Friday, 5 May 2017

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White.

My rather tatty edition of White's
The Natural History of Selborne.
I've been meaning to read Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne (1789) for quite a while now, but I was always a little nervous: the mere mention of Charles Darwin on the back made me fear reading it would be like the dry, difficult experience I had reading extracts of On the Origin of Species (1859; I must read the whole thing one day). The Natural History of Selborne, however, was not what I thought. Firstly, it's not so much a thesis but a series of letters to two prominent naturalists of the time: Thomas Pennant (author of British Zoology, 1866-67) and Daines Barrington (a lawyer and author of Miscellanies on various Subjects, 1781). As for Gilbert White: he was an English parson, naturalist and ornithologist, born in 1720 in his grandfather's vicarage in Selborne, Hampshire (south east England; it shares a border with Dorset and is about 4 miles from Chawton, the home of Jane Austen). The letters, not all of which were posted, were written in the mid to late 18th Century and it's said, not particularly accurately, that The Natural History of Selborne is the fourth-most published book in the English language after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim’s Progress

Illustration by Edmund H. New (1900).
White begins by describing Selborne, and although this is long I'll quote it in full as a taster for the whole book:
Letter I
To Thomas Pennant, Esquire
The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, bordering on the county of Sussex, and not far from the county of Surrey; is about fifty miles south-west of London, in latitude 51, and near midway between the towns of Alton and Peters field. Being very large and extensive, it abuts on twelve parishes, two of which are in Sussex, viz., Trotton and Rogate. If you begin from the south and proceed westward, the adjacent parishes are Emshot, Newton Valence, Faringdon, Harteley Mauduit, Great Ward le ham, Kingsley, Hedleigh, Bramshot, Trotton, Rogate, Lysse, and Greatham. The soils of this district are almost as various and diversified as the views and aspects. The high part to the south-west consists of a vast hill of chalk, rising three hundred feet above the village; and is divided into a sheep down, the high wood, and a long hanging wood called the Hanger. The covert of this eminence is altogether beech, the most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage, or graceful pendulous boughs. The down, or sheep-walk, is a pleasing park-like spot, of about one mile by half that space, jutting out on the verge of the hill-country, where it begins to break down into the plains, and commanding a very engaging view, being an assemblage of hill, dale, wood-lands, heath, and water. The prospect is bounded to the south-east and east by the vast range of mountains called the Susses-downs, by Guild-down near Guildford, and by the Downs round Dorking, and Ryegate in Surrey, to the north-east, which altogether, with the country beyond Alton and Farnham, form a noble and extensive outline.
At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands, lies the village, which consists of one single straggling street, three- quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale, and running parallel with the Hanger. The houses are divided from the hill by a vein of stiff clay (good wheat-land), yet stand on a rock of white stone, little in appearance removed from chalk; but seems so far from being calcareous, that it endures extreme heat. Yet that the freestone still preserves somewhat that is analogous to chalk, is plain from the beeches which descend as low as those rocks extend, and no farther, and thrive as well on them, where the ground is steep, as on the chalks.
The cart-way of the village divides, in a remarkable manner, two very incongruous soils. To the south-west is a rank-clay, that requires the labour of years to render it mellow; while the gardens to the north-east, and small enclosures behind, consist of a warm, forward, crumbling mould, called black malm, which seems highly saturated with vegetable and animal manure; and these may perhaps have been the original site of the town; while the wood and coverts might extend down to the opposite bank.
At each end of the village, which runs from south-east to north- west, arises a small rivulet: that at the north-west end frequently fails; but the other is a fine perennial spring, little influenced by drought or wet seasons, called Well-head.* This breaks out of some high grounds joining to Core Hill, a noble chalk promontory, remarkable for sending forth two streams into two different seas. The one to the south becomes a branch of the Arun, running to Arundel, and so falling into the British Channel: the other to the north. The Selborne stream makes one branch of the Wey; and meeting the Black-down stream at Hedleigh, and the Alton and Farnham stream at Tilford-bridge, swells into a considerable river, navigable at Godalming; from whence it passes to Guildford, and so into the Thames at Weybridge; and thus at the Nore into the German Ocean. (* This spring produced, September 14, 1781, after a severe hot summer, and a preceding dry spring and winter, nine gallons of water in a minute, which is five hundred and forty in an hour, and twelve thousand nine hundred and sixty, or two hundred and sixteen hogsheads, in twenty-four hours, or one natural day. At this time many of the wells failed, and all the ponds in the vales were dry.)
Our wells, at an average, run to about sixty-three feet, and when sunk to that depth seldom fail; but produce a fine limpid water, soft to the taste, and much commended by those who drink the pure element, but which does not lather well with soap.
To the north-west, north and east of the village, is a range of fair enclosures, consisting of what is called a white malm, a sort of rotten or rubble stone, which, when turned up to the frost and rain, moulders to pieces, and becomes manure to itself.
Still on to the north-east, and a step lower, is a kind of white land, neither chalk nor clay, neither fit for pasture nor for the plough, yet kindly for hops, which root deep into the freestone, and have their poles and wood for charcoal growing just at hand. This white soil produces the brightest hops.
As the parish still inclines down towards Wolmer-forest, at the juncture of the clays and sand the soil becomes a wet, sandy loam, remarkable for timber, and infamous for roads. The oaks of Temple and Blackmoor stand high in the estimation of purveyors, and have furnished much naval timber; while the trees on the freestone grow large, but are what workmen call shakey, and so brittle as often to fall to pieces in sawing. Beyond the sandy loam the soil becomes an hungry lean sand, till it mingles with the forest; and will produce little without the assistance of lime and turnips.

