Friday, September 14, 2007

I said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow

When I was a child, I was puzzled by the English rhyme "Who killed cock robin." The stolid American robin seemed an unlikely victim of a sparrow. It was only when I crossed the Atlantic and saw the endearing sparrow-sized European robin that the crime excited the appropriate sympathy.

The cock robin rhyme is perhaps of medieval origin. It first appeared in print in the nursery book "The Pretty Songs of Tommy Thumb," published in London in 1744, while Gilbert White was studying at Oxford. It was a time when birds were still a sufficiently intimate part of the cultural environment to be given Christian names. Thus we have Robin Redbreast, Jenny Wren, Tom Tit, Madge Magpie and Jack Curlew. All small birds were Dick, from which our Dickie-bird derives.

Gilbert White was a modern ornithologist at a time when most country folk were content to know Robin, Jenny, Tom, Madge and Jack. He was a keen observer of songs, behaviors, and breeding and nesting times. He was particularly attuned to curiosities and ironies. He tells us, for example, that the smallest British bird, the golden-crested wren, will be unconcerned as an observer approaches within three or four yards, whereas the largest British land bird, the bustard, will not allow a person to approach within as many furlongs.

During the years that White studied birds, Britain was engaged in dramatic events on the world's stage. Her colonies were in revolt. Her neighbor France stood on the brink of cataclysm. The Industrial Revolution was about to remake the landscape.

None of this intruded upon the quiet of White's Selborne; few hints of these greater social events are found within the pages of The Natural History of Selborne or in the author's daily journals. We find instead a world of lapwings, woodlarks, cuckoos, turtle doves, whinchats, linnets and wigeons, existing in a kind of Franciscan harmony with the villagers. These are the birds we find in the stained-glass window of Selborne parish church that commemorates White's world, a romanticized world that perhaps never existed even in White's time, but to which we can aspire: All creatures in attendance as Francis preaches his message of peace.