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Past Meets Present in Selborne, England

Every traveler knows the anticlimax of arriving. For me, it became a clue to what I valued in White's writing. When I saw the view that he would have seen out his kitchen window, aha was the only word that occurred to me. But some larger aha was missing. I'd spent so much time in the literary Selborne that the questions the real Selborne answered seemed, at first, almost trivial. I'd spent so much timeimmersed in White's exquisite sense of place that when I came to Selborne, my own sense of place seemed almost hollow.

When I heard rooks cawing in their nests, high in the beechesabove the Hanger, I heard not the rooks themselves but an allusion to that wonderful passage in The Natural History of Selborne in which White describes their sound as "a confused noise or chiding; or rather a pleasing murmur, very engaging to the imagination, and not unlike the cry of a pack of hounds in hollow, echoing woods, or the rushing of the wind in tall trees, or the tumbling of the tide upon a pebbly shore." I heard a nightingale sing in the underbrush and thought of White's journal entry from April 26, 1781—a week short of 221 years earlier than my visit to Selborne. "A pair of Nightingales haunt my fields," he wrote, "the cock sings nightly in the Portugal-laurel, & balm of Gilead fir."

What I realized, of course, was something very simple. To me, each bird, each irregularity in the landscape, was a window onto some place other than the place I was. I was trying to look through Selborne at Selborne, if that makes sense. But the immediacy, the purity of White's observations of the natural world arise from the fact that he almost never tries to look through the natural world, only directly at it. When writing, as he did on September 6, 1789, "I see only now & then a wasp," he's thinking of his efforts to keep the wasps from eating his peaches and apricots, nothing more. I see only now and then a wasp, too, but it doesn't sound the same. In Selborne—the real Selborne—I realized for the first time how completely Gilbert White gave his attention to every manner of creature that lived in that parish.

And I realized something else, something that at last made me feel indescribably present in that place. I had spent two days walking in and around the parish, up to the top of the Hanger along a zigzag path that White and his brothers built, along the streams behind the church where he sometimes preached. "Hollow vales and hanging woods"—that's how White describes Selborne's setting. I heard birdsong after birdsong, always listening the way a birder does in unfamiliar terrain, trying to decide just which birds are singing. But at some point I stopped asking the question. The identity of the voices suddenly became less important than their quality and how the landscape shaped them. I began to hear the room in which the birds actually sang and to hear what an extraordinary room it was.

One morning I stood in a pasture behind White's house that was once a part of his garden. It lies almost in the shadow of the Hanger. The grass spreads in linked pastures along the back of the village, and you always have the sense that the Hanger is somehow looking over your shoulder. Birds clamored near and far, and as I listened, I knew that what made the vast hill of chalk so important to White wasn't only the way it loomed over Selborne. It was also the way it gathered birdsong, amplifying it and causing it to echo up and down the back of the village. White lived in a golden bowl of birdsong, a golden bowl that has gone unchanged in all this time. He went to bed at night, as I did in Selborne, with the singing of birds ringing in his ears. Suddenly I knew the answer to a question I had never thought to ask. Gilbert White wrote about birds for the same reason a sailor writes about the sea.


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