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.
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.
Gilbert White's House Home to White-related material (including the original manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne), the Oates Museum, a gift shop, a tearoom, and 10 acres of gardens. At press time some parts of the house and museum were closed for restoration and renovation. THE WAKES, HIGH ST., SELBORNE; 44-1420/511-275
The Queens Selborne & the Limes Annexe A 10-room hotel with restaurant. DOUBLES FROM $112 HIGH ST., SELBORNE; 44-1420/511-454