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Happy Birthday, Gilbert White

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 18, 2011

White of Selborne

Today’s the birthday of the great British naturalist Gilbert White (1720-1795), also known as White of Selborne, for his great book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne about the countryside around his home in the Hampshire village of Selborne.

I didn’t have room for him in my book The Species Seekers, because White was more an observer than a discoverer of species.

But in her delightful 1982 book The Heyday of Natural History, journalist Lynn Barber gives a lovely account of his achievements:

“He was the first person to differentiate between the three species of ‘willow wren’ (the willow warbler, wood warbler and chiff-chaff); the first to describe the British harvest mouse and its nest; the first to observe that swifts copulate on the wing, that earthworms are hermaphroditic, and that male and female chaffinches form separate flocks in winter.  He examined many birds’ crops and droppings to discover their diet; he noted that owls hoot in B flat and cuckoos mainly in D; he shouted at bees through a loud-hailer to test their sense of hearing.  He had a fine eye for ecological detail.  He described how men riding over close turf are often followed by parties of swallows which seize the small insects thrown up by the horses’ hooves; and how cattle, standing in a pond during hot weather, drop dung which nurtures insects ‘and so supply food for the fish, which could be poorly subsisted but for this contingency.’”

My friend Fred Strebeigh has also written well about White, in a 1988 profile for Audubon Magazine:

Most important, White, in his book of letters, sounded human.  Gone was the stuffiness of earlier naturalists.  [Robert] Plot, for example, began his chapter on the animals of Oxford with embroidered fustian …            White’s readers, then, must have read with astonishment Selborne‘s first encounter with bird or beast–a story.  For years, ravens had nested high in the jutting bulge of an ancient Selborne oak, the “Raven-tree.”  Generations of village youths had tried to reach the ravens’ aerie, but none could clamber round the lower skirt of the bulge.  “So the ravens built on,” wrote White, “nest upon nest, in perfect security.”  Then came the day when the oak was sold, for twenty pounds, to build a bridge near London.

The saw was applied to the butt, the wedges were inserted to the opening, the woods echoed to the heavy blows of the beetle or mallet, the tree nodded to its fall; but still the [raven] 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.

            Here was the dawn of something new:  natural history that watched closely and spoke with a human voice. 

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