Gilbert White lived most of his long, quiet life in the village of Selborne in the county of Hampshire. There he observed the behaviour and habits of the natural life around him. Nothing escaped his notice whether it be the migration of swallows in winter, or the sleeping hours of a tortoise. He related all these observations in a collection of letters which is often quoted as the fourth most published book in English. If you can, visit his house, The Wakes. It is now a museum.
Some writers have a gift for writing prose which charms the reader. It is like a spell. It may not be particularly witty or clever, but it encourages you to read on and on. Not many writers are blessed with this gift, but Gilbert White, the unassuming vicar from Selborne, is definitely one of them.
My copy is a selection of White’s work, but the extracts from ‘The Natural History’ make up the lion’s share.
Here he describes a tree in the centre of a small wood, called Losel’s, near his village.
“In the centre of this grove there stood an oak, which, though shapely and tall on the whole, bulged out into a large excrescence about the middle of the stem. On this a pair of ravens had fixed their residence for such a series of years, that the oak was distinguished by the title of The Raven-tree. Many were the attempts of the neighbouring youths to get at this eyry: the difficulty whetted their inclinations, and each was ambitious of surmounting the arduous task. But, when they arrived at the swelling, it jutted out so in their way, and was so far beyond their grasp, that the most daring lads were awed, and acknowledged the undertaking to be too hazardous. So the ravens built on, nest upon nest, in perfect security, till the fatal day arrived in which the wood was to be levelled. It was in the month of February, when those birds usually sit. The saw was applied to the butt, the wedges were inserted into the opening, the woods echoed to the heavy blows of the beetle or mallet, the tree nodded to its fall; but still the dam sat on. At last, when it gave way, the bird was flung from her nest; and, though her parental affection deserved a better fate, was whipped down by the twigs, which brought her dead to the ground.”
I first came across this paragraph in an English exam at school. I remain grateful to the examiner who decided to use it. A big thank you to whoever it was for introducing me to Gilbert White. I would never have found ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ without this encouragement. If anyone had said. ‘You could try this. ‘It’s observations of fauna and flora in an 18th century village’, I would have replied, ‘Well, yes, it’s probably very interesting but not just now, thank you!’’
In passing, another thank you. This is to my teachers at school who recommended so many worthwhile books. Pupils are hardly ever grateful to their teachers at the time but later they realise their worth.
I was around 15 when I took that exam and I probably wondered if I would have had a go myself at climbing past the swelling. But the story of the tree and the devotion of the mother raven stayed in my mind, and now, when I wanted a good example of White’s writing, I knew what to look for. You will find it in Letter II.
The book takes the form of letters. The first group are sent to Thomas Pennant, the zoologist, and the second to Daines Barrington (what marvellous names some people had in those days) who was a lawyer that enjoyed travelling and studying nature.
Let’s move on to Letter XI.
“The most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts were a pair of hoopoes (upupa), which came several years ago in the summer, and frequented an ornamented piece of ground, which joins to my garden, for some weeks. They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet (wild garden); but were frighted and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them be at rest,”
It is interesting that the hoopoes were attacked by boys because in last week’s novel about Botswana we read in chapter 3 that Puso, the foster child of Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B.Maketoni, killed a hoopoe with a catapult. Here we find 18th century England and contemporary Botswana united in a moment. What seems so far and so different is often much the same.
In ‘The Natural History’ White’s anecdotes of his own experience acquire scientific value.
“Bats drink on the wing, like swallows, by sipping the surface, as they play over pools and streams. They love to frequent waters, not only for the sake of drinking, but on account of insects, which are found over them in the greatest plenty. As I was going, some years ago, pretty late, in a boat from Richmond to Sunbury, on a warm summer’s evening, I think I saw myriads of bats between the two places: the air swarmed with them all along the Thames, so that hundreds were in sight at a time.”
Because things were important to him, they become important to us. For example, the linnets at the end of spring.
“We have, in the winter, vast flocks of the common linnets; more, I think than can be bred in any one district. These, I observe, when the spring advances, assemble on some tree in the sunshine, and join all in a gentle sort of chirping, as if they were about to break up their winter quarters and betake themselves to their proper summer homes.”
“Hedgehogs abound in my garden and fields…In June last I procured a litter of four or five young hedgehogs, which appeared to be about five or six days old; they, I find, like puppies, are born blind, and could not see when they came to my hands. No doubt their spines are soft and flexible at the time of their birth, or else the poor dam would have but a bad time of it in the critical moment of parturition: but it is plain that they soon harden: for these little pigs had such stiff prickles on their backs and sides as would easily have fetched blood, had they not been handled with caution.”
In their reports, today’s scientists cannot add the personal thoughts and humour that White provides. Something has been lost.
White’s best-known letters are about Timothy, the tortoise, which he inherited from his aunt, Mrs Snooke, who lived in Ringmer about 80 miles from Selborne. This is Letter L, written on April 21, 1780.
“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.”
In fact, Timothy woke up while White was writing those very words! Later in the same letter we read: “While I was writing this letter, a moist and warm afternoon…the tortoise heaved up the mould and put out its head; and the next morning came forth, as it were raised from the dead; and walked about till four in the afternoon.”
Read the whole letter if you want more news of Timothy.
This is a book to pick up at any time and start at any point. Open it and travel back to Selborne to enjoy half an hour in the fresh country air.