How Selborne’s Gilbert White changed the way we view the natural world

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 July 2020

An illustration of Selborne by S.H. Grimm the original illustrator for Gilbert White's books

An illustration of Selborne by S.H. Grimm the original illustrator for Gilbert White's books

Archant

300 years ago, a man named Gilbert White was born in the little village of Selborne. Little did they know then that this man would turn out to be the first ever ecologist.

Gilbert WhiteGilbert White

Widely regarded as ‘the father of ecology’, Gilbert White is known for one of the most famous books on natural history: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Published in 1789 the work has acquired popularity and respect from both the general public and other nature writers and scientists, and has never been out of print; having gone through 300 editions. After the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress and Shakespeare it is reputedly the most published book in the English Language. It’s even available as an E-book on Amazon Kindle! Richard Mabey, the popular and esteemed nature writer, and biographer of Gilbert White has said that “Gilbert White’s book, more than any other has shaped our every-day view of relations between humans and nature.”

Born in the Vicarage of Selborne on July 18 1720, where his Grandfather (also Gilbert White) was the vicar. He moved to the house known as ‘The Wakes’, upon the death of Gilbert White Snr.

He had a great passion for gardening, which he satisfied by the cultivation of the land at the property, and gradually extended until it covered the 25acres that ‘The Wakes’ now holds. His plantings were ambitious to say the least, with 500 Savoy cabbages being included at one time. There were also more exotic plants that were favourites among gardeners of the eighteenth century, such as melons and cucumbers, and he was the first person in the area to grow potatoes. As well to do gentlemen of the time were, he was a diarist; but instead of noting political machinations he kept a journal recording what he planted and harvested, the weather and temperature. This became known as his Garden Kalendar.

His record keeping of garden development became a diary of his observations of the wildlife of his native village. This was eventually to become Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne for which he is remembered. He was not as coldly scientific as other naturalists of the time. White blended scientific record keeping with emotional response, and displays of his passion for the life around him; noting observations that many would consider trivial such as the singing of crickets and how flycatchers keep their young cool in the summer by fanning their wings above the nest.

Image from the Natural History and Antiquities of SelborneImage from the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne

His methods of observation opened up new opportunities for discovery, that simply could not be synthesised in the confines of a study, using dead subjects. Through this approach he found that chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler were three different species by their songs. They had all previously been thought of as the willow wren. He also went on to discover the noctule bat and recorded that owls hoot in B flat!

The observations White made built themselves up into a picture that showed the connection between all life forms. This is why he is often referred to as the first ecologist. Working with a fellow naturalist he recorded the yearly cycle of over 400 species of plants and animals and fostered the idea of the ‘food chain’. He was also the first person to carry out a bird census and recognise the patterns of migration.

As may be seen from the survival of the work, it became very popular. One of the reasons for this is the style, structure and accessibility of the book. Rather than a high-browed, dry textbook, it is a personal story. Emigrants to Australia or North America carried the book with them to remind them of who they were and where they came from. Richard Mabey, writes that “the book shows how the British have for a long time regarded their relationship with the countryside as something quite distinctive, a badge of cultural identity.”

A memorial window in St Mary's Church in Selborne is dedicated to Gilbert White and shows all of the birds mentioned in his bookA memorial window in St Mary's Church in Selborne is dedicated to Gilbert White and shows all of the birds mentioned in his book

In times of crisis this country has turned to White’s vision of Britain. At the height of the Blitz in 1940, James Fisher wrote that Gilbert White’s “world is round and simple and complete; the British country; the perfect escape. No breath of the outside world enters in; no politics, no ambition, no care or cost.”

As well as being greatly popular with the general public it has been lauded by various figures in literature and natural history. Coleridge made notes in his book, which he described as “sweet and delightful.” Darwin sited it as one of the main contributors to his own interest in biology, claiming that he “stood on the shoulders” of White and that he went on a “pilgrimage” to Selborne in 1857.

The work has value in the modern world too because it was a catalyst in the change of both the study and view of the natural world, it is a unique record of nature in the 18th Century, and has led to many discoveries about the natural world. Even today most naturalists will have read it and refer to it for White’s insight. Simon Barnes, writing in the Times in June 2013 said, “The book is about taking small things and understanding their place across the immensities of space and time. He was able to take a small localised matter and see its eternal significance. He saw his little chunk of Hampshire as a single living entity”.

Gilbert White had a great passion for outdoor life and he was clearly devoted to his native Selborne, as can be seen in his poem: The Invitation to Selborne.

An image from Gilbert White's The Natural History of SelborneAn image from Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne

He was popular with the people of his native village, with records from the 19th Century of locals who knew him describing a humble man who disliked “pomp and circumstance.”

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is an invitation to share in the passion that drove his life’s work. This work is preserved today at ‘The Wakes’, which is now a museum dedicated to Gilbert White. The building stands as it was, and the interior has been preserved to show how White lived. It is also the home of the Oates Collection; the Oates brothers being renowned adventurers.

They also have almost every edition of The Natural History and run many events throughout the year. There is a digitised version of the original manuscript at gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk.

The Garden has been restored to how it was in the 18th Century and nothing is planted that was not present in White’s time. They cover five acres with an additional 25 acres of parkland. It has recently qualified for Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship and a survey in summer 2013 found over 100 species on the land, with seven orchids. I’m sure Gilbert White would be honoured, if not a little embarrassed by the ‘pomp and circumstance.’

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