Thursday, 30 January 2020

A Review of the Natural History of Selbourne by Gilbert White

This is an exceedingly charming and at times very slightly boring book made up of letters sent by the Rev Gilbert White around the time of the American Revolution, in which he closely describes the flora and in particular, the wildlife, of his small parish of Selbourne in the south of England.

(Other books I've read a little like this are The Peregrine, which has a similar intense focus, but this time on a single subject, and which is a much more intense and moody book, and Fire on the Rim, which is also about a particular relationship with a certain environment over time.)

The modern form it most closely approximates, with its short particular chapters, some focused, some wandering, all linked by a common personality and subject, is a blog. Though Gilbert Whites blog is unusually good.

Whites language has the lucidity, slight sensuality and precision that I have become accustomed with from the best Scientific writers of the 18th Century. One person who he reminds me of a great deal is Faraday in his book on the observation of a candle flame, who also combined great powers of observation and keen description with a controlled sensuality and love of beauty.

If anything the book is a masterpiece of observation. It is meditative, like the Peregrine, but not othering. The vividness and close attention of Whites scenes and prose, and the lively humour one perceives behind it, means that to read we almost walk alongside White into moments and scenes. The closeness of his eye and the exactness of his words create moments and sights that bring fragments of his world before our eyes. Particular moments - a bug scurries along the letters of a page, White hurls a clod of earth into a bush or races home excitedly in his carriage with a recently obtained tortoise.

(The savagery of the natural philosopher is well displayed throughout the book. White began as a huntsman and has no trouble shooting his way through animal life, cutting it open, or messing about with corpses. This is all part of his world.)

All novels and books are in some sense a compression of time but Whites Natural History makes the brilliance of that compression its chief ornament. To open it is a little like being given access to a time machine and being able to hop along Whites existance, dipping in and out into a myriad of small experiences.

Drama, other than the drama of cutting open an eel or finding swallows nesting on the corpse of a dead owl, is absent, and must be, in order to maintain the coherency of the related world. One Large Incident would cast the whole thing into shade.

We do see fragments of Whites social and cultural world, and a mirror of his personality (or at least what we assume to be his personality) through his description. The existence of the poor of his village is mentioned in one chapter, the uses of farmland. Farm-lore and house-lore spring up (bats come down chimneys to eat bacon in the night, an old sow grows intelligent enough to open her own gate and travel several miles to a male pig when in heat).

And it has the greatest benefit of many good books, that it is short.


(Selbourn spends nearly the entire letter writing out, in one long paragraph, an exacting and very mildly lyrical description of the movements of birds, which hovers a little near poetry. I have spereated out each bird, line by line and sentance by sentance to make the whole easier in comprehension.

"And the true bird is clear from its gait"

Thus kites and buzzards sail round in circles with wings expanded and motionless; and it is from their gliding manner that the former are still called in the north of England gleads, from the Saxon glidan, to glide.

The kestrel, or wind-hover, has a peculiar mode of hanging in the air in one place, his wings all the while being briskly agitated.

Hen-harriers fly over heaths of fields of corn and beat the ground regularly, like a pointer or setting-dog.

Owls move in a bouyant manner, as if lighter than the air; they seem to want ballast.

There is a peculiarity belonging to ravens that must draw the attention of even the most incurious - they spend all their leisure time in striking and cuffing each other on the wing in a kind of playful skirmish; and, when they move from one place to another, frequently turn on their backs with a loud croak, and seem to be falling to the ground.. When this odd gesture betites them, they are scratching themselves with one foot, and thus lose the centre of gravity.

Rooks sometimes dive and tumble in a frolicksome manner;

crows and daws swagger in their walk;

wood-peckers, fly volta undoso [in an undulating fashion], opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising or falling in curves.

All of this genus use their tails, which inclide downward, as a support while they run up trees.

Parrots, like all other hooked-clawed birds, walk aukwardly, and make use of their bill as a third foot, climbing and descending with ridiculous caution.

All the gallinae parade and walk gracefully, and run nimbly; but fly with difficulty, with an impetuous whirring, and in a straight line.

Magpies and jays stutter with powerless wings and make no dispatch;

herons seem incumbered with too much sail for their light bodies; but these vast hollow wings are necessary in carrying burdens, such as large fishes, and the like;

pigeons, and particularly the sort called smiters, have a way of clashing their wings the one against the other over their backs with a loud snap; another variety called tumblers turn themselves over in the air.

Some birds have movement peculiar to the season of love: thus ring-doves, though strong and rapid at other times, yet in the spring hang about on the wing in a toying and playful manner;

thus the cock-snipe, while breeding, forgetting his former flight, fans the air like the wind-hover;

and the green-finch in particular exhibits such languishing and faultering gestures as to appear like a wounded and dying bird;

the king-fisher darts along like an arrow;

fern-owls, or goat-suckers, glance in the dusk over the tops of trees like a meteor;

starlings as it were swim along,

while missel-thrushes use a wild and desultory flight;

swallows sweep over the surface of the ground and water, and distinguish themselves by rapid turns and quick evolutions;

swifts dash round in circles;

and the bank martin moves with frequent vacilations like a butterfly.

Most of the small birds fly by jerks, rising and falling as they advance.

Most small birds hop but wagtails and larks walk, moving their legs alternately.

Skylarks rise and fall perpendicularly as they sing;

woodlarks hang poised in the air;

and titlarks rise and fall in large curves, singing in their descent.

The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes.

All the duck-kind waddle;

divers and auks walk as if fettered, and stand erect on their tails: these are the compedes of Linnaeus.

Geese and cranes, and most wild-fowls, move in figured flights, often changing their position.

The secondary remiges of Tringae, wild-ducks, and some others, are long, and give their wings, when in motion, an hooked appearance.

Dabchicks, moor-hens and coots, fly erect, with their legs hanging down, and hardly make any dispatch; the reason is plain, their wings are places too forward out of the true centre of gravity;

as the legs of auks and divers are situatated too backward.

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