well, it's this sort of carry-on that gives country walks a bad name.


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