46. The recent news story about the Ethiopian lions who guarded a distressed young girl from a group of men with forced marriage on their minds has convinced me that the suggestions of children's literature are absolutely true: that in the absence of adult humans, wild animals stand on their hind legs, don waistcoats and starched collars, and lead children by the hand into their twee little forest homes. There the lucky little children gain valuable wisdom about the world and have all kinds of adventures. Fortunately the animals of the wood are respectful of dinner time, so that children are always returned home by six o' clock, faces slightly smudged but otherwise unharmed. Not all animals are to be trusted: ferrets and stoats, for example, are often in the employ of unscrupulous rats who exploit the labour of children. Bears, beavers and foxes, on the other hand, are decent sorts who will invite children to tea. Crows may steal bracelets or even a shiny earring, but once a rapport is established they make lively companions and fine scouts. Hedgehogs are truculent but dependable. Snakes are poisonous. Badgers are covered in dirt.
47. I'm hoping all this is true, because I left my cousin on a camping trip a few weeks ago, and with any luck the animals will take care of him until I return for the July long weekend.
48. Are you paying attention? My real name is Aidan. If you don't catch it now, you likely never will, so back up a sentence.
49. When I was young I knew the names of trees. They were a part of my daily life, part of what I saw and touched and used, and as such the look of the trees, their shapes against the sky, the spread of leaf and bough and the number of scratches crisscrossing forearm and palm after I jumped down from their limbs, became bound to what we called them.
50. I knew chestnut trees by the spiky green pods that they dropped to the ground. Some were intact, others were marked by a long vertical split from which the chesnut peeked like an eye. I would go out with a plastic bucket and fill it up with husked chestnuts, glossy brown like a horse's neck. The best source of chestnuts was the Anglican graveyard up the hill from where I lived, which strikes me now as slightly gruesome (Chestnuts of the Dead!). Once I brought the bucket home, I would leave them in the porch and completely forget about them. Eventually they would dry out and turn the colour of cheap chocolate. Then I would throw them out and go back for another bucketful.
51. I knew spruce trees because I loved to climb them. They shot straight up, higher than the roof of my house, and I would scramble up their sap-soaked trunks and rest somewhere close to the top, where the trunk narrowed to its untenable point and the branches grew too thin for my weight. By the time I came down I was covered in hard yellow resin and my arms were scratched all to hell. Good times.
52. Maple trees I knew for the shape of their leaves, the smoothness of their trunks and their winged seedpods, which you could manipulate into little helicopters by opening up the joined halves of the wings, climbing up to some suitable height and dropping them back to the ground. They were as green as aphids, and if you played with them at dusk the green wings would hold the light as they whirred into the darkness.
53. I recognized oaks by the way their leaves spiked at the edges, by the veins that ramified to the very tips of the spikes. Acorns littered the ground beneath but I never collected them like I did chestnuts. Although once someone dared me to chew on an acorn, and by god I regret taking that dare. And once I remember cracking open an acorn and finding a worm inside, a little brown-black grub that seemed genuinely curious at the sudden rush of light. I threw it into the ditch and ran home.
54. There were tons of trees on my parent's property: the spruce that I climbed, pines that dripped with worms on strings in the early summer, willows that grew straight or dipped over in all directions. A pear tree that grew hard bitter pears, a crab apple tree against whose fruit I was repeatedly cautioned, a couple of plum trees probably planted by a previous owner. A juniper we planted in the front yard that was so small I could jump over it (soon it grew to a height of fifteen feet). A dozen or so poplars.
55. The city where I live now is mostly elms. Tourist brochures proudly announce that every single one of the 150,000 trees here was planted by hand. In the older neighborhoods the elms in regular rows arch above and form a natural vault, so that you are in effect walking through an huge outdoor room, a natural arcade. In the newer neighborhoods widely-spaced poplars grow, where they do absolutely nothing but say I'm not pretty enough to disguise how boring and ugly this place is, so please accept my apologies.