Life & Culture

Camels or cows? Nature is a closed book to my family


I haven't used this penguin for ages, I said to my husband, taking out of the kitchen drawer a novelty, bird-shaped pie funnel. I am obsessed with kitchen gadgets, and this device is one of my many specialised pieces of equipment.

“It’s not a penguin,” sighed my husband. ‘It’s a blackbird.”

“It’s not. It’s a penguin!”

“It’s a blackbird! ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a PIE...’”

I didn’t admit that he was obviously right, because I never admit that. But he was obviously right. The fact that the bird in question was completely black with a yellow beak was further evidence.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone in my family in lacking knowledge of the natural world. Some time ago, as we were driving past a field of horses, my nine-year-old son said casually: “Oh look— camels.” I didn’t know whether to be more astonished that he couldn’t recognise a horse, or that he saw nothing surprising about seeing a herd of camels eating grass in the middle of an Oxfordshire field.

Then there’s my six-year-old nephew. He and his family were walking a friend’s dog in the park, and several people came up to them to admire it. “Is it a cockapoo,” asked one. “No,” he replied with disdain. “It’s a dog.”

I find my kids’ ignorance even more perplexing because, given that I work in children’s publishing, my house is piled to the rafters with picture books, most of which seem to feature farm animals. Surely my children ought to recognise them with confidence, therefore, when we see them in the real world

It shouldn’t need many readings of these titles before you become very familiar with all the standard farmyard inhabitants, even if you do get the impression that they spend a lot of time deliberately hiding under flaps, or arranging themselves in ascending numerical order.

Or maybe this is, in fact, the root of the problem, because more often than not in picture books the animals are fully dressed and able to engage in complex social interactions using fluent English. This doesn’t necessarily prepare kids for the realities of British farming life.

When it comes to growing things, my family has similar problems. We planted an apple tree several years ago, carefully choosing an “easy care” species in the full knowledge of our weakness in this area. For year after year it bore no fruit, which came as little surprise to any of us. Then, finally, this autumn we had a crop, and so at Rosh Hashanah we were able to eat the apples from our very own tree! All of them. All two.

My husband added to the standard brachot thanks that we didn’t have to rely on our own agricultural skills for sustenance.

My son has decided of late that the best way of identifying sheep is to count them and see whether you fall asleep. He may be encouraged to try more scientific methods if he goes to Sadeh — a brand new Jewish farm based at Skeet Hill House in Kent.

Visitors will be able to learn about the environment and sustainability, to get their hands dirty and reconnect a little to the land. At first, the focus is going to be on crops, but eventually there may even be goats and chickens.

It means I’ll be able to take my kids there and teach them which is a goat and which is a chicken.

But if my family doesn’t know much about the natural world, it’s not from lack of interest. For more than 25 years, my husband has been taking part in a discussion with his brother about mountain goats. The debate is this: if you see a goat on a mountain, is it definitely a mountain goat, or could it be an ordinary goat that has strayed on to the mountain?

When I say they’ve been talking about this for more than 25 years, I mean that literally — although to be fair, they have taken breaks to do other things in between. It’s basically a secular version of chavruta. The crucial point is that they don’t want to know the answer — they just want to argue about it… which is how you can tell that they’re London Jews and not, say, Alpine farmers.

I was told a story recently about a teacher who starts work in a remote school in Yorkshire. She decides to engage her new reception class with a topic familiar to them. So she puts up a picture of a sheep and asks, “Who knows what this is?” There is silence. “Come on,” she says. “Somebody have a try.” They all shuffle. Eventually, a little boy puts up his hand and ventures: “Is it a Border Leicester, Miss?”

Meanwhile, back in my own world, my five-year-old found the pie funnel in the kitchen drawer the other day. “Ooh look,” he exclaimed. “A penguin!”



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