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Instruction Manual

Volunteer and author Louis Coulson explains why The Natural History of Selborne is the perfect book for your desert island discs list!

Desert Island Discs was for many years a BBC Radio classic. A celebrity interviewee was asked which eight 'gramophone records' (as they were quaintly called) he or she would wish to be shipwrecked with on a desert island. But how would a castaway would deal with the traditional Eight Gramophone Records? I mean, in the days of the wind-up gramophone there was no problem; you simply rewound the clockwork spring. But a truly desert island presumably would be without electricity, so on one’s growing list of in dispensables to be salvaged, one should not forget, in the mayhem of one’s shipwreck, to include ... a solar generator, perhaps? In the matter of the vital allowance of books, however, I, at any rate, would find no problem. The BBC would provide the castaway with his or her statutory ration of something called The-Bible-and-Shakespeare (this, remember, was in the Reith era) plus One Book. I believe that in some special cases one can bargain for an extra book, and upon this I should insist.

My a) choice would have to be my handy one-volume Jane Austen Omnibus. My b) choice (not necessarily in that order) would consist of (and here I might have to go second-hand) The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by the Revd Gilbert White. (N.B. - Don’t leave out the Antiquities; the bits which aren’t totally incomprehensible are ‘full as entertaining’ as the best of the N. H.) - Ideally, an old edition might include the bits and bobs out of Mr W’s Naturalist’s Journals which were included by certain old-time editors, from his nephews John and Benjamin onwards. These ‘Observations on Various Parts of Nature’ were inserted when the book was still a handbook of nature study; but today, in the wondrous Age of Attenborough, I’d take them just for the sake of having as much GW in one volume as possible.

But if the NHS may now be considered a little outdated as a field handbook, what it will continue to be for the foreseeable future is an Instruction Manual on How to Observe. There is always much to learn from Gilbert White’s patience, care, and scrupulous accuracy, and from his ‘candour’ – an amiable 18th-century word meaning a combination of scrupulous honesty with good-nature or a willingness to believe the best. (We could do with some of that today...) So here are just a few specimen ‘Instructions’. You will doubtless find many more. [The references TP and DB stand for the Letters to Thomas Pennant (traveller, naturalist and prolific author) and Daines Barrington (Judge, scientist, and Fellow of the Royal Society). Both men, incidentally, were White's 'social superiors' (for an idea of how this worked, read between-the-lines of the peerless Pride and Prejudice or worse, Emma), but somehow he came to be their instructor.

1. Don’t Despise your Own Doorstep.

All nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined. (TP 20).

2. Be Careful about Hearsay...

I mentioned this circumstance to you in my letter ... you however paid but small regard to what I said, as I had not seen these birds myself.... (TP 20)

3. And make sure your Informant is Reliable.

With regard to the stone-curlew, I intend to write very soon to my friend near Chichester.... and as I have prevailed on him to buy the Naturalist’s Journal, ... I shall expect that he will be very exact in his dates. (TP 21) I wouldn’t dare be anything else!

4. "What They Say" may have a Perfectly Rational Explanation –

The white owl does indeed snore and hiss in a tremendous manner; and... I have known a whole village up in arms on such an occasion, imagining the church-yard to be full of goblins and spectres. (DB 15)

5. - but sometimes you should give the Benefit of the Doubt.

.... candour forbids me to say absolutely that any fact is false, because I have never been witness to such a fact. [By ‘fact’ GW means a factual statement, whether true or false.] (TP 21)

6. Be Methodical about Keeping Records...

For many months I carried a list in my pocket of birds that were to be remarked, and as I rode or walked about my business, I noted each day the continuance or omission of each bird’s song; so that I am as sure of the certainty of my facts as a man can be of any transaction whatsoever. (DB 3)

7. ... a little Extra Effort may Surprise you.

