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The Humble Ecology of Gilbert White.

The eighteenth-century English environmentalist Gilbert White should really be better known these days. He wrote specifically of his encounters with the natural world in a spirit of direct observation, patience, and mutual regard that anticipates modern ecology. Admired by Wordsworth and Coleridge and noticed publicly in his own time by the Royal Society, his work was of course superseded--but distinctly appreciated--by Darwin. Moreover, unlike the self-gratifying certainties of many current ecologists, when Gilbert White looked at nature he saw something infinitely complicated and quite apart from himself--perhaps something possible to catch within the rhythms of an imagined secular scripture:

And before the creation of Darwin, God said, "Let there be Gilbert White. Let him kindly love and explain the moving creatures that have life and every winged fowl and creeping thing after their kind. Let him know and explain these complicated things in all their biological diversity and ineffable sense of evolvement with the same love and understanding with which he serveth Me."

And it was so.

OR AT LEAST IT WAS so to most previous romanticizing biographers of Gilbert White. In 2003, Ted Dadswell opted for fuller reconsideration within the title of his book, The Selborne Pioneer: Gilbert White as Naturalist and Scientist--A Re-Examination. More recently, Romantic theorist Dewey W. Hall notes, with great appreciation, White's "uncanny ability to recognize the 'joys and sufferings' of inhabitants in the bioregion of Selborne while identifying their distinctly integral place within the biome." That "biome" of today was more comfortable and more honestly livable in the days of Gilbert White--especially as reported by Gilbert White himself.

For White was a pioneering naturalist of natural sympathy, a loving observer who observed, recorded, contemplated, and connected the natural world and its consequent behaviours. He was also an influence on Darwin--but only in a minor key. After all, Evolution in the latter half of the eighteenth century was a concept too vast for Gilbert White to comprehend. But he clearly grasped a sense of what an active ecology might be. He could tease a field cricket out of its hole with a blade of grass instead of digging and destroying the cricket's habitat. As a result of interacting with the world of crickets, he published the following invaluable ecological observation:

Where violent methods will not avail, more gentle means will often succeed; and so it proved in the present case; for, though a spade be too boisterous and rough an implement, a pliant stalk of grass, gently insinuated into the caverns, will probe their windings to the bottom, and quickly bring out the inhabitant; and thus the humane inquirer may gratify his curiosity without injuring the object of it.

This pioneer was a respectful, humane inquirer. Throughout, I quote him from his remarkable book entitled The Natural History of Selborne. First published in 1789, the book elegantly informs the natural world--both within and beyond Selborne--of the nature of its own significance.

He gardened and walked, appreciated nature and contemplated God. Indeed, White was an Anglican clergyman and long-time curate of the neighbouring parish of Farringdon, a mere two miles' Sunday ride from his Selborne home. Perhaps on such a ride he bent low to the ground to consider that earthworms might actually be of benefit to the earth. He was among the first to do so. Here's how he put it:

Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass.

He clearly perceived that the lowest things can contain and impress higher benefits upon the world.

The world according to Gilbert White is a sociable world of grace observed in nature. This attitude of mutuality informed his observations on the animal world. He reported on natural sociability in horses, hens, and cattle, including real friendship between a specific horse and hen of his acquaintance: "The fowl would approach the quadruped with notes of complacency, rubbing herself gently against his legs; while the horse would look down with satisfaction, and move with the greatest caution and circumspection, lest he should trample on his diminutive companion." He marvelled as well at a nursing cat that, against its natural ferocity, adopted and suckled a newborn hare after her own kittens had been taken away.

And on the topic of the domestic cat, he observed a certain paradoxical behaviour that could easily rank him as one of the earliest proponents of an evolved animal ecology. Perplexed but genuinely interested, he writes:

There is a propensity belonging to common house cats that is very remarkable; I mean their violent ondness for fish, which appears to be their most favourite food; and yet, nature in this instance seems to have planted in them an appetite that, unassisted, they know not how to gratify: for of all quadrupeds cats are the least disposed towards water; and will not, when they can avoid it, deign to wet afoot, much less to plunge into that element.

He reaches his reasoned conclusion with unassailable equanimity, relying not on the imprint of an all-powerful Creator, nor even on an essential, inexplicable instinct. Rather, he observes, explains, and draws general conclusions.

Cats, even with their feral propensities, are evolved domestic companions. Gilbert White was especially observant outdoors in the varieties and behaviours of birds. He pondered differing notions about birds (especially swallows and martins--the Hirundines) and weighed the possibility that they might actually hibernate at winter, as was widely accepted at the time, or migrate by flying away to vacation in a warmer climate and then return --the same actual birds! In his autobiography, Darwin describes the effect of reading this: "From reading White's Selborne I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity, I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist." It is almost a truism that Gilbert White invented birdwatching.


