The science of watching


September 23, 1991|By William Amelia

THE ILLUSTRATED NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE. By Gilbert White. First published in 1789. Published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. 256 pages. 124 color plates. $25.

GILBERT WHITE, the 18th-century English clergyman and naturalist, is remembered more for his nature field notes than for his Sunday sermons.

White's field notes, in point of fact, made him famous. They were the basis for his classic work of English literature, which continues to be a model for nature writers. Informative and entertaining, the notes respect virtually every nuance of nature. White once observed, for example, that owls hoot in B flat.

What distinguishes White's observations from all others is their concentration. He made a science of watching during a life-long study of his tiny Hampshire village of Selborne. A quiet, obscure place, it nonetheless provided ample material for his timeless book, "The Natural History of Selborne." Despite the book's narrow focus on local matters of nature, its appeal is extraordinary, and new editions continue to be published. It is PTC the fourth most-published book in the English language, and it has brought enduring fame to the author and Selborne.

White's work is actually a collection of his correspondence, a remarkable series of letters, written from his field notes, to Daines Barrington, a lawyer and amateur naturalist, and Thomas Pennant, the eminent zoologist of the time. Much of the book's success is due to the first-hand nature of the observations of living animals and the apparent spontaneity of a genuine correspondence spanning 20 years.

In a prefatory note, White explained his purpose: "The author of the following letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of a parochial history, which he thinks ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities." White was undoubtedly a gifted writer and observer, but he also had the good fortune to live in a part of the country with a great variety of plant and animal life.

The book's first edition actually comprised two parts -- the Pennant and Barrington letters followed by a parish history of antiquities. There was never much reader interest in the second part, and it was omitted from later editions. Only a few of the letters were actually written for the book. Although work on it began around 1770, it was not until 1789 that it was published -- just four years before White died.

White was primarily influenced by Barrington. The latter had invented "The Naturalists' Journal" as a diary for nature notes and had presented one of these volumes to White in 1768. Barrington's remarkable journal became the repository for White's important observations on natural history. White was never without it and made regular entries until a few days before his death.

In a century when many naturalists traveled the world to collect and study animals and plants, White's methods were completely different. He never went abroad. Moreover, his travels within Britain were limited by his coach-sickness. When he did travel, it was on foot or on horseback. But Selborne was the focal point of his life.

White was especially interested in birds. He was drawn to the intriguing topic of bird migration, particularly of the swallow family. He regularly recorded the earliest and latest dates on which birds were seen, as well as observations on their habitat, ++ mating and nesting.

White was a man of the country who considered himself "an outdoor naturalist, one that takes observations from the subject itself and not from the writings of others." His strong belief in the value of first-hand observation was at the center of his views on natural history. He died in 1793 and was buried, according to his instructions, in the churchyard at Selborne "in as plain and private a way as possible." He requested that "six honest day-laboring men may bear me to my grave, to whom I appoint the sum of 10 shillings each for their trouble."

William Amelia, an ardent bird-watcher, runs a Baltimore public relations firm.

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