“If people that live in the country would take a little pains, daily observations might be made with respect to animals, and particularly regarding their actions and economy, which are the life and soul of natural history”.
Gilbert White 12 May 1770
2020 marks the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of the parson-naturalist Gilbert White (18 July 1720 – 26 June 1793), regarded as ‘the father of ecology’, or as Bill Oddie put it memorably, ‘the man who got us all birdwatching’. White’s careful recording of the natural history of Selborne inspired Charles Darwin and many others and directly influenced the growth and development of the natural sciences.
Gilbert White was a man who:
o Was the first to ‘observe nature narrowly’, and act on it, demonstrating that the individual could make a difference
o Influenced the thinkers and scientific innovators of his time and later
o Taught the importance of living in harmony with the natural world
“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.”
Gilbert White – Letter XX
Who was Gilbert White?
Gilbert White was born in Selborne and spent most of his life in the village, dying there in 1793. For over 40 years he ministered to the village – he recorded 313 people as living in the village in 1783. He adored Selborne and its people. “The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, …near mid-way between the towns of Alton and Petersfield. The soils of this district are almost as various and diversified as the views and aspects. The high part of the south-west consists of a vast hill of chalk, rising three hundred feet above the village, and is divided into a sheep-down, the high wood and a long hanging wood, called The Hanger…. We abound with poor; many of whom are sober and industrious, and live comfortably in good stone or brick cottages, which are glazed, and have chambers above stairs: mud buildings we have none. Besides the employment from husbandry the men work in hop gardens, of which we have many; and fell and bark timber. The inhabitants enjoy a good share of health and longevity: and the parish swarms with children.”
18th C Selborne – illustration by Hieronymous Grimm for The Natural History of Selborne
Gilbert White’s great book, The Natural History of Selborne, was published in 1789. Glowing reviews from contemporaries turned it into a best seller - “ A sagacity of observation runs through the work. Men of intelligence like him are wanted, to promote an intimacy between the library and the plough.”(The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1789). “A more delightful, or more original work than Mr. White’s History of Selborne has seldom been published.” (The Topographer, April 1789.) “The Natural History of Selborne ought to have a place among the household books of every English family” (The Quarterly Review, January, 1828).
The Natural History of Selborne has gone through countless editions, in dozens of languages, and is now one the world’s most published and admired books.