IN ALL THIS AND MUCH ELSE Gilbert White was an original. Like most originals, he enjoyed that distinctive gift of an original voice speaking sincerely and meaningfully to everyone because he seems sincerely invested in every particular reader and listener. And yet his great book, The Natural History of Selborne, takes the second-hand form of a series of letters to members of the Royal Society with whom he was acquainted.

It is all very politely located and expressed from the countryside home of a rural eighteenth-century English cleric. However, White's traditional series of letters paradoxically exceeds traditional epistolary form within Enlightenment philosophical discourse. Any reader, then or now, feels personally engaged. Such involvement suggestively opens outward toward the postmodern blog or wiki within which anyone who is connected is also already participating.

To read Gilbert White is to participate, willingly and pleasantly, but also to abandon undue effort. Any present-day reader feels like a comfortable co-investigator engaged with a friendly colleague. Like the song of a bird or the sight of a clearing blue sky, like instant messaging received already tomorrow in Hong Kong or the found photograph of a previously unknown but direct ancestor, Gilbert White's book lightly transcends its own particular time to surprise and inform the present.

Years later, in her loose and thoughtful essay entitled simply "White's Selborne," Virginia Woolf would capture White's effect in terms of direct and interpenetrating observation. She imagines the clergyman naturalist from Hampshire raising his eyes to the horizon, and looking and listening: "In that moment of abstraction he hears sounds that make him uneasy in the early morning; he escapes from Selborne, from his own age, and comes winging his way to us in the dusk along the hedgerows."

Such tender perception of nature across time speaks the language of a loving English consolation. It can even alleviate the horrors of a new and terrifying total war, as it did for Edward Thomas in WWI. Of Gilbert White and his remarkable book (like the Bible and Shakespeare--and, yes, Darwin-never ever out of print in English), Edward Thomas observed as follows: "In this present year, 1915, at least, it is hard to find a flaw in the life he led, which we may be excused for looking back upon dotingly as upon some inaccessible and imperturbable tract of our own life." White's Natural History of Selborne speaks with the informative consoling power of myth, as James Russell Lowell put it when declaring Selborne to be "the journal of Adam in Paradise."

Critics are less idealistic, polite, and honorific these days. From about the mid-twentieth century on, they routinely defuse White's sense of wonderment as a simplistic response to the world, parochial, trim, and complete--an uncritical appreciation for the British countryside, or the perfect holiday escape. But it's more complicated than that. For wondrous escape one might dip into the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Colin Dexter. Gilbert White instead offers "something far more deeply interfused," along the lines of Wordsworth, but more. As American ecocritic and professor of English Tobias Menely observes, "Selborne's reception in the two hundred years since its initial publication offers a vivid instance of the retrospective idealization that transforms history into heritage."

And yet, it goes even beyond the bluff certainties of British heritage to register something powerfully gentle and paradoxical, a "Cosmopolitan Parochialism" as suggested within the very title of Menely's informative essay. Hereby, Gilbert White and The Natural History of Selborne project a thoroughgoing decency that travels through time surpassed only by a commitment to intellectually honest, prepossessing, amateur scientific observation and inquiry.

Above all, as a scientist Gilbert White refused to rush things. Writing to his trusty correspondent and the author of British Zoology, Thomas Pennant of the Royal Society, who was about to embark on a journey to Scotland to observe the flora and fauna there, White counselled as follows:

The usual bane of such expeditions is hurry; because men seldom allot themselves half the time they should do: but, fixing on a day for their return, post from place to place, rather as if they were on a journey that required dispatch, than as philosophers investigating the works of nature.

His amateur status licenses his deep concern and speaks to the heart of on-site research. Any academic on a research trip to the British Library, the Gobi Desert, or beyond the Arctic Circle knows exactly the vanishing sense of time whereof he speaks.

BUT Gilbert (biographical writers often move to friendly first-name basis with him in a way impossible with Darwin), though well-travelled in Oxford and London, seems most at home as scholar and neighbour in Selborne. Here he always enjoyed a neighbourly visit, especially to a neighbour with peacocks. On such a visit he proceeded gently to part the tail feathers of a peacock and report on his observations with conversational ease:

Happening to make a visit to my neighbour's peacocks, I could not help observing that the trains of those magnificent birds appear by no means to be their tails; those long feathers growing not from their uropygium, but all up their backs. A range of short brown stiff feathers, about six inches long, fixed in the uropygium, is the real tail, and serves as the fulcrum to prop the train.

