Faith and Science: Gilbert White, Parson-Naturalist of Selborne

“How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature!”—Fanny Price in Mansfield Park

Like Fanny Price, Gilbert White found the varieties of nature astonishing and fascinating, showing the glory of their Creator.  White (1720-1793) was the curate at Selborne, only four miles from Chawton (where Austen spent the later years of her life, though she lived there after he died). He published his famous book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in 1789, when Austen was 24 years old. The book is still read and enjoyed today, more than 200 years later!

Selborne cover

Parson-Naturalists

Parson-naturalists, like White, were country clergymen who studied the world of nature around them, “natural history.”  The parson of a small country parish did not have rigorous or demanding duties, and often lived quietly in the countryside. Some used their time to contribute greatly to the developing sciences. In fact, William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, encouraged his son to go into the clergy because it would give him plenty of time for scientific pursuits! However his son, who did not agree with church teachings, ignored that advice.

White’s book often refers to John Ray, one of the earliest parson-naturalists (1627-1705). Ray wrote texts on plants, fish, animals, reptiles, and birds. Like William Paley in Austen’s time, Ray believed in “natural theology”; he wrote The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation.

Gilbert White, like Paley and Ray, assumes that nature points to and glorifies God. He occasionally breaks out in exclamations like, “the methods of Providence . . . astonish us in new lights, and in various and changeable appearances.” This was his response to the cuckoo, which somehow knows what types of birds’ nests to lay its eggs in.

White sometimes compares his observations to biblical events.  A plague of crickets invading houses is like the plague of frogs sent on Pharoah in Exodus 8. When he notes that white, horned sheep are only found on one side of a certain river, and black and white, hornless sheep on the other, he compares them to the separate flocks of Laban and Jacob in Genesis 30.

White’s Natural History is written as a series of letters to two naturalist friends (though some of the letters were actually written for the book, rather than sent as letters).  They are the results of White’s careful observations, mostly in his own parish as he went about his regular duties, for more than forty years. His writing is  full of anecdotes, poetic language, and insights.  White’s goal is to help his readers pay closer attention to “the wonders of the Creation” and gain knowledge. In any case, he is happy because his pursuits have kept “body and mind employed” and given him friends as well as “health and cheerfulness of spirits, even to old age.”

“The Man Who Started Us All Birdwatching”

White’s main interest was in ornithology. As a boy he spent a whole day watching a swallow. Later he discovered that swallows feed their young while flying, and even mate while flying (this passage is quoted, with some additions making it more provocative, in the movie Becoming Jane!). Looking up into a chimney inhabited by swallows, he doesn’t look for long, for fear that his “eyes might undergo the same fate with those of Tobit.” In the Apocryphal book of Tobit (2:10), warm droppings out of a swallow’s nest fell upon Tobit’s eyes and he became blind! (The Apocrypha includes books of the Bible accepted by some denominations, including Anglicans, though not by others.)

White carried around a list of birds that he was interested in. He listened for their songs and marked which ones he heard and did not hear each day, to find out when particular varieties visited the region. He discovered, by listening to birdsongs and observing minor differences in plumage, that the “willow wren” is actually three different species of birds. He was also the first to recognize the migration of ring-ousels (a type of thrush with a white collar).

Ring Ouzels
Ring-ousels (or ouzels)

The ornithologist must be able to identify birds “by their air,” their particular type of motion, as well as by their “language,” their unique sounds.  The most unusual birds he observes are a pair of hoopoes, which “march about in a stately manner”; an apt description for some of my favorite birds!

Here’s a taste of his lovely passage on how birds move: “. . . the king-fisher darts along like an arrow; fern-owls, or goat- suckers, glance in the dusk over the tops of trees like a meteor; starlings as it were swim along, while missal-thrushes use a wild and desultory flight; swallows sweep over the surface of the ground and water, and distinguish themselves by rapid turns and quick evolutions; swifts dash round in circles; and the bank-martin moves with frequent vacillations like a butterfly. Most of the small birds fly by jerks, rising and falling as they advance. Most small birds hop; but wagtails and larks walk, moving their legs alternately.”

