Sunday, 18 July 2010

Gilbert White

Today is the 290th birthday of the great ornithologist, tortoise-lover and hirundophile Gilbert White. I recently read Richard Mabey's biographical account of him, a book which manages to create a convincing picture of the man despite a lack of much standard biographical material - but which really comes alive when Mabey is on the ground, exploring White's remarkably unchanged Selborne terroir (a usefully all-encompassing French word, that - a pity about its pretentious wine-snob associations - we need an English equivalent) and when he is sharing in White's tender loving pleasure in the swallows, swifts and martins whose comings and goings fascinated and enchanted him all his life. The epigraph to Mabey's book is this:
'The language of birds is very ancient and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical: little is said, but much is meant and understood.'
Wise words and true.


  1. "The language of birds is ancient"--I have a little boy character who plays an old, old card game about birds; I wish I had used that phrase.

  2. Given that you hit us with 'hirundophile', Nige, 'tortoise-lover' is a bit lame and, in context, possibly bestially obscene. Something like 'Testudiphile' would be it, I suppose.

    I like tortoises, in the platonic sense. They seem to know what's what.

  3. They do indeed Brit, they seem like Stoic philosophers - and their shells are enviable. Testudophile might be a phile too far - hirundophile beats 'lover of swallows, swifts and martins' or indeed 'lover of hirundines'. I rest my case.

  4. Worm is very interested in terroir. As Brit noted, there are parallels there.

    And you don't get much change out of a tortoise.