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The world’s first environmental blogger

Ken Worpole
29 August 2005

Ken Worpole’s writing on openDemocracy includes:

“Stockholm Woodland Cemetery” (January 2003)

“Essex shores, Essex lives” (September 2003)

“Death in the Luxembourg gardens” (October 2003)

“There is nothing, then there is something, then there is nothing again” (May 2005)

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The rapturous reception given this summer to Findings, a collection of essays and travel writings by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, included one critic comparing her work to that of Gilbert White. When interviewed on this, Jamie admitted to a sense of flattery, but went on to add that she did “not think many people will know of the great 18th-century English naturalist.” Can this be true?

When Penguin Books bought the rights to publication in 1977, White’s book, The Natural History of Selborne was already the fourth most published book in the English language. It has remained in print ever since. First issued in 1788, it is not the usual stuff of bestseller lists, consisting as it does of letters written by a country clergyman to his friends recording birds seen, and flowers and plants classified in loving detail. Today, the Reverend Gilbert White (1720-93) is regarded — by those who do know his work — as one of the founding fathers of ecology.

This year White’s house The Wakes, in the pretty village of Selborne, in the southern English county of Hampshire, celebrates a milestone anniversary: it is fifty years since it was acquired by a dedicated trust and opened to the public. A grant of over £1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund has meant that the twenty-acre gardens have been exquisitely restored, the house repaired, and a new field-studies centre created. It is a real pleasure to visit.

The gardens are extensive, many and varied. There are kitchen gardens, herb gardens, floral walks, topiary hedges, vegetable plots, lawns and wildflower meadows, all set within an astonishing arc of woodland rising to the sky. This is the famous beechwood hanger which defined White’s world, a rising cliff of trees to the southwest, creating a border country between forest and meadowland. This distinctive topography made his birdwatching so productive, since most birds prefer habitats which offer both open country and opportunities for seclusion and retreat.

White planted his first trees at The Wakes when he was 11, and died there sixty-two years later, just a hundred yards from the house in which he was born. In a letter dated 8 October 1768, he mischievously noted that,

“It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.”

In short, the closer you look, the more you will find. White never tired of the protean life which teemed in these modest fields, woods and hedgerows, beyond which rose the rather forbidding “vast range of mountains called the Sussex-downs”. As with Kant in Königsberg, White “travelled greatly in one place”.

Unlike the system-builders and taxonomists of his time such as Linnaeus, whose great work of classification Systema Naturae was published in 1758, or more disciplined natural scientists such as Darwin and the Lunar Men described in Jenny Uglow’s group biography, White’s influence has been more subtle, but in the end more pervasive.

He is widely regarded as the first scientific observer to advance the belief that man and the birds and flowers belonged in the same world together, and somehow shared a common destiny. The swallows and swifts which returned to Selborne every April from their winter sojourn in Africa were greeted not as potential new specimens or bundles of automata but as familiars and old friends. He is undoubtedly the founding-father of English naturalist writing, which is currently enjoying a renaissance.

White marvelled at the many adaptive ingenuities of birds and small mammals, as they found their niche in the landscape. In a letter of 1 August 1771, he records a neighbour who had been visiting the local woods to determine in which key owls sing: in Selborne they hooted mostly in D, but in other villages they hooted in G flat, F sharp, B flat and A flat. He admired the architectonic skills of the nest-builders, and the ferocity with which otherwise shy birds protected their fledglings, when attacked. He told the story of how a cat whose kittens had been taken away had suckled a young hare instead, and, well before Darwin, he praised the vital contribution made to natural fecundity by the common earthworm.

The best way to visit White’s house is by bicycle. Our small party met at Overton Station twenty miles north of Selborne, and cycled a delightful route through the deserted back lanes of rural Hampshire. If twenty miles seems too much, then visitors can take a train to Liss, and cycle seven miles north to White’s village.

Gilbert White’s house can be visited most days of the year

If you take the longer route, a short detour brings you to Steventon, the village where Jane Austen was born in 1775, and where her father was minister at the church. Though Austen and White never knew each other, their lives overlapped and so must have some of their social circles. Austen’s biographers have been able to describe the weather the young Jane experienced on particular days, as a result of Gilbert White’s meticulous record-keeping.

Once in Selborne those who wish to can carry on to Jane Austen’s final home at Chawton, only three miles away. Here Austen’s famous letter of 29 January 1813 announcing the publication of Pride and Prejudice, “my own Darling Child”, has just gone on public display.

WH Auden once claimed that Jane Austen was the first Marxist — for her portrayal of the way in which most social relations float on a network of property rights and economic advantage. In the same vein it could be said that her erstwhile neighbour, Gilbert White, was the first environmental blogger. More than 200 years after they were first written, White’s letters enable us to share his pleasure, but equally gauge the scale of loss of flora and fauna in just one small part of Britain – and understand why this matters.

Nothing quite prepares the first-time visitor to the gardens at Selborne for the sheer scale and splendour of what is one of the most influential — if still too little known — landscapes of the modern world.

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