Mice, Hogs, Tortoises, and Spiders

Gilbert White also studied fish, mammals, insects, and reptiles. He was the first in England to identify the harvest-mouse, due to his careful observation of even the smallest creatures.  White talks about the “life and conversation” of animals. His meaning becomes clear when he describes another mammal, a hog who, when she wished to “converse” with a boar, opened all the intervening gates by herself and marched to a distant farm where a boar was kept, mated with him, then returned herself home!

White observed an ancient tortoise, who could recognize the woman who fed him, and compared him to the ox that knows its owner in Isaiah 1:3.  He is amazed that God gives the gift of such a long life to a creature that spends most of it in “joyless stupor.”

One delightful day, small spiders that shoot webs like parachutes float down in multitudes, “twinkling like stars” and covering the landscape with cobwebs. White describes other insects and arachnids, particularly ones that bother different birds, that feed the birds, and that cause harm to crops, and recommends that someone do a more thorough study to help farmers.

Gardens and Ha-ha’s
Selborne house and gardens - smaller
Gilbert White’s House and Garden

White believed that natural history should be useful, with practical applications.  He suggested that someone study plants, not just to classify them, but to learn more about the “laws of vegetation,” the uses of different herbs, and cultivation of gardens.  White himself planted, observed, and experimented in extensive gardens. His gardens have been recreated at his house, which is now a museum.

Selborne Ha-ha - smaller
Gilbert White’s Ha-ha; “Looking over a ha-ha into the park . . .” —Mansfield Park, chapter 9

White’s gardens, imitating current fashions, include a ha-ha, like the one in Mansfield Park. This was a way of making a wall to keep out animals without disrupting the view. A ditch was dug, and a wall built against one side of the ditch to hold back the dirt.  Animals stayed on the other side of the ditch, but onlookers could see the vista past the wall. It was called a “ha-ha” because it was a surprise—walkers would come up to it unawares and exclaim suddenly, “a-ha!”

The Father of Ecology

White is considered the father of modern ecology. He recognized changes in ecosystems and the interdependence of man and all types of animals and plants. He discovered the importance of the lowly earthworm, now known to be a crucial part of ecosystems.

He writes, “Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm.” They provide food for birds and animals. They loosen the soil for plants, allowing rain to penetrate the earth and roots to go deep.  Their excrement provides manure for grain and grass, and they restore new soil when rain washes the earth away.

Asking Why?

Gilbert White was a great wonderer.  He wondered, How does food affect the color of a bird’s feathers? Where do the carp in the stream disappear to in the winter? Why do songbirds sometimes sing, and sometimes not? Why are instincts sometimes helpful, sometimes detrimental? Why do plants blossom at different times of the year? Why do birds migrate, and where do they go? In a poem he says, “Such baffled searches mock man’s prying pride, The God of Nature is your secret guide!” But he continued to search for answers.

He was not willing to accept conjecture, common beliefs, or surface answers.  He measured, observed, gathered data from trusted naturalists elsewhere, and even experimented to find answers. For example, when one naturalist suggested that cuckoos can’t incubate their eggs because of their internal structure, White disproved the idea by dissecting a cuckoo and an owl (which does incubate its eggs) and finding they were similar.

White’s methods of extremely careful observation and detailed record-keeping set the pattern for future ornithologists and other biologists. And, his book of natural history still gives us many insights into his world, as well as Austen’s!

What do you find most astonishing in nature? How do you see nature reflecting God’s glory? And what do you wonder about, that you could take the time to observe and investigate, in real life, not just on the internet?

[For more posts on science and faith, go under Science in the menu across the top of the page, and click on “Faith and Science.”]

Resources

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White (currently available free on amazon for kindle; however, other versions may provide more commentary, illustrations, and helpful explanations)

Gilbert White

What are Ha-Has?

Gilbert White: The Parson-Naturalist of Selborne, Hampshire. (Connections with Austen)

Jane Austen and Gilbert White

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