Have you read Richard Mabey’s rousing defense of nature writing? You should. I’ll wait here until you return.
Mabey quite rightly marks the beginnings of nature writing in English with Gilbert White (1720-1793), the British country parson whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne I’ve finally come around to reading. Mostly: I picked up a Folio Society edition of 1963 which eschews the Antiquities section. This copy was only a little musty — that perfume of bibliophiles — and I found it with my nose in Barter Books, in Alnwick, UK, earlier this year.
It’s said that White’s book has never been out of print. I can report that it is entirely readable, which you can’t say about every 18th C. classic. It is epistolary, a series of letters to two correspondents. One evidently pillaged White’s work for a tome of his own. He has some felicitous phrases that I can’t get out of my head: “a gentleman, curious in birds”; “the generation of eels is very dark and mysterious”; worms are “much addicted to venery”; “happening to make a visit to my neighbor’s peacocks”. I, too, after all, go about “in pursuit of natural knowledge.” And his “annus historico-naturalis” is what my blog has been about for five years now.
White was of course a product of his time and place. A lot of birds and other animals get killed in these pages by White or his neighbors. Before the availability of good optics, this was often the only way to see a wild animal up close. But even the rarities are blown out of the sky, and, boy, does this gets wearisome for the soul, particularly now that so many bird populations are at historic lows.
White was curiously obsessed with the question of where the local swallows and martins went in the winter. He knew that some bird species migrated, down through Spain at least, but he was pretty sure the local swallows took cover underground nearby, hibernating through the cold months. This was an old idea; I think it was Aristotle who bottled it orgininally. This line of thinking wasn’t completely wrong: at least one species has been found to hibernate in this world, but it isn’t a swallow, nor found in Europe (it’s the the Common Poorwill, a North American species). Young Swifts can go into a state of torpor during short cold spells, powering down body temperature and metabolism, but Aristotle and White were way off on the swallow hibernation thing.
But then, that’s the glory of science: it can change as new evidence is discovered. This is why it’s different from belief. White of course came before the banding (or ringing, as they say in the UK) of birds. He reported what he saw, and he makes a good case within the limits of his observations.