Gilbert White. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the County of Southampton. London: T. Bensley, for B. White and Son, 1789. Gift of Ethelinda Schaefer Castle ’08.

     
 

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While the exploration and discovery of exotic species of plants and animals inspired the public’s interest in natural history, there were also naturalists who focused on providing an account of local flora and fauna. The most widely read of these local British experts was Gilbert White (1720-1793), a curate who devoted his life to studying the flora and fauna of his native village of Selborne. His book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, consists of a compilation of letters written by White to the British zoologist Thomas Pennant and the barrister Daines Barrington between the years 1767 and 1787. Personal observation was a key to White’s methodology. Without the use of binoculars he identified several new species of birds. He also related what he had read by other naturalists to what he could observe in his village.


 White’s book includes a foldout illustration of a view overlooking Selborne, which demonstrates the local nature of White’s study. However, an image of a series of fossils he found in Selborne shows that White was also aware of scientific inquiry into the geological development of the entire world. His writing predominantly considers the behavior of birds, although he addresses many topics, including topography, weather, and agriculture. White was particularly interested in long-distance migration by birds, a topic which was much debated at the time. Some scholars have called him an “early ecologist” because of his strong belief in the importance of respect for nature, and his call for observation instead of collection. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was extremely popular when it was first published, and has remained in print ever since.  Although his scientific discoveries were minor, the sense of human engagement with nature on a local scale has resonated with readers for generations, including the young Charles Darwin:


From reading White’s Selborne I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds & even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity I wondered why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.   

 

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