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The Natural History of Selborne Paperback – November 21, 2000
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"I can wholeheartedly recommend this edition ... Beautifully produced ... Secord's introduction - surely one of the chief reasons to purchase this new edition of a book never out of print - provides a nuanced and stimulating account of the origins, character, and legacies of Selborne." -- Diarmid A. Finnegan, Journal of Historical Geography
"This Oxford edition offers new insights into a work that has been hugely popular." -- Land and Business
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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I love this book! It is a joy to read Gilbert White's work. He takes you exactly to the place or the experience with his words. They are wonderful. His words create the pictures in your mind's eye.
I recommend this book to anyone who loves reading good author's work, who can be taken on journeys because Gilbert will take you on a wonderfully, descriptive, enjoyable long road....
White was a bridge between ancient nature writers like Pliny the Elder (whose work was a mixture of sharp observation and
the wildly mythical) and nineteenth century nature writers. Raymond Williams (1973) truly noted that White's vision "was [essentially] outward: observing, inquiring, annotating, classifying" (119). In contrast, nineteenth century Romantic nature writers (like Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau) explored themselves as much as they probed nature.
And while White hoped to lay the groundwork for future scientific work, he did not have the theoretical mind of later scientific thinkers like Darwin or Wallace. Yet there are signs of anticipation. White was the first naturalist of note prior to Darwin to describe earthworms in detail and to defend their role in the environment:
Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their stalks 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.
(183, _Letter 35 to Barrington_)
White's one work published in his lifetime, _The Natural History of Selborne_ (1789), has gone through over two hundred printings and is now a classic, admired by natural history writers, scientists, and literary figures alike. One reason is that White is an excellent writer. The book consists of 110 "letters" (actually polished essays in the vein of Montaigne or Francis Bacon). Forty-four letters are addressed to the naturalist Thomas Pennant. Sixty-six letters are addressed to White's friend, the barrister Daines Barrington. The letters to Barrington are, I believe, a touch more relaxed and informal. Some letters are dated, some are not. Some were doubless mailed, but most were written specially for the book.
The first nine letters are introductory letters, giving a general picture of the town of Selborne. (They were probably actually written relatively late, after the main body of the text.) The last five letters are are rather dramatic accounts of unusual weather conditions in and around Selborne and serve as an effective climax. The tenth letter spells out the conditions under which White was doing his research and writing:
It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge: so that for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.
(29, _Aug 10, 1767,, Letter to Pennant_)
Coleridge was inspired by Wordsworth. Thoreau had Emerson to cheer him on. White had no neighbors to mentor him in his interest in nature. He had to correspond with his mentors or meet with them occasionally in London. His research was often a lonely business.
Within the admittedly loose structure of the book, the reader may discover a multitude of passages bristling with sharp, clear description. Most of them are of birds:
The blue titmouse, or nun, is a great frequenter of houses and a general devourer. Besides insects, it is very fond of flesh; for it frequently picks bones on dung-hills: it is a vast admirer of suet and haunts butchers' shops. When a boy, I have known twenty in a morning caught with snap mouse-traps, baited with tallow or suet.
(92, _Letter 41 to Pennant_)
Here is his oft-reprinted portrait of the Martin. Note the slightly jerky diction and sentence structure used to match his description of the flight of the creatures:
These birds have a peculiar manner of flying; flitting about with odd jerks, and vacillations, not unlike the motions of a butterfly.Doubtless the flight of all hirundines is influenced by, and adapted to, the peculiar sort of insects which furnish their food.
(153, _Feb. 26, 1774, Letter 20 to Barrington_)
Other types of animals described by White include the viper, the hedgehog, the English elk (really the same as the American elk), bees, the tortoise, and the bat:
In the extent of their wings they measured fourteen inches and a half; and four inches and a half from the nose to the tip of the tail: their heads were large, their nostrils bilobated, their shoulders broad and muscular; and their whole bodies fleshy and plump. Nothing could be more sleek and soft than their fur, which was of a bright chesnut colour.
