Monday, May 27, 2013

The small and the great


I've done some scientific tourism in my day, including my 100 mile solo walk along the prime meridian in England that took me, among other places, to Darwin's home in Kent, Newton's quarters at Cambridge, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. I've looked at Galileo's finger in Florence and spent several happy hours at Linnaeus's charming country house at Hammarby in Sweden. Among these and many other places, I must say my favorite was the home of the naturalist Gilbert White in Selborne, England.

It would be hard to find a more charming English village than Selborne, its idyllic quiet disturbed only by nature tourists such as me. Thatched roof cottages, two pubs, peaceful walks in woods and meadows, a parish church with a wonderful stained-glass window of Saint Francis preaching to the birds, every species mentioned in White's classic The Natural History of Selborne.

White is generally considered to be the first naturalist, as we would understand that term today. He kept a keen eye on every aspect of his village: birds, beasts, insects, plants, geology, weather. There is little that escaped his attention. His book has been in print for two centuries. I know it from the pocket-sized Oxford World Classic series. I see from Amazon that there are now several new editions, including one for Kindle.

Almost better than the Natural History are White's journals, which he kept religiously from 1768 till his death in 1793. I own the 1970 reprint by MIT Press of the first published English edition. Amazon lists several editions of the journals, including MIT's, but none seems to be in print. A shame.

This post was prompted by a tour I just took around Selborne using Google Steeet View. Go to Selborne in Google Maps and move the little yellow guy around the village. Not much seems to have changed since I was there 40 years ago.

I've written here before about Gilbert White and a search of the archives will add more to his story (site:www.sciencemusings.com "gilbert white"). I would add only this, an epigraph to the MIT Journals, from a poem about White by A. C. Benson"
This was thy daily task, to learn that man
Is small, and not forget that man is great.