The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne Paperback – Illustrated, 13 Apr 2004
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This book itself is a gentle stroll on foot and horseback through the seasons and landscapes of Selborne during the second half of the 1700's. This is a landscape rich in wildlife and character, and the author has both the skill as a naturalist and writer to bring it to life through the letters he writes - in many ways this is the blog from the 18th Century! But it is also so much more than just the random jottings of an observant man. Questions are pursued over the course of many years, and a good number of ideas and observations are floated that in time would become more important - and more well known. Only in one area does White really stray significantly from current understanding, and that is in his long search for evidence of hibernation in birds, especially those of the "swift and swallow kind".
My only criticism of the book relates to its layout rather than its style or content. Given the need to refer to the notes provided at regular intervals I would have preferred then to have been placed at the bottom of the page rather than at the back of the book, where they tend to act as a "break" on the flow of the text.
In some ways the list of (especially) birds he knows as common, but which are now rare, restricted or extinct in the area, is a marker of how much our landscapes have changed with the passing of the years. But in other ways they show what a skilled observer can find within one local area. In the "Advertisement" at the start of the book White hopes that he may induce his "readers to pay a more ready attention to the wonders of Creation". In this time of rapid environmental change "ready attention" to the world around us would still be highly valuable.
This book taught me how to examine the world around me, but it also offers the guilty pleasure of complete escapism. What could be safer then 1780's Southern England, as yet untouched by industry? Gilbert creates a world where human concerns do not exist and the rhythm of the natural world is all through this collection of letters to his friends.
This is essentially a collection of White's well-meaning observations, some of which are amazingly accurate, others now known to be incorrect. However, the shear joy of his writing makes this one of those books that you wish there were more pages in once you have completed it. (How many Eighteenth Century books can you honestly say are a joy to read?)
Whilst this edition lacks the footnotes of the Penguin version of this book that highlight the errors and amplifications to his discoveries, this edition must surely get the nod for it's beautiful illustrations of the mammals. birds and plants by some of Gilbert White's contemporaries. This is, in fact, just how he wished the book to be published and makes this copy something to really treasure.
Given that he is believed to have had no optical aid such as binoculars(his fellows shot the birds for him!!), you can only marvel at how accurate he was. After all, it was White who initially distinguished the difference between Chiffchaff, Willow and Wood Warblers. This is still difficult for this birdwatching reveiwer. He was a fastidious observer of swifts , swallows and martins that abounded in the village back then. (I counted only 8 martin nests this summer - who says there is no such thing as global warming ? )
This book, one of my favourites, is easily deserving of more than five stars. A brilliant piece of literature. Incidently, Selbourne is still good for birdwatching today, even if many of the birds of White's day are no longer found in the village.
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