Friday, September 08, 2006

She stoops for conkers

Have you heard about the horse chestnuts?

We’re losing them. Fast. Three years of drought have left their resistance weakened and they’re being attacked by a double whammy of pest and disease.

Look around where you are. Here in the metropolis I’ve yet to see a horse chestnut whose leaves are not at best mottled and dry and at worst shrivelled and brown. The tress are so weakened by the onslaught that they may present a danger and as so many are in parks and residential areas, they may have to be chopped down. Just at the point our cities are most in need of their lungs …

Think about it. Those vibrant green Spring leaves followed by the magnificent pink and white flower candles; the massive trunks and spreading branches providing shade from the hottest sun or the heaviest downpour; and, most of all of course … the conkers.

Generation after generation of children, every September, stamping on those spiky hulls to reveal their shiny contents; collecting, sorting, comparing, challenging … never again. Conservative estimates reckon 40% of these mighty trees are already affected. It’s spreading fast, with experts warning this will be a worse catastrophe than Dutch Elm Disease,

So is there any hope? Well, yes and no. In Holland they’ve come up with a homoeopathic spray that – against all expectations – they say is successfully dealing with both the disease and the pest. So – are we pulling out all the stops to get it here ASAP? Are we hell …

‘We’re very sceptical about a miracle cure,’ is what we’re hearing here. ‘What we really need is a census.’

Oh right. Sure, that’ll sort it. Let’s spend a few million quid and waste vital time – not in tackling the problem, but in – er – counting the trees!

Meanwhile, First Born is collecting conkers to thread on a necklace. He says he’ll keep it forever and show it to his kids, who will probably never get to collect one fresh from the tree.

Some of my best conker memories

• The bruised knuckles we all sported every September throughout my childhood.
• My brother’s attempts to discover the perfect conker-strengthening recipe: pickling in vinegar, massaging with oil, gentle roasting in a slow oven …
• The endless debates about the ideal length of string, the best technique for swinging, whether a glancing blow can be more effective than a full-on shot …
• The horror when a much-loved veteran conker finally shatters.
• The joy when a cracked and manky conker refuses to die.
• The carrier bags filled to the brim every year and kept in a corner until the contents lose their shine and you finally give in and chuck them away months later.
• The annual conker competition where I used to work. I particularly remember the time a pretentious bruiser named Eugene Hieronymus Maximillian III was smashed to oblivion by an unprepossessing conker called Fluffy – thereby proving that looks ain’t everything.
• That September day 10 years ago when C died (5 years to the day after my mum). I walked to a lake and chose a single conker from the hundreds carpeting the ground. I took it home, carved his initials and the date on it and put it in a Special Place. It’s still there …

So farewell then, mighty horse chestnut. We may never stoop to conker again …

9 comments:

Marie said...

It's worrying, isn't it?

And you're so right about the way they go about things here. Always too late to do anything and waste a lot of time and money beforehand.

I'd also like to know what's happened to autumn this year. It's certainly not like it used to be. I could always smell it in the air by late August. Not so this year. Everything just feels so strange.

Minxy said...

Sad post Debi, you're right conkers ain't what they used to be, but I didn't know the reasons why.

I remember making potions and lotions to rub religiously into my faithful conker's teaky skin.

Yes,length of string was important but so was 'treatment'. One hour in the oven or seven?

And Marie, you're also right, there is a strangeness in the air.

Verilion said...

Oh yes, conker memories. Climbling over the school wall into some old codger's garden cos the best conkers fell there. Then he came out and shouted at us, so we scaled back over the wall only to be caught on the other side by the teacher who was on duty. Oopsy.
Oh I'm getting all sad now.

Sharon J said...

I haven't been in the park for a while but must go soon to look at the horse chestnut trees. I love the idea of the conker necklace - what a lovely piece of natural history that could turn out to be (sadly).

Can't say I've noticed any kind of strangeness in the air up here apart from that there appears to be an Indian summer on its way (I'm keeping my fingers crossed).

Kath T said...

Sorry, guys not gloating here but some great ones near where I live. If anyone desperate can send one on. But have heard of the general malaise of this fantastic trees. Anything to do with intergalactic warfare? I'll go and save some conkers, may help in the fight .............

Debi said...

Gloat away, Kath. Glad to hear it hasn't spreaded nationwide. Yet!

I think there's strangeness about too. It's Autumn cos there are michaelmas daisies and big spiders (!) but the temperature thinks its August - while August thought it was September.

And the tide on the Thames yesterday was scarily high ...

skint writer said...

sad to say - just been for a walk nearby where there is a long line of huge conker trees and the leaves are looking very unhappy indeed, there are clusters of forlorn looking conkers yet to fall and very few on the ground - I brought one back - it's a lacklustre specimen :(

Debi said...

and the hulls have no spikes!

gentlemanoracle said...

I found this so sad and now fell melancholy.

Autumn was the only time i wasn't called puff wtc cos the one talent i had through school was that i found the best and hardest conkers of all. It was my paper round i had to thank for it. I was unbeaten for two years.

thanks for the trip down memory lane.

SAVE THE CONKER!