point out instances, as I have already perhaps too much opened the contents of a book, which if it gives other readers half the pleasure it afforded me, they will own themselves extraordinarily indebted to the noble person by whose favour I am permitted to communicate to them so great a curiosity. -Advertisement to 1st edition of the Autobiography of Lord Herbert of Cherbury.




GILBERT WHITE