Classic in Focus: The Natural History of Selborne, by Gilbert White

From The Guardian: White’s Natural History, a founding classic of its genre, is deemed the fourth most-published book in the English language, after the Bible, Shakespeare and Bunyan, and has certainly been in print since first publication, while the benign White himself is now recognised equally as a great stylist and pioneer ecologist. A tribute.

This curate’s beautiful and lucid observations on the wildlife of a Hampshire village inspired generations of naturalists

Robert McCrum, The Guardian

The Rev Gilbert White was that now extinct species, the unmarried Oxbridge don in holy orders. A lifelong curate and a fellow of Oriel College, White devoted himself to observing flora and fauna at large in the natural world, a sequence of observations for which he became world famous.

In 1755, after the death of his father, he returned to the family home in Selborne, settling for comfortable obscurity in a remote Hampshire village, an enviable career move. On the face of it, the passage of his declining years would be tranquil and serene, with no greater vicissitudes than bad weather or poor harvests.

However, around 1767, he got into correspondence, first with Thomas Pennant, a prominent zoologist, and then with Daines Barrington, another important British naturalist. His exchanges with these men would form the basis of his Natural History, a compilation published in the year of the French Revolution. There could scarcely have been a more stark contrast between the timeless, resilient stability of English country life and the bloody metropolitan dramas of France. Where Rousseau and Robespierre championed the rights of man, White celebrated the earthworm, “a small and despicable link in the chain of nature”, which, if lost “would make a lamentable chasm”.

It’s claimed that White’s Natural History is the fourth most-published book in the English language, after the Bible, Shakespeare and Bunyan, and it has certainly been in print since first publication, while the benign White himself is now recognised equally as a great stylist and a pioneer ecologist. His work, in literature and in nature studies, coincides with a pivotal moment in the reign of George III when zoology and botany were at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry. The young Charles Darwin would grow up with White’s Antiquities of Selborne at his side – as a guide, philosopher and friend.

White’s book reveals him to have been a man of profound general knowledge, with an appetite for medieval civilisation that was far in advance of his times. He was also a beady-eyed student of nature. As many critics have noticed, the zoology and botany of the Natural History replaced the fabulous folklore and bizarre traditions of previous countryside writers, with White’s scrupulous observations and beautifully expressed summaries:

“The titmouse, which early in February begins to make two quaint notes, like the whetting of a saw, is the marsh titmouse: the great titmouse sings with three cheerful joyous notes, and begins about the same time.”

Explore the original magic of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne
Museum Crush
Online version of the original manuscript for the fourth most published book in the English language

White’s specificity is at once magisterial and enchanting, for example, in this report on the survival instincts of the squirrel and the nut-hatch:

“There are three creatures, the squirrel, the field-mouse, and the bird called the nut-hatch (Sitta Europaea), which live much on hazel-nuts; and yet they open them each in a different way. The first, after rasping off the small end, splits the shell in two with his long fore-teeth, as a man does with his knife; the second nibbles a hole with his teeth, so regular as if drilled with a wimble, and yet so small that one would wonder how the kernel can be extracted through it; while the last picks an irregular ragged hole with its bill; but as this artist has no paws to hold the nut firm while he pierces it, like an adroit workman, he fixes it, as it were in a vice, in some cleft of a tree.”

White’s letters are full of such felicities, uniting into an unforgettable portrait of country life that’s also the record of a new kind of zoology, scientific, precise and based on the steady accumulation of detail – the fruit of a quiet life conducted by a leisured, well-to-do, middle-aged gentleman of cultivated tastes and habits, happily cut off from the noise and irritation of urban, industrial life. As such, he is the indispensable precursor to those great Victorians who would transform our ideas about life on Earth, especially in the undergrowth – Lyell, Spencer, Huxley and Darwin.

Charm is a dangerous literary gift, but White’s work is conspicuous for its philosophical equanimity and moderate spirit. As a writer, he is the reader’s lovable companion, with whom it’s not impossible to imagine a conversation about cobwebs, the common rush (Juncus effusus), brown owls, stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) or possibly the vernal migration of the ring ouzel.

As a garrulous country parson, White is comparable in the degree of self-revelation to the infinitely more worldly (even corrupt) figure of James Boswell (no 77 in this series). He offers a similar kind of colloquial familiarity, but with this difference. Where Boswell has his eye firmly on the judgment of posterity, and on his readers’ approval of his “sensibility” (a key Augustan English requirement), White wants only to celebrate the beautiful beech woods of his village, its rooks and magpies and, of course, the weather. Thus goes White’s immortal summary of that revolutionary year, 1789:

“To January 13, hard frost. To the end of the month, mild, with showers. To the end of February, frequent rain, with snow showers and heavy gales of wind. To 13th March, hard frost, with snow. To April, heavy rain, with frost and snow and sleet. To the end of April, dark, cold weather, with frequent rains. To June 9, warm spring weather, with brisk winds and frequent showers. From June 4 to the end of July, warm, with much rain. To August 29, hot, dry, sultry weather. To September 11, mild, with frequent showers. To the end of September, fine autumnal weather, with occasional showers. To November 17, heavy rain, with violent gales of wind. To December 18, mild, dry weather, with a few showers. To the end of the year, rain and wind.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

A signature sentence:

“In the court of Norton farm-house, a manor-farm to the north-west of the village, on the white malm, stood within these twenty years a broadleaved elm, or wych hazel, ulmus folio latissimo scabro of Ray, which, though it had lost a considerable leading bough in the great storm in the year 1703, equal to a moderate tree, yet, when felled, contained eight loads of timber; and, being too bulky for a carriage, was sawn off at seven feet above the butt, where it measured near eight feet in the diameter.”


Explore the original magic of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne
Museum Crush
Online version of the original manuscript for the fourth most published book in the English language


Bookshelf: Indica—A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent
Amita Baviskar
Pranay Lal’s Indica, describes the first 4,600 million years of the subcontinent, comprising a cast of fascinating characters in a drama that begins with the Big Bang and closes with the arrival of Homo sapiens, present-day humans, in India some 70,000 years ago. But along with sparking appreciation, it also raises apprehensions.

Dino and dusted: Interview with Pranay Lal
The New Indian Express
Indica opens with the preface, “A long, long time ago, but in a place not too far away…” and goes on to unravel discoveries about India’s natural history, which don’t figure in regular science journals. The most compelling tale is of a dinosaur named Rajasaurus, claimed to be more ferocious than the T Rex. Indica doesn’t read like a textbook either, and is more of a guide to begin exploring one’s own surroundings. Eventually, it might even make it into a movie, says the author in an email interview.

Report: World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020
The Guardian
The number of wild animals on Earth is set to fall by two-thirds by 2020, which a new report attributes to an ongoing mass extinction. The analysis, the most comprehensive to date, indicates that animal populations plummeted by 58% between 1970 and 2012, with losses on track to reach 67% by 2020.

Ecologists are fiddling while our natural heritage burns, says Harvard scientist
Aaron M. Ellison, Nature
Better data will not save elephants, rhinos or any other species. Countless individuals, institutions, governments, and multinational and non-governmental organizations have been collecting, assimilating and organizing such data for decades, essentially fiddling while our biological heritage burns… I suggest three crucial actions that scientists can take, beginning right now.

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