Among White’s discoveries was that of the scary mating habits of the Swift. He relates this in a hairraising account for the Royal Society, making it sound like the Mile High Club. (‘Nice’ means close, or exact.) NOTE: Kindly ignore the distorted re-telling of this passage in the film Becoming Jane. ... I would wish any nice observer, that is startled at this supposition, to use his own eyes, and I think he will soon be convinced.... If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see, every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek. (DB 21)

8. A True Observer can’t afford to be Self-conscious....

Hedge-sparrows [in winter]... procure worms, which are stirring every month in the year, as any one may see that will only be at the trouble of taking a candle to a grass-plot on any mild winter’s night. (TP 41; see also DB 35.)

9. .... but be Careful not to Disturb the Neighbours ...

... it does not appear from experiment that bees are in any way capable of being affected by sounds: for I have often tried my own with a large speaking-trumpet held close to their hive, and with such an exertion of voice as would have hailed a ship at the distance of a mile, and still these insects pursued their various employments undisturbed, and without shewing the least sensibility or resentment. (DB 38)

10. ... they may not appreciate the same things as you do.

... in deep snows, I have seen [the great titmouse], while it hung with its back downwards (to my no small delight and admiration), draw straws lengthwise from out the eaves of thatched houses, in order to pull out the flies that were concealed between them, and in such numbers that they quite defaced the thatch, and gave it a ragged appearance. (TP41) [ though actually, GW records in his Naturalist's Journal that his brewhouse was the sparrow's favoured location.]

11. Be patient, and Persevere...

The ‘grasshopper-lark’ is now called the grasshopper warbler, as if you couldn’t guess. The grasshopper-lark began his sibilous note in my fields last Saturday.... It is a most artful creature, sculking in the thickest part of a bush; and will sing at a yard distance, provided it be concealed. I was obliged to get a person to go on the other side of the hedge where it haunted; and then it would run, creeping like a mouse, before us for an hundred yards together, through the bottom of the thorns; yet it would not come into fair sight. (TP 16.) That’s the polite version, for publication. Gilbert felt free to express his real feelings about this elusive bird in a private letter to his brother John: I cannot procure a grass-hopper lark. They are such shy, skulking varlets; such troglodytes, such hedge-creepers, there is no knowing where to have them. [August 11, 1774.]

12. Circumstances may make Observation Even More Difficult.

While inspecting the carcase of a Moose at the Duke of Richmond’s at Goodwood: ... the length of the legs before and behind consisted a great deal in the tibia, which was strangely long; but, in my haste to get out of the stench, I forgot to measure that joint exactly. [TP 29]

13. Respect the Natural World for its Own Sake. It isn’t your personal property.

... see the swallow sweep the darkling plain ... Amusive birds! – say where your hid retreat When the frost rages and the tempests beat; Whence your return, by such nice instinct led, When spring, soft season, lifts her bloomy head? Such baffled searches mock man’s prying pride, The GOD of NATURE is your secret Guide! [TP 24; and see DB 41]

13. After all, other Creatures are People too, in their own way

---- A friend had one horse, and a solitary hen, who shared the same field... By degrees an apparent regard began to take place between these two sequestered individuals. The fowl would approach the quadruped with a note of complacency, rubbing herself gently against his legs: while the horse would look down with satisfaction, and move with the greatest caution and circumspection, lest he should trample on his diminutive companion. [DB 24]

15. --- they are social, but not snobbish(?)

There is a wonderful spirit of sociality in the brute creation ... Oxen and cows wil not fatten by themselves, but will neglect the finest pasture that is not recommended by Society. [DB 24]

But it’s best to read Gilbert White’s book for yourself – and the Journals if you can get hold of them – and absorb his ever-fresh awareness. However, it might be stretching a point to get all those books on to a desert island. (And, before the days of vinyl, think of lugging those old fashioned shellac records up the beach; they weighed a ton.) And by the time you had managed to scratch a meal, you’d be too tired to read anyway.