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Past Meets Present in Selborne, England

There are no reliable portraits of the man named Gilbert White, only a couple of quick ink sketches—doubtful likenesses at best. There's almost no contemporary testimony about his physical appearance, though he stood a little below average height and hunched his shoulders for emphasis when he talked. The absence of portraits wouldn't really be surprising, except that Gilbert White is the author of The Natural History of Selborne, a book that has been steadily in print, often in multiple editions, since the day it was first published in 1789, when White was 69 years old. It is the book, for many readers, that still defines the art of observing nature.

"The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, bordering on the county of Sussex, and not far from the county of Surrey." So The Natural History of Selborne begins. From such an opening, White might have gone on to write a novel about one of the leading families in the parish, with some account of the travails of the eldest son and the prettiest daughter. Like most people, White certainly enjoyed telling stories about the neighbors. But he preferred to tell stories about swifts and martins, cuckoos and curlews, about the dire winter weather and the softness of a welcome spring, about how the sheep were faring and what kind of summer the hay was having.

And rather than leave behind any image of himself, White left the world something much rarer and far more important. He left us the vision of one small place. He knew Selborne in a way that's almost unimaginable to us now. He was born within the parish and, apart from a few years at Oxford, lived his whole life there. He knew it as a naturalist and as an Anglican clergyman—as a naturalist, in other words, of the human soul. In The Natural History of Selborne, White mirrored Selborne as few places have ever been mirrored. He was the glass that leaves no image of itself, only of the world around it.

I had visited Selborne again and again in my reading. I knew my way down its "single straggling street." I knew how the soil changed dramatically from one side of the street to the other and how the Hanger—"a vast hill of chalk, rising three hundred feet above the village"—dominated White's garden and Selborne itself. But there's a kind of vanity in reading. We love the books we do, not only for themselves but for what we supply from our own imaginations as we read them. White's Selborne had become, in some sense, my Selborne, so much so that I had begun to write a book of my own about it. It became time to see what White's Selborne really looked like, to go there for real and not just in the pages of his journal.

I drove from Oxford in a little over an hour, slipping west of London and then south some 50 miles. I knew the pattern of place-names from White's letters—Dorchester, Wallingford, Pangborn, Aldermaston, Basingstoke, Alton, Faringdon—and they seemed to pass with indecent haste. Norton Farm flashed by—the final landmark—and then the road dipped and curved and narrowed, and became asingle straggling street set between housefronts bulwarked with pleached limes. Suddenly Selborne. Entering it was like being swallowed by another century. I should have been riding a gray mare named Mouse, the wayWhite would have been, or as well mounted as the woman sitting astride her horse outside the Queens & Limes, where I was going to stay.

White's house lay only a few steps back down the road. I admit that at first I noticed almost nothing of the house—now a museum devoted to White and (it's a long story) to Titus Oates, the Antarctic explorer. Much as White had loved it, the house had never framed his sense of nature. I knew what had the minute I stepped out the kitchen door. It was the garden, the broad field that lay beyond the garden, and then the Hanger, that long chalk hill clad in beech trees to the south.

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