The ancients could not have described even Juno's peacock in better and more delicately anatomical terms. About hedgehogs, their diet, and their destructive ways, Gilbert was very particular but also characteristically tolerant:

Dear Sir,

Hedgehogs abound in my gardens and fields. The manner in which they eat the roots of the plantain in my grass walks is very curious: with their upper mandible, which is much longer than their lower, they bore under the plant, and so eat the root off upwards, leaving the tuft of leaves untouched. In this respect they are serviceable, as they destroy a very troublesome weed; but they deface the walks in some measure by digging little round holes.

There is neither good nor bad, but thinking on it makes it so.

Uncharacteristically, he stormed--but with only a very brief vehemence--about misbehaving shepherd boys and their interference in on-location science regarding the nesting places of the common jackdaw in nearby Stonehenge:

These birds deposit their nests in the interstices between the upright and the impost stones of that amazing work of antiquity: which circumstance alone speaks the prodigious height of the upright stones, that they should be tall enough to secure those nests from the annoyance of shepherd-boys, who are always idling round that place.

In Letter XXX, he returns to his more usual equanimity, beginning: "The French, I think, in general are strangely prolix in their natural history." No such prolixity invades the observations of Gilbert White--especially when considering the report of a male moose in rut time on the St Lawrence River in Canada. Surprisingly, Gilbert himself reports of his own encounter with a moose--in England! He describes the experience fully in letter XXVIII, beginning: "On Michaelmas-day 1768 I managed to get a sight of the female moose belonging to the Duke of Richmond, at Goodwood; but was greatly disappointed, when I arrived at the spot, to find that it had died ..."

Like the compassionate vicar he was, Gilbert visited the house to observe and comfort those in need as well as to report on the ultimate strangeness of what he called a "moose-deer." He recognizes that this animal falls well outside his expertise, as he explains: "... in general, foreign animals fall seldom in my way; my little intelligence is confined to the narrow sphere of my own observations at home." But Gilbert dissected the moose as well as he could in its state of putrefaction, and added the unusual information he gleaned to his Selborne considerations. In so doing he makes the unfamiliar familiar, explaining this animal well outside of its natural habitat while placing it within a fully observed economy of nature itself. He makes the local of Selborne stand in for the everywhere of the world. As Lisa Vargo puts it in an article entitled "The Romantic Prospects of the Duke of Richmond's Moose," "Nature's economy for White embodies a sense of harmony and something very close to what we might call an ecosystem."

Gilbert White would simply and appreciatively call it "our world"--a deeply complicated living world of interconnected people, plants, birds, animals, and God. As a wanderer of very rooted sensibilities and habits, White exercised incisive observation with deep love and a craving for understanding. In his clergyman's mind he had somehow intuited that God was somehow something other than nature. All species and all complexity and diversity owed their deepest origins to something that he sometimes referred to as "God," but those origins--irretrievable and magnificently complicated-were somehow knowable and describable only within human perceptions. Likewise, God was something other than any specific human-most of whom were pretty similar but who also included an occasional Darwin or Gilbert White. Few observers since have combined trust and speculation in quite the same remarkable way.

OUR SENSE of a global biome today does not seem quite so high-minded or generous in conception. Nor has Gilbert White's distinctive approach, an approach that mediates gently between physical grasp and mental reflection, become all that common. How can it? We humans--even as we constantly broadcast our love for this planet-are somehow too important ever to register our own doubts. Gilbert White was more generous, and more intuitive. His highest "qualification" remains always one related to the immeasurable mystery of nature within eternity--a mystery within which he was constantly employed. One might say that he was first to think globally, act locally, and express himself both meaningfully and respectfully to all. Such respect today is more selfish, more certain, and more fearful. Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, however, is as devoid of fear as it is full of quiet, intelligent sympathy and understanding of something massively other than either nature or himself. How many environmentalists today--and that means all of us--can say as much?



Works Cited

Ted Dadswell, The Selborne Pioneer: Gilbert White as Naturalist and Scientist--A Re-Examination (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1887 (New York: Dover, 1958).

Dewey W. Hall, Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists: An Ecocritical Study, 1789-1912 (Famham: Ashgate, 2014).

James Russell Lowell, "My Garden Acquaintance," in My Study Windows (Boston: Osgood and Company, 1871).

Tobias Menely, "Traveling in Place: Gilbert White's Cosmopolitan Parochialism," Eighteenth Century Life, 28.3 (2004), 46-65.

Edward Thomas, A Literary Pilgrim in England, 1917 (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969).

Lisa Vargo, "The Romantic Prospects of the Duke of Richmond's Moose," European Romantic Review, 24:3 (2013), 297-305.

Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, 1789, new edition edited by Richard Mabey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

Virginia Woolf, "White's Selborne," The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1950).
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Author:Bowers, Rick
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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