Though it is a book of scientific observations, The Natural History of Selborne is perfectly approachable for the non-scientific-minded folk such as myself. The observations range from the very beautiful with some hints of gentle humour to the rather grotesque, even within a single paragraph, such as this, the 11th letter to Thomas Pennant, on June 18, 1768:
I have been informed also, from undoubted authority, that some ladies (ladies you will say of peculiar taste) took a fancy to a toad, which they nourished summer after summer, for many years, till he grew to a monstrous size, with the maggots which turn to flesh flies. The reptile used to come forth every evening from an hole under the garden-steps; and was taken up, after supper, on the table to be fed. But at last a tame raven, kenning him as he put forth his head, gave him such a severe stroke with his horny beak as put out one eye. After this accident the creature languished for some time and died.
This writing is in keeping with nature itself with its moments of great beauty, tranquillity, and depth, with the moments of monstrous events such as the poor toad whose eye was pecked out by a raven. What I loved most about it was the sheer scale of observation. It's most impressive: nothing seems to pass White by, everything is seen, heard, felt, smelled even, and then recorded. White's passion and affection for nature is great, but he's not sentimental about it. It's not a coldly scientific report, there is a warm element to it, and it is a masterpiece of meditation on the natural world. Some of it is still recognisable; the natural world may now be altered but the familiar faces remain (I loved White's note "Our flocks of female chaffinches have not yet forsaken us" on 30th March 1768), but much of the landscape has changed, for example this observation from Letter V: 
The village of Selborne, and large hamlet of Oak-hanger, with the single farms, and many scattered houses along the verge of the forest, contain upwards of six hundred and seventy inhabitants. We abound with poor; many of whom are sober and industrious, and live comfortably in good stone or brick cottages, which are glazed, and have chambers above stairs: mud buildings we have none. Besides the employment from husbandry the men work in hop gardens, of which we have many; and fell and bark timber. In the spring and summer the women weed the corn; and enjoy a second harvest in September by hop-picking. Formerly, in the dead months they availed themselves greatly by spinning wool, for making of barragons, a genteel corded stuff, much in vogue at that time for summer wear; and chiefly manufactured at Alton, a neighbouring town, by some of the people called Quakers: but from circumstances this trade is at an end.
The Natural History of Selborne is a great work with observations ranging from rainfall ("From May 1, 1779, the end of the year, there fell 28 Inch. 37!"), migration of birds, mating rituals of birds and mammals, and even some notes on worms and their great importance to the formation of soil:
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. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work: and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile: and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants, and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae (long-legs), in their larva, or grub-state; and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.
White is a beautiful and charming writer, and the detail is great but not overwhelming so. As I said, it is a very approachable book and though written in another era (certainly as far as science goes), one can still learn a lot from White's observations and indeed his manner.

To finish, here's some of Edward Jesse's illustrations of the 1890 edition of The Natural History of Selborne:

6 comments:

  1. Wow, this book sounds like an excellent introduction to natural history. I'd like to read it as a precursor to Darwin: I tried to read his Origin of Species and stalled with boredom part way through. You always find such unique treasures! Thanks for the introduction!

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    1. No problem! I think it is a pretty good introduction, though it's the only natural history I've read bar the Darwin extracts. Must give Darwin another go. One day. :S

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  2. my copy didn't have Jesse's illustrations: they're truly lovely... i read it while studying geology in university and found it of great historical interest; i admired his writing style as well... tx

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    1. These are lovely illustrations, I agree. My copy didn't have them either, I was reading the Penguin edition. And yes, he does have a lovely style! Loved reading it :)

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  3. All I have ever read of this book is some of the passages about the tortoise, really wonderful writing. No good excuse for not having read the rest.

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    1. The old tortoise of Lewes, I remember. Great book, this, hope you get to it!

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