Saturday 18 July 2020

300 Today

Today is the tercentenary of the birth of the great naturalist Gilbert White (what, no Google doodle?). White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) remains a readable and engaging book, in part because White's writing is so intensely personal, and his engagement with the creatures around him – especially birds – so complete. Like all the best English naturalists, he was an extremely acute observer, unencumbered by any grand overarching theory, and motivated by delight and wonder as well as scientific curiosity.
Here he is, looking about him, on his birthday in 1777:

'Swifts dash & frolick about, & seem to be teaching their young the use of their wings.  Thatched my rick of meadow-hay with the damaged St foin instead of straw. Bees begin gathering at three o’clock in the morning: Swallows are stirring at half hour after two.'

Here too, this morning, the swifts are dashing and frolicking about, and no doubt teaching their young the use of their wings. What White did not know was that these young swifts, before leaving the nest, perform a kind of 'push-ups' on their curved wings, presumably to develop their flight muscles – and that, once they have launched themselves into the air, they might be up there continuously for the next two years.
White's 'St foin', by the way, is Sainfoin ('holy hay'), a very attractive leguminous plant that was widely grown for fodder and is now, I believe, making a bit of a comeback. As White demonstrates, it can have many uses.

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