Without Gilbert White, natural history would not have developed as it has over the past two centuries. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne became the first widely distributed, and most widely read, work in English on the subject. Educated at Oriel College Oxford, White was an ordained minister who never wandered far from his small village in Hampshire. He began his journal in 1751, publishing his gardening remarks as Calendar of Flora and the Garden in 1765. This work was followed by The Naturalist‘s Journal, in which he ranged well beyond the flowers surrounding his own house and sought to present a more comprehensive view of the natural world in his neighborhood. He described himself as a “faunist” and claimed that his goal was to record “the life and conversation of animals.” After almost two decades of observation and record keeping, he published A Natural History of Selborne in 1788. The volume included letters to his friends (Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington) on various natural history subjects. The book was a resounding success from its first appearance and has gone through dozens of editions down to the present day. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, and W. H. Auden, among many others, have recorded their debts to White’s careful visual record keeping, his profound sense of the richness of the ordinary natural objects around him, and his willingness to ascribe various levels of perception and feeling to the animal kingdom.

White’s work was significant for its attention to the details of his surroundings, his observational skills, and his casual yet engaging prose style. In addition, White often gives the objects of his scrutiny a value for their own sake. He does not always present the natural world solely in terms of its significance to human beings. Nature may provoke powerful responses in White, but his version of “nature” does not seem to be here only for the benefit of human beings. In addition, he consistently combines personal observation with scientific curiosity. He does not accept colloquial thinking about topics such as migration or hibernation at face value. Rather, White presents personally observed facts and direct evidence to support his claims about the living world around him. He also embodies a powerfully proto-ecological sense of the interrelatedness and interdependence of animals, insects, plants, and even inorganic substances. White takes a methodical approach to his record-keeping and queries about particular species, but he also employs lyrical observation, figurative imagery, and rhetorical flourishes that are occasionally worthy of a poet.

 

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