Come with me to . . .. . . Gilbert White's house
RECENTLY, alone in the hexagonal, thatched bird blind at ``The Wakes,'' Gilbert White's house in Selborne, England, I was again made aware of an abiding spirit, a ``genius of the place.'' Hearing the scrapings of the beech tree on the roof, the cows, the doves, the magpies, the martins, and especially the swallows, I was taken for a while to the 18th-century world of the ``Natural History of Selborne,'' where Gilbert White still lives. Here, in a series of letters to two correspondents, he describes, in detail, nature's round in this tiny village between 1767 and 1793. He reports on voles and tortoises, bats and bees, plants and flowers, and particularly on the birds, some of them possible ancestors of the swallows I saw darting through the bright patch at the doorway of the blind.
In an essay, ``My Wood,'' E. M. Forster describes his new sense of proprietorship when he first buys land. A bird singing in his copse became to him, ``My bird,'' and when it had the audacity to fly to a neighbor's garden, it became ``Mrs. Henessy's bird.'' It was this sense that I had at Selborne. I was in Mr. White's yard, borrowing a hideout built in Mr. White's style. These birds busy about his garden, his sundial, were all somehow Mr. White's birds.
I also felt this sense of ``his'' as I climbed the Zigzag Path up the Hanger, or beech wood rising 300 feet behind his house. With his brother, White himself cut this back-and-forth trail gradually lifting to the top, where he placed a bench and a wishing stone.
To be truthful, my two-year-old easily climbed this 18th-century taming of the wilderness. But like the sacred way to Delphi or the sodden sheep-run up Yeats' Ben Bulben, it was a special track, where White still paces his friends, ``a junto . . . of Zigzaggians.''
For the major portion of his 73 years, he lived in Selborne, and a glance at a table of his life's events shows the irresistible tug of this particular location: 1720, White born at Selborne Vicarage; ca 1729, returned to Selborne; 1751, became curate-in-charge of Selborne; 1763, became owner of The Wakes, where he was already living and where he remained until his passing in 1793. Serving as pastoral assistant at the church where his own grandfather had been vicar, White lived his days simply -- visiting the sick, performing rituals of birth and death, tending to the poor, preaching, writing, and with greatest pleasure, observing the natural goings-on about him.
Although he attended Oriel College in Oxford and periodically stopped in on other places, he rarely went far astray. He was subject to coach sickness, and his horse would, by report, make Rocinante strut with pride. White traveled a good deal in Selborne, and in the ``Natural History,'' he tells his traveler's tale.
At first, the book seemed to me dry, retaining too many vestiges of the ``Garden Kalendar'' out of which it grew, too many unadorned recordings of natural facts -- rain tables for 1779 to 1787, hatching dates for swallows, summer bedtime for swifts: 8:45 -- without the philosophical lifting off of a Wordsworth or a Thoreau.
I looked for aphoristic insights, pithy lessons read in the book of nature, and found instead simple descriptions of what really happened: ``Swans turn white the second year, and breed the third,'' or ``Weasels prey on moles.'' He rarely preached, rarely used techniques driving me to go on. Maybe it was the very lack of design on me that I came to appreciate. White is an appealing companion, friendly, informative, but perfectly willing to let his reader wander off his trail. When I slowed down enough to look with him, to study his words as closely as he studied the world he was recording, I was not at all driven, but I did feel compelled.
Gradually, his character makes its claim -- the confidence in the wisdom of his own observations, as when he argues that worms stir every month of the year, ``as any one may see that will only be at the trouble of taking a candle to a grass-plot on any mild winter's night,'' but tempered by his self-deprecating honesty, as when he chides himself for assuming that ouzels migrate southward, ``. . . common ingenuousness obliges me to confess, not without some degree of shame, that I only reasoned from analogy,'' and by his gentleness of tone, as when he contradicts the observations of his correspondent, ``But I cannot quite acquiesce with you in one circumstance . . . it is not the case with us. . . .''
