Book of the Month: June – The Natural History of Selborne

The Natural History of Selborne
Gilbert White

I took a notion to read this because it was talked about in the Bewick book I read, as the other major work of natural history to appear at the time of his Quadrupeds – and because, although it’s a bit earlier than Stephen Maturin, it seemed to fit so perfectly into his world, and that of other people I’ve been reading about – that time when people are starting to take science serious, and to look about them seriously, but where there’s still so much to be found out about the ordinary world, and before science becomes specialised.

In theory, the book is all in the form of letters, but some are more letterlike than others – the first section, which is quite distinct, is a set of descriptions of Selborne and its surroundings, and then we’re suddenly into something far more like a real letter, with scraps of observation of various things which are clearly part of an ongoing conversation, a mix of the habits of particular species, and of individual birds and animals. It’s very local, and fascinating for that reason – not just that particular birds (especially) are found in England, but that birds found or not found in Selborne are different from those other parts of the country, even some quite close by, and full of descriptions of their arrivals and departures, and their habits at different times of the year.

Halfway through the sequence starts over again with a new set of letters to a different person, and it took me a while to realise that this resets the choronological sequence – some subjects do come up again and again, but some of them are preoccupations of a particular period split up by the format of the book. This second series has more detailed scientific writing – lists of birds of particular types, and descriptions of swallows and martins which were also published by the Royal Society – but also more of the general conversation, including my favourite observation, that owls hoot in the key of B flat!

Swallows and their relations seem to have been the creatures which most interested White, and they reappear often, including the infamous comments on hibernation – but the interesting thing is that this idea really does come from observation, particularly of times when swallows briefly appeared during mild weather very early or late in the year and vanished again, presumably without having travelled from Africa and back.

Later observations become more varied – gypsies, the use of reeds for light, a shrew-ash which apparently cured the pain of animals which shrew had run over, leprosy, and echoes (said by Virgil to be harmful to bees, but White’s bees didn’t seem to mind being shouted at through a speaking trumpet, so he didn’t see how an echo could hurt them) – and the very last letters are historical, dealing with various severe winters of the past, and the fog caused by the Laki eruption in 1783.

It’s not arranged at all in the way that a modern book would be, but it’s fascinating all the same, and a surprisingly vivid picture of life in the area.