Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page_(detail)I have been meaning to read the Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White for ages as a classic of natural history. Classic it was, so some things I found fascinating, and there was a surprisingly great deal that surprised me immensely — though I know it shouldn’t have. This mostly had to do with how much ‘science’ of the time involved shooting a multitude of things (is it rare? Let’s kill it!) and having some or all of them stuffed.

I am finding it amazingly comforting (apologies to the shade of Gilbert White) that he was disappointed in his career, never receiving the post he wanted and relegated to live alone as a curate in the village of his birth. In that place, despite all the weight of his crushed dreams and hopes, he spent his time doing some of what he loved, wrote at great length and is better known than almost all of his contemporaries. I was sad to come to the end of this, I rather missed him.

All that said, it opens with poetry of the kind that I really like least…

INVITATION TO SELBORNE.

See, Selborne spreads her boldest beauties round
The varied valley, and the mountain ground,
Wildly majestic ! What is all the pride,
Of flats, with loads of ornaments supplied?—
Unpleasing, tasteless, impotent expense,
Compared with Nature’s rude magnificence.

But he regains some respect through the curiosity that drives his growing depth of knowledge of the natural world around him. He is rarely humorous or witty it is true, but this I quite enjoyed. At first I did find it humorous, but really it explains what he most felt the lack of in his place and positions — and actually lack of companionship is what I should worry about most leaving the city:

It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.

It is very cool to see how much of his thought is shaped by Linneaus and the work he inspires — which explains the constant references to Sweden I think (made me even sadder we didn’t get to Upsala in our recent trip, but there is next time perhaps), but they puzzled me just a bit at first:

Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden; the former has produced more than one hundred and twenty species, the latter only two hundred and twenty-one. Let me add also that it has shown near half the species that were ever known in Great Britain.* (* Sweden, 221; Great Britain, 252 species.)

He continues, and this made me laugh because there is indeed a very distinctive style to his writing:

On a retrospect, I observe that my long letter carries with it a quaint and magisterial air, and is very sententious: but, when I recollect that you requested stricture and anecdote, I hope you will pardon the didactic manner for the sake of the information it may happen to contain.
–2 Sept, 1774

I like too this point, which I confess I agree with:

Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.
— 8 Oct 1770

There are some hilarious digs at other branches of natural history as well…

Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms: the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man’s study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.
–1 Aug 1771

This focus on ‘the life and conversations of animals’ is I think why Gilbert White is still remembered and read with pleasure, and sets out what he hoped to do.

I think part of what surprised me most, though again, it really shouldn’t have, was the offhand references to shooting absolutely everything, both for study and for sport. Thus there are comments like this one:

But there was a nobler species of game in this forest, now extinct, which I have heard old people say abounded much before shooting flying became so common, and that was the heath-cock, black- game, or grouse. When I was a little boy I recollect one coming now and then to my father’s table. The last pack remembered was killed about thirty-five years ago; and within these ten years one solitary greyhen was sprung by some beagles in beating for a hare. The sportsmen cried out, ‘A hen pheasant’; but a gentleman present, who had often seen grouse in the north of England, assured me that it was a greyhen.
— Letter VI

I’ll write more about hunting in a second post, because the relationship between human beings and the world around them, and how they understand that relationship, is so interesting. He describes it in great detail, which is in itself interesting. But he thinks in terms of systems, how things fit together, why animals should behave as they do. One of my favourite sections comes near the end of his letter-writing career, where he writes:

The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm.
— 20 May 1777

This is much nearer the beginning transformations of the industrial revolution, the beginnings of thinking about the rights of man and the nature of society and economy — I quite liked this analysis of how this particular system works, and the language used to describe it:

A circumstance respecting these ponds, though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid- leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle; and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another!

He is also writing at the beginnings of natural history as we know it:

A little bird (it is either a species of the alauda trivialis, or rather perhaps of the motacilla trochilus) still continues to make a sibilous shivering noise in the tops of tall woods. The stoparola of Ray (for which we have as yet no name in these parts) is called, in your Zoology, the fly-catcher.

I perceive there are more than one species of the motacilla trochilus: Mr. Derham supposes, in Ray’s Philos. Letters, that he has discovered three. In these there is again an instance of some very common birds that have as yet no English name.
— 4th Aug 1767

Reading it, it feels that he has found two kindred spirits to send his letter to describing what he is uncovering about the world, but that everyone in his congregation knows that he is collecting things dead and alive. It feels like there is a host of boys out there combing the countryside. In the progression of knowledge, Reverend Gilbert White has few compunctions:

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the tame being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.
— 4 Nov 1767

He shoots things (or has things shot, mostly in the early letters), and eagerly cuts them open:

Many times have I had the curiosity to open the stomachs of woodcocks and snipes; but nothing ever occurred that helped to explain to me what their subsistence might be: all that I could ever find was a soft mucus, among which lay many pellucid small gravels.
— 15 Jan 1770

There are amazing notes like the one below — often these letters are just more or less lists of observations and tales recounted of interesting things:

Some intelligent country people have a notion that we have, in these parts, a species of the genus mustelinum, besides the weasel, stoat, ferret, and polecat; a little reddish beast, not much bigger than a field mouse, but much longer, which they call a cane. This piece of intelligence can be little depended on; but farther inquiry may be made.

A gentleman in this neighbourhood had two milk-white rooks in one nest. A booby of a carter, finding them before they were able to fly, threw them down and destroyed them, to the regret of the owner, who would have been glad to have preserved such a curiosity in his rookery. I saw the birds myself nailed against the end of a barn, and was surprised to find that their bills, legs, feet, and claws were milk-white.
— 1768

There is more than one animal shot and nailed to a barn door as a curiosity, which in itself I find so curious. We have come a long way from that, it is hard to even imagine it.

Just as curious is this odd account of a stinking snake:

When I wrote to you last year on reptiles, I wish I had not forgot to mention the faculty that snakes have of stinking se defendendo. I knew a gentleman who kept a tame snake, which was in its person as sweet as any animal while in a good humour and unalarmed; but as soon as a stranger or a dog or cat, came in, it fell to hissing, and filled the room with such nauseous effluvia as rendered it hardly supportable. Thus the squnck, or stonck, of Ray’s Synop. Ouadr. is an innocuous and sweet animal; but, when pressed hard by dogs and men, it can eject such a pestilent and fetid smell and excrement, that nodding can be more horrible.
— 30 August, 1769

I think perhaps what sets this apart is that for the most part Gilbert White is observing the habits of living creatures, patterns in their behaviour. He does shoot quite a lot of things, but I suppose before cameras or binoculars, some details could only be checked at close hand.  He has his own small collection of animals and birds stuffed and mounted — mourns lack of access to bigger collections and always writes with some humility:

Your partiality towards my small abilities persuades you, I fear, that I am able to do more than is in my power: for it is no small undertaking for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia! Though there is endless room for observation in the field of nature, which is boundless, yet investigation (where a man endeavours to be sure of his facts) can make but slow progress; and all that one could collect in many years would go into a very narrow compass.
–12 April 1770

An autopsia! More on the mania for collecting things (as well as the strange habits of swallows):

A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.*
–29 Jan 1774

The * refers the reader to the existence of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum — more about that very fascinating place here and here — reading Gilbert White, the impulses of knowledge and wonder come more to the fore despite the gory methods, but this collection is rather different, based on things brought back by Captain Cook on his travels, which connects to a darker legacy of conquest and violence, and the cataloguing of things to be able to calculate their market value.

Two more curiosities — an entire day where the air was absolutely full of cobwebs raining down from the sky:

About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention, a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity which showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere.
— 8 June 1775

Also echoes! A whole section on echoes:

The true object of this echo, as we found by various experiments, is the stone-built, tiled hop-kiln in Galleylane, which measures in front 40 feet, and from the ground to the eaves 12 feet. The true centrum phonicum, or just distance, is one particular spot in the King’s-field, in the path to Nore-hill, on the very brink of the steep balk above the hollow cart way.
— 12 Feb 1778

and another amazing word, to end on a high:

this village is another Anathoth, a place of responses or echoes.

 

 

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