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English Nature Writers: Gilbert White


I'm a literary Anglophile. There — I've confessed and we can move on. One of their really cool genres is nature writing. They do it in such a quiet and smooth style, as if they've lived in field and woods all their lives. (Dah!)

Perhaps the most famous, or at least the most referred to, is Gilbert White. An 18th century country parson in Somerset, with an easy living, i.e. church benefice, he seemed to have oodles of time to observe, and that's just what he did, in The Natural History of Selborne. It consists of letters; patient, modest, curious — they are wonderful bedside reading and a few each night will produce sweet, pastoral dreams. But don't take my word for its quality — it hasn't been out of print since it was first published in 1789. The picture is of my own book, one of those wonderful Oxford World's Classics, which fit into your pocket. Unfortunately NYPL doesn't own a circulating copy (I just placed a request, as you can, here.) You can also download the ebook from the Internet Archive.

Letter XXIV – Selborne, Aug. 15, 1775

Dear Sir,

There is a wonderful spirit of sociality in the brute creation, independent of sexual attachment: the congregation of gregarious birds in the winter is a remarkable instance…

Even great disparity of kind and size does not always prevent social advances and mutual fellowship. For a very intelligent and observant person has assured me that, in the former part of his life, keeping but one horse, he happened also on a time to have but one solitary hen. These two incongruous animals spent much of their time together in a lonely orchard, where they saw no creature but each other. By degrees an apparent regard began to take place between these two sequestered individuals. The fowl would approach the quadruped with notes of complacency, rubbing herself gently against his legs: while the horse would look down with satisfaction and move with the greatest caution and circumspection, lest he should trample on his diminutive companion. Thus, by mutual good offices, each seemed to console the vacant hours of the other: so that Milton, when he puts the following sentiment in the mouth of Adam, seems to be somewhat mistaken:

"Much less can bird with beast, or fish with fowl,
So well converse, nor with the ox the ape."

I am, etc. [Gilbert White]


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