( 81, _Letter 31, Sept. 1771 to Pennant_ )
White is also a sharp observer of plants. Here he is on the condensation of trees:
Trees perspire profusely, condense largely, and check evaporation so much, that woods are always moist; no wonder therefore that they contribute much to pools and streams.
(174, _Feb.7, 1776, Letter 29 to Barrington_ )
And at times, White even engaged in some experimentation that would make members of the Royal Academy proud:
We measured the polysyllabical echo with great exactness and found the distance to fall very short of Dr. Plot's rule for distance articulation: for the Doctor, in his history of _Oxfordshire_, allows 120 feet for the return of each syllable distinctly: hence this echo, which gives ten distinct syllables, ought to measure 400 yards, or 120 feet to each syllable; whereas our distance is only 258 yards, or 75 feet, to each syllable. Thus our measure falls short of the Doctor's as five to eight.
(190, _Letter 38 to Barrington_ )
White's friend Daines Barrington was skeptical about much long-range bird migration; he did not believe what he could not see with his naked eyes. White provided a host of arguments in favor of high-altitude and long-range migration for some species of birds, and he also speculated about the hibernation patterns of some animals. He was found to be wrong about some details, but generally correct on many particulars.
Perhaps something should be said about White's religious views. He was writing at a time when it was still generally believed that science and religion went hand in hand. White believed that there was an order to nature (what we today would call the ecosystem) and that this was proof of God's existence. In the same manner, stable numbers of men and women and births and deaths in Selborne was also a sign of God's Providence. Some modern readers may view White's religious ideas as a touch old fashioned-- but I don't see how they can be fairly called naive, unintelligent, or mean-spirited. In the end, we read White in part because we sense that in the main he was a good man.
There are a number of excellent editions of White's classic in print, but my favorite, by a narrow margin, is the Oxford World's Classics edition. It has a good introduction, very detailed notes, biographical information on natural history writers who were contemporaries of White, and translations of White's frequent Latin quotations. In addition, there are some excellent black and white interior sketches. Recommended without reservation.
White spent quite a number of years observing and recording the world around him in Southern England. He has recorded his finding in this work which comes in the forms of letters written to various peers. All things "natural" were considered by White; birds, animals, plants, climatic changes, building material, seasonal changes, et al. The author, primarily an ornithologist, was one of the first to advocate and practice the study of birds through direct observation, rather than killing and collecting. He was one of the first that used bird calls as a means of identification. His study of earthworms in 1770 predated Darwin's famous study by quite a number of years. His writings are some of the first recorded observations of modern phenology.
The reading of this work, for me, took some effort. The style and syntax are of course Victorian, or in this case, pre-Victorian. I found I had to drag all of my old Latin books from my school days out (hey, it has been over forty years) and found that a very large dictionary of the English Language an absolute must. There was also the problem of taxology. To be quite frank, at that time, it was a mess. Some species had numerous scientific names and dozens upon dozens of local or regional names. I read the 1901 edition of this book, and I can assure you that it is not footnoted to take care of this problem...you are on your own! The complete and very large dictionary is necessary due to the many, many archaic terms and words used in this work. The vocabulary used in this book simply is not common, unless of course this is the area of your education and expertise. These problems and the chore of reading sentences that run for half a page were daunting, but to be honest, that was part of the charm of the book and part of its strength. It forces the reader (at least it did me), to get off their duff and actually do some research. I learn so much when I read one of these old works. It is worth the struggle!
Overall tough, you will find the author's style quite crisp and to the point when you consider the era in which it was written. His powers of observation are wonderful and if you read his words closely, you can almost imagine yourself standing with him as he is observing, recording and speculating on his numerous subjects. What a mind the man must have had. I would have loved to have spent several days just setting and talking with him. If you get a chance, get a copy, an old one preferably, and give this one a try. I feel, like me, you will not be sorry you did.