Gil­bert White changed how Eng­land viewed na­ture – and bird­watch­ers can re­live his bird­ing past with a visit to his Hamp­shire home

Bird Watching (UK) - - Profile Gilbert White - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

Gil­bert White is cred­ited as the man who ‘started bird­watch­ing' HE SLEEPY PARISH of Sel­borne, just within the ex­treme north­ern bound­ary of the South Downs Na­tional Park, re­mains a good spot for birds. Within this Hamp­shire vil­lage and its en­vi­rons, the par­son-nat­u­ral­ist Gil­bert White changed the way we viewed and in­ter­preted the nat­u­ral world. White never mar­ried and de­voted his life to the ob­ser­va­tion and record­ing of nat­u­ral phenom­ena. He was fas­ci­nated by in­ter­de­pen­dence, re­lat­ing bird mi­gra­tion to har­vest and habi­tat. He re­ceived no sci­en­tific recog­ni­tion.

For mil­lions of English­men and women, the Nat­u­ral His­tory and An­tiq­ui­ties of Sel­borne by Gil­bert White has em­bod­ied the story of their coun­try­side. The book de­scribes the 18th Cen­tury land­scape of White’s vil­lage be­neath chalk downs. It notes the chang­ing sea­sons and their im­pact on the fauna and flora. It ob­serves the in­ter­de­pen­dence of an­i­mals, plants and man. The book was car­ried to the ends of em­pire, re­mind­ing im­pe­rial gen­er­a­tions of the home coun­try and its virtues. White was the English Vir­gil, cel­e­brant of ru­ral bliss. He was also the first true ecol­o­gist, a man who un­der­stood na­ture in the round. The book was first pub­lished in 1789 and has been con­tin­u­ously in print since. It was pub­lished in a se­ries of let­ters and may

be en­joyed for its gen­tle charm and ap­par­ent sim­plic­ity. How­ever, its po­tency and bril­liance is not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. It cre­ates a vi­sion of pre-in­dus­trial Eng­land and, as such, is a co­gent re­minder of what we have sub­se­quently lost. White wrote of Night­jars (‘the fern-owl’) sit­ting on his roof and chur­ring away through­out the night. Species such as Black Grouse and Great Bus­tard in­hab­ited his lo­cal patch. Imag­ine that. While the parish of Sel­borne still has a wide ar­ray of down­land and wood­land birds, such red-let­ter species are long gone. Hap­pily, the vil­lage and White’s house, ‘The Wakes’, re­main as they were. Charles Dar­win once wrote that “from read­ing White’s Sel­borne…i re­mem­ber won­der­ing why ev­ery gen­tle­man did not be­come an or­nithol­o­gist”. No doubt he was im­pressed by the minu­tiae of White’s ob­ser­va­tions. Most fa­mously, White was one of the first nat­u­ral­ists to work out that the bird known as a ‘wil­low wren’ was in fact three look-alike war­blers – Wood War­bler, Chif­fchaff and Wil­low War­bler – on ac­count of their dif­fer­ent songs. He also iden­ti­fied whether species were mi­gra­tory or seden­tary: “You may de­pend on it that the [Corn] Bunting, Em­ber­iza mil­iaria, does not leave this coun­try in the win­ter.” The bian­nual ap­pear­ance of Ring Ouzels in his parish re­in­forced his think­ing. One has to re­mem­ber that White’s ob­ser­va­tions, what he called ‘ob­serv­ing nar­rowly’, were made in the days be­fore cam­eras and tape recorders. Ev­ery­thing was metic­u­lously recorded in his note­book. Whereas other nat­u­ral his­to­ri­ans of the age re­ceived in­for­ma­tion from all over Bri­tain, White closely ob­served na­ture purely within his


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