‘The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire . . .’ Thus begins possibly the most famous book on natural history in the English language, and one of the enduring influences on our modern view of the English countryside. Gilbert White published his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the County of Southampton in 1789 (though nothing should be made of the significance of the revolutionary year – then, as now, publishers, anxious that their books should not seem dated too quickly, sometimes anticipated a little, and the book in fact first went on sale in November 1788).
I am embarrassed to confess that although I grew up within 25 miles of Selborne, and frequently drove (or was driven) past the turning for the village, I have no memory of ever having visited it. Odd, considering the frequency of our various weekend excursions in my father’s ancient (and long gone, though now possibly extremely valuable?) Rover, and my vociferous interest in birds and animals. There was an old Penguin copy of White in the house, too, but I don’t think I ever looked at it, in spite of the owls on the cover.
But one of the things I thought I knew about White was that he was the vicar of Selborne – the archetypal country parson with an interest in bird-watching – and this turns out to be incorrect. His grandfather, also Revd Gilbert White (1650–1728), was the vicar, and young Gilbert was in fact born at the vicarage, on 18 July 1720, but his father was a barrister, of sufficiently independent means that after his marriage he ceased to practise, and when Gilbert was eight, he bought a house – The Wakes – in the village, which remained in the family for over 100 years.
White’s education – local school, grammar school at Basingstoke, Oriel College, Oxford – was conventional, and his time at university is curiously echoed by Charles Darwin ninety years later: the hunting, shooting, rambles in the countryside, card-play, and accrual of debts. (White wrote everything down in his account books, including the expenditure involved in advertising (via the town crier) for his lost dog, Fairey, and paying a reward to the man who found her.) He graduated in 1743, was ordained deacon in 1747, and for about fifteen years his life revolved between Oxford and Selborne, with additional social visiting across the south of England. But during this life of relative leisure and relative luxury, he had begun in 1751 to keep a journal, first of his gardening activity at The Wakes (which became his own home on the death of his father in 1758), and then of observations of natural history: the weather, the arrival of migrating birds, curiosities which like-minded friends and neighbours had brought his way.
From his journals, and with the encouragement of friends – including the zoologist Thomas Pennant, Daines Barrington, a barrister and creator of the Naturalist’s Journal (a diary-like book formatted for the entry of daily observations), John Mulso, clergyman, naturalist and brother of Mrs Chapone, and (inevitably) Joseph Banks, whom White first met shortly before the voyage of the Endeavour which was to make him famous – White began to work on a book, epistolary in genre, which slowly revealed the minutiae of the environment of one specific place, from the geology to the plants and wildlife, and (often overlooked in modern editions) the archaeology and history, which in combination made this village unique, but also mysteriously archetypal.
Two things are immediately striking: one is that taxonomy was still floating, with both Ray’s and Linnaeus’s nomenclature often given; the other that not everything even had a name. To one raised on the Ladybird and Observer’s Books of Birds, Eggs, Flowers, etc. etc. (and even more, I imagine, to anyone who expects to google a bird and get an immediate, detailed answer), the idea that some birds did not have names in the eighteenth century is strange. One wonders if the learned scientists wrestling with the problems of taxonomy had asked the rude forefathers of their hamlets – perhaps Goody Marshall, sent from Selborne to Oxford to nurse Master Gilbert through the smallpox – what they called such and such a bird?
Less odd, perhaps, is the uncertainty about where some birds go in the winter time – hibernation still seemed more plausible to some than migration, and it is a question to which White often returns. He knew that swallows are found in Africa, but he could not believe that those birds and his were the same – the distance and the navigational demands just seemed impossible; and how much more so for the warblers and other birds which hopped about the hedgerows rather than spending much time in the air?
Some birds, however, did definitely disappear, like the blackcap – ‘never seen in the winter’ – and this gives rise to another train of thought. This winter I have had blackcaps more than once in my Cambridge garden. Climate change? And another modern tendency – the attempt to reintroduce vanished species – was alive and well in Selborne: ‘General Howe turned out some German wild boars and sows in his forests, to the great terror of the neighbourhood . . . but the country rose upon them and destroyed them’, which sounds not unlike the response of some Norfolk farmers to the prospect of sea eagles being reintroduced to their area.
White himself is credited in the ODNB with the differentiation of the three English species of leaf warbler, the identification of the lesser whitethroat, and the discovery of the harvest mouse and the noctule bat. Which brings us to the title of this piece: it had not occurred to me (me, with my classical education and all) that the most common modern meaning of ‘nondescript’ – ‘undistinguished, dull, boring’ – is secondary. ‘Non-descript’ is, literally, ‘not described’ – or, as in the case of White’s harvest mice, of which he preserved some specimens in brandy, ‘not previously described’.
It is impossible not to enjoy his accurate yet loving descriptions of the flowers, the trees, the hoard of Roman coins found in Woolmer pond, the ‘hybernaculum’ of the hedgehog, but above all of the birds – the flycatchers shielding their young from the heat, the swifts (every year precisely eight pairs), the mistle-thrushes, with their ‘wild and desultory flight’. The book seems never to have been out of print since 1789, and new editions with commentaries and illustrations are frequent. White hoped his scientific treatise might induce his readers ‘to pay a more ready attention to the wonders of Creation’; but whether he intended to or not, he also created an enduring literary masterpiece.