Saturday, April 21, 2012

Of nightingales and whistling plovers -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared September 12, 2007.)

Exactly 220 years ago today, Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne, England, wrote in his journal:
Lapwings leave the low grounds, & come to the uplands in flocks. A pair of honey-buzzards, & a pair of wind-hovers appear to have young in the hanger. The honey-buzzard is a fine hawk, & skims about in a majectic manner.
White is the granddaddy of all of us who write about the natural world. I own two copies of The Natural History of Selborne: the little Oxford World Classics edition; and the Frederwick Warne edition of a century ago, with its associated extras. Best of all, in a funny way, is the MIT edition of White's journals I keep dipping into. There is something fresh and unstudied about the fragmentary journals, as if one were in the company of White himself.

I once had the very great pleasure of visiting Selborne, a tiny village nestled in a quiet dale about forty miles southwest of London. I walked through the rooms of the beautiful old house on the village green where White lived from 1730 until his death in 1793. I visited the garden behind the house, where he tended vegetables, flowers, and fruit, and where Timothy the tortoise presided. I tramped the beechwood "hanger" above the village, where White saw the lapwings, and the path that follows the gentle brook that flows from Selborne village to the ruins of old Selborne Priory.

To visit Selborne is to step back into history, into a time, when the natural environment still pressed close upon consciousness and the migrations of lapwings could serve to punctuate the year.
Jan. 15. Hailstones in the night.

Jan. 25. Snow gone. The wryneck pipes.

Feb. 17. Partridges are paired.

Feb. 21. Ashed the two meadows.

Mar. 14. Daffodil blows.
White's world has nearly vanished. Today, the products of the Industrial Revolution press close upon Selborne. The village itself is protected -- like Walden Pond, it is a place of pilgrimage for naturalists from around the world -- but a drive of three miles in any direction from the village brings one back to the reality of busy highways, railroads, electrical pylons, and urban sprawl. Preserving what is left of the world that White so affectionately recorded will require vigilance and love.
Apr. 10. Therm. 72!!! Prodigious heat: clouds of dust.

Apr. 12. Wheat mends. Barley-grounds work well.

Apr. 18. A nightingale sings in my fields. Young rooks.

Apr. 20. Some whistling plovers in the meadows toward the forest.

Apr. 27. Many swallows. Strong Aurora!!!