October 16, 2011

Senescence

Cow parsley seed-heads
Today we went to Selborne, the Hampshire village that was once home to parish curate and parochial naturalist Gilbert White. There, everything is in abundant decay, from the leaf mould carpeting the beech hangar on the high chalk hill to the stump of the famous Selborne Yew, thought to be around 1,500 years old when it was blown down in a gale in 1990.

When I call Gilbert White 'parochial' it is with heartfelt respect. The term was coined by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh: "parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals", he said. "To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime's experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience."

White knew everything about his parish: which day the swallows would return (though not where they had been); where the bats roosted; why the martins favoured some eaves over others for their nests. He observed, minutely, how animals and plants lived their lives; moreover, those everyday creatures overlooked by other gentlemen-scholars of the time. His diaries and letters remain an invaluable resource, and his contribution to British natural history was immeasurable.