1789 is a year best remembered for the cataclysm dawning across the channel, but it was also the official publishing date of the fourth most published book in the english language, one which to this day has maintained its reputation for stilling the heart with its evocation of simple bucolic contentment. The Natural History of Selborne became one of the favourite literary comforts of those travelling overseas in the service of the expanding Empire during the following century and the type of life its author lived gave encouragement to those who came to regret the passing of a ,however idealised, less complex past. The new display at White’s family home, the Wakes, features a number of quotations praising Gilbert- including those you would expect to pay him his due for his contribution to the development of Natural History, such as Gerald Durrell and Charles Darwin- but the most poignant is from the poet Edward Thomas-
‘In this present year,1915, at least,it is hard to find a flaw in the life he led’
The first dated letter to be found in the book is one to his fellow naturalist friend Thomas Pennant, and it is dated the 22nd January 1768. Much of it concerns his reflections on the migration of birds based on his observation of huge flocks of chaffinches gathering in the woods around Selborne every December and reports he had received of the great numbers of wheatears which turned up near the south coast every September.Many regard him as the father of ornithology because of his exact observation of the behaviour of birds and his willingness to analyse it! One of the shocks for us, possibly,is that he alludes in a matter of fact way to the mass trapping of wheatears to supplement the diet of and, income of, those who had to scatch aliving from the land.
When I was given my first bird books , when I was a boy, I was always sceptical of the assertion that the chaffinch was Britain’s most common bird as where I lived, in the then obscure south midlands railway town, Bletchley, the roost was firmly ruled by house sparrows. I can still not imagine what a massive flock of chaffinches would look like, although I did recently see a small flock which exactly reversed his reported proportions, as mine was almost totally male whereas in his there was a preponderance of females.
If you look out for chaffinches at the moment you will notice that the males have regained their breeding season splendour with their caps looking like grey slate caught by the summer sun.