He is, above all, calm, patient, willing to get up early, stay out late, sit for as long as necessary. His vigils are silent, private, as the natural world gradually reveals itself to him -- in the field, up a tree, under the hay in the barn, beneath the eaves. As Richard Jefferies says in an essay on White, ``For it is in this quietness that the invisible becomes visible.''
But should the invisible choose to remain invisible, White, infinitely curious, took steps to search out its secrets -- dissecting an owl or a viper, measuring the dimensions of a dead moose, examining the craw of a buzzard, tearing out the tiles of a house roof, digging up a mud bank where he thought martins might be dozing in their ``hybernacula.''
He is also a fine writer, unclut-tered, unaffected -- his words, his phrases, his images seeming always right. He sought the right vocabulary, the ``granivorous tribe'' of hard-billed birds; the ``exasperated matrons'' of the barnyard, or hens attacking a sparrow hawk; or the sedge bird, a ``delicate polyglot.''
He also captured what he heard to make the actions live -- the fern owl, sounding like the ``clattering of a castanet,'' or the ``quick dactyls,'' and the ``slow, heavy, embarrassed spondees'' of his experiments with echoes. Influenced by the Bible and by 17th-century poetic rhythms, he heard his words in sequence. Of a titlark befuddled by a cuckoo: ``The dupe of a dam appeared at a distance.'' Of maternal devotion: ``This affection sublimes the passions, quickens the invention, and sharpens the sagacity of the brute creation.'' No, he does not compel, but his sentences do, needing to be read up to the end.
His comparisons are imaginative, original, still powerful evocations of the sights and sounds he was capturing with words -- in that age of gunners, collectors, and cataloguers. His pet tortoise, Timothy, moves forward with a pace ``little exceeding the hour hand of a clock.'' And then there are the insects that ``sport in the sun-beams of a summer evening,'' or the rooks with ``a flight of starlings for their satellites.''
But none of these technical achievements would, I think, have been appreciated by so many years of readers, if not for the appeal of the way he lived. He was busy, but never so busy that he missed the life before his eyes. Reading his book is like taking a walk with him. He is a turn from the highway to the yard where we notice the gossamer shower of cobwebs ``twinkling like stars as they turned their sides towards the sun,'' or listen carefully to a swallow taking a fly, ``like the noise of the shutting of a watch-case.''
He invites us to the satisfactions of living on the small scale, sharing in observations that ``by degrees may pave the way to an universal correct natural history.'' Of Addison, C. S. Lewis said, ``He is an admirable cure for the fidgets.'' White could cure Addison's fidgets.
White has been criticized for narrowness of vision, especially for ignoring major social events of his time -- the Seven Years' War, the American Revolution -- and for rarely referring to people, but in this natural history, he did not intend a historical or social chronicle, nor do we have evidence that he was unfriendly, reclusive. Hints elsewhere in his writing suggest otherwise.
He was remarkable, though, for his concentration, for his focus on those small things to which he gives his time, as a clerihew by Bentley lightly suggests: `Dinner-time?' said Gilbert White `Yes, Yes -- all right. Just let me finish this note About the Lesser White-bellied Stoat.'
In spite of his missed meals, or perhaps because of them, White is finally inspiring to those drawn to close-up views. James Russell Lowell said that reading White made him want to get up and go outdoors.
White is father to those who work in nature's laboratory, to those who just now are discovering the crucial interdependencies of life, and especially to those who make the natural world the subject of their prose. In ``Road of a Naturalist,'' Donald Culross Peattie describes his own writing:
``I have said that I am a reporter by profession, and attempt to be also a water-carrier. By this I mean one who fetches refreshment to those who do the fighting.''
Among fetchers of refreshment, White was in the vanguard.
Darwin compared visiting White's house to visiting a shrine, but I had little sense of pilgrimage until I entered the churchyard, by the yew tree, already 1,000 years old in White's time.
He wrote often of this tree, and there it still stands, with six props for canes supporting its wearied limbs. Mr. White's yew. From there I went to the rear of the 12th-century church, to the gravestone, reading only: GW. 16th June. 1793 Did I then hear a noise like the shutting of a watchcase? Or did I simply imagine it again the way White wrote it?