A Letter to Gilbert White

A genuine enthusiast is a pleasure to meet, and Gilbert White was such a man.  He quietly observed the birds, beasts and plants around his home, The Wakes, in Selborne, Hampshire, in the 18th century. His letters about his discoveries are poems in prose. Not a single word is out of place.

Here is part of a letter he wrote in October, 1770 about a tortoise, Timothy, who belonged to his aunt, Rebecca.  Rebecca lived at Ringmere near Lewes in Sussex.

‘Milky plants such as lettuces, dandelions, sowthistles are its favourite dish.  In a neighbouring village one was kept till by tradition it was supposed to be an hundred years old.  An instance of longevity in such a poor reptile.’

Eventually Rebecca gave Timothy to Gilbert and in a letter dated April 21, 1780, he tells how he brought Timothy to The Wakes.

‘Dear Sir,

The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property.  I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing; and, packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises.  The rattle and hurry of the journey so perfectly roused it that, when I turned it out on a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden;  however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried itself in the loose mould, and continues still concealed.’

You can visit The Wakes today. It is now a museum dedicated to Gilbert White.

Here, across time, is a letter to him, not about tortoises but about ants.

 10 August 2015

Dear Sir,

I have observed of late a column of ants on the low wall which bounds my terrace. They form a black band which contrasts starkly with the white paint of the wall. At one end of the terrace they disappear into my neighbour’s garden.  At the other end they come marching from under the tiles of a porch in my garden, where they have a nest. These tiny workers start when the shade falls over their path in the afternoon and continue their activity without respite until the late evening.

Ants seem to work without any break at all.  They take no rest or refreshment and have become an example of hard work and industry. As the Book of Proverbs advises us,   “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”

The ants move in both directions, so they are repeatedly meeting each other.  I have noted that they make no effort to avoid those coming from the opposite direction.  On the contrary, they seem to collide intentionally before each moves to one side and continues its journey.  Perhaps in this way they exchange some information about the hazards of the path ahead or the whereabouts of the food they have to collect.  Perhaps they pass on orders about the plan of work for the day.  Certainly so intelligent a creature could avoid these collisions with his fellow workers if he so wished.

Virgil must have enjoyed watching these creatures for he describes them in his ‘Aeneid’.

Pars grandia trudunt

obnixae frumenta umeris; pars agmina cogunt

castigantque moras;  opera omnis semita fervet.

Some struggle to push

enormous grains of corn with their shoulders; some marshal the ranks

and punish the slackers;  the whole path seethes with activity.

‘Aeneid’ Book IV, lines 405-407

However, I have not noticed any of the ants in my garden marshalling the rest of the line.  They all appear to be in constant movement, and none of them step aside to control their fellows. Were the ants of Rome 2,000 years ago more organised than those here on the island of Mallorca today?

Last year I went out to the terrace on Christmas morning.  The air was cold, and there was a grey sky, yet one ant, all alone, was on the same path as thousands of his fellows had swarmed over in the summer.  There were no other ants to encourage or direct him.  He met none who could give him instructions or help for there were no other ants in sight.  I do not know why this one ant felt obliged to continue with the summer ritual, yet on he went, very slowly advancing, painfully it seemed, and with many stops, along the same track that had been so busy with activity and so easy to follow a few months before.

Yesterday I had occasion to chip away some loose plaster on the wall which forms the route taken by the ants, as the wall is soon to be repainted.  This minor alteration must have been a major cataclysm to the ants as they watched the destruction of their path. As they came to the obstacle, they stopped and huddled together in an ever-increasing group as if conferring how best to tackle the problem so unexpectedly confronting them.  Then one, then another and finally a few more found a route around the part of the wall that I had chipped away.  The others followed and order was established once more.

I will continue to observe the movements of these busy creatures, which is not a difficult task as the little wall where they make their way is part of this terrace where I while away the summer evenings and on which I am writing this letter to you now.   I will send you further information about their comings and goings if I feel it to be worthy of comment.

Yours sincerely