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Gilbert White: arcadian but rigorous.

For many modern environmentalists, the quiet life of the rector of Selborne, who died shortly after the French Revolution, represents the nostalgic dream of lost harmony with the environment. The parish of Selborne is a museum in memory of Gilbert White, and White's love of natural history remains a fascinating model. Most of his work is full of bucolic reflection, but it is worth noting the severity of his views on the traditional practice of burning old heath and thickets in order to produce a flush of new growth. He mentions, and seems to approve of, severe punishment for the "ecological crime" of burning at the wrong time of year (especially if those responsible were farmers or shepherds).

Such forests and wastes ... are of considerable service to neighbourhoods that verge upon them, by furnishing them with peat and turf for their firing; with fuel for the burning of their lime; and with ashes for their grasses; and by maintaining their geese and their stock of young cattle at little or no expense.


... To burn ... any waste, between Candlemas (February 2) and Midsummer, any ling, heath, furze or fern, is punishable with whipping and confinement in the house of correction ...; yet, in this forest, about March or April, according to the dryness of the season, such vast heath fires are lighted up, that they often get to such a masterless head, and, catching the hedges, have sometimes been communicated to the underwoods, woods and coppices, where great damage has ensued. The plea for these burnings is, that, when the old coat of heath, etc., is consumed, young will sprout up, and afford much tender browse for cattle; but, where there is large old furze, the fire, following the roots, consumes the very ground; so that for hundreds of acres nothing is to be seen but smother and desolation, the whole circuit round looking like the cinders of a volcano; and the soil being quite exhausted, no traces of vegetation are to be found for years. These conflagrations, as they take place usually with a north-east or east wind, much annoy this village with their smoke, and often alarm the country; and, once in particular, I remember that a gentleman, who lives beyond Andover, coming to my house, when he got on the downs between that town and Winchester, at twenty-five miles distance, was surprised much with smoke and a hot smell of fire; and concluded that Alresford was in flames; but, when he came to that town, he then had apprehensions for the next village, and so on to the end of his journey.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, Letter VII, to Thomas Pennant, Esquire

B. White and Son, London (1789)

Reproduced from The Natural History of Selborne, Thames and Hudson, London (1993)

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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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