Airborne over Selborne

by
13 October 2017

Ian Tattum celebrates the life of Gilbert White, the ‘archetypal parson-naturalist’

Jerry Gunner/WIKI

Spotted: flycatcher

Spotted: flycatcher

ONE October evening in 1774, the Revd Gilbert White watched from his garden in Selborne, Hampshire, as one of the first ever manned balloons passed by in the distance. He recorded what he saw, thought, and felt with typical aptness and economy.

“To my eye this vast balloon appeared no bigger than a tea-urn. . . I was wonderfully struck at the first with the phenomenon; and like Milton’s ‘belated peasant’, felt my heart rebound with fear and joy at the same time. . . At last, seeing with what steady composure they moved, I began to consider them as secure as a group of storks or cranes, intent on the business of migration.”

Here we meet White the great observer, the well-read but unshowy writer, revealing both his emotions and his thoughts, and, inevitably, reaching for an illustration from the life of birds: the archetypal parson-naturalist.

These characteristics are evident throughout the collection of letters that made him famous: The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1789, which was to become one of the most purchased (if not necessarily most read) books in the English language.

So many myths have gathered around Gilbert White that, had the fictional Obadiah Slope come across them, he would probably have dismissed White as a clergyman lacking in evangelical zeal, devoting far too much time to his garden, and being more concerned with the habits of wildlife than with the needs and morals of his parishioners.

Josse Christophel/AlamyNo bigger than a tea-urn: a hot air balloon in flight, 1792In the wake of the Second World War, White’s 1954 biographer R. M. Lockley portrayed him as epitomising the best of male rural Englishness: “This was the essence of Gilbert White, that like the great trees he wrote of, he struck his roots deep into his native soil, satisfying that universal love of home and the security of home that is in every man.”

And he is still commonly seen as a parson with too much time on his hands, who, when not tending his vegetable plot or his herbaceous border, is closely observing and recording nature, but without any great critical understanding. The accusation is frequently made that he thought that swallows hibernated under ponds throughout the winter: in its chapter on swallows, the recently published (and beautifully designed) book by Alex Preston, Kingfishers Catch Fire, celebrating birds in literature, asserts just that.

As we saw in the diary entry that begins this article, White had no problem with the idea of birds’ migrating, but he could not quite make up his mind about swallows and their near relatives. He hesitated for good reasons. He knew that many creatures did, indeed, hibernate during the cold months, and he was also perplexed by the erratic appearance of swallows and their kin as early as March, and as late as November, during periods of mild weather, indicating that they had been laid up near by.

But the most decisive evidence came from exalted members of the Royal Society, such as Daines Barrington, the actual inspirer of The Natural History. Barrington referred to the testimony of the great Linnaeus, and contemporary witnesses from all across Europe, who asserted authoritatively that they had come across torpid swallows in the winter.

Despite all this, White remained cautious, as shown by his letter to Barrington in 1772, in which he reflects on having seen swallows at Newhaven the previous November, after a brief spell of warm weather: “From this incident, and from frequent accounts I meet with, I am more and more induced to believe that many of the swallow family do not depart from this island, but lay themselves up in holes and caverns.”

So, although White wavered on whether swallows migrated or hibernated, he never embraced the belief that they spent the winter under ponds.

 

Biosphoto/SuperStockWire-walkers: swallows on a barbed-wire fenceWHITE was influenced by John Ray, and drew on him not only for detailed information on birds, plants, and animals, but also for inspiration to look more closely at, and think harder about, how everything fitted into God’s over-arching, purposeful scheme.

Ray’s “natural theology” was at times taken to absurd lengths, as in Derham’s assertion that humans were designed to be the height they were so that they could ride horses; but White drew on the elements that led to accurate recording, and paid close attention to the ways in which organisms behaved and related to their environment. Selborne, with its rich and varied habitat, became his laboratory.

White’s biographer, Richard Mabey, has suggested that Ray’s influence led to a sense of respect for, and wonder at, nature that the so-called Age of Reason could not deliver, and mitigated its sense of human superiority over the created order.

Some of the most charming passages in The Natural History come when White describes what he calls the “manners and conversation” of birds. Many commentators have since come to see these superficially whimsical observations as marking the genesis of what came to be known as the disciplines of ethology and ecology.

Of the flycatcher — now, sadly, far rarer than it was then — he wrote that it “is of all our summer birds the most mute and the most familiar: it also appears last of any. It builds its nest in a vine, or sweet briar, against the wall of a house . . . and often close to where people are going in or out all day long. This bird does not make the least pretension to song, but uses a little wailing note when it thinks its young in danger.”

Si Griffiths/WIKIMemorial: stained-glass window in St Mary’s, Selborne, in memory of Gilbert White (1720-93)All observers of birds now look for the distinctive character of their flight, and White was the first to try to capture that essence in words. John Clare consciously followed his example when he later sought to combine accurate observation with poetic expression — for example, in Autumn Birds:

 

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought
And heron slow as if it might be caught
The flopping crows on weary wings go bye. . .

 

WHITE has a good claim to be not only a pioneer scientist, but the originator of both natural-history writing and popular science, thus making The Natural History of much greater cultural significance than any more recent examples of those genres (including The Selfish Gene).

A final distortion that needs correcting is that White was only incidentally a clergyman. Although he did not become the Vicar of Selborne until he was 64 years old, he had ministered for decades in neighbouring parishes, and his last public duty was at the burial of a 16-year-old villager, a matter of weeks before his own death at the then advanced age of 73.

Perhaps his nephew, Edmond, should have the last word: “If I were called upon to say in what particular way he excelled, I think I should say that it was in his mode of addressing his poor neighbours. His kind philanthropy and his charitable wishes towards them ever made him intimate with their wants, and his humane enquiries always made them feel that he was their true friend.”

 

The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Divine, Earlsfield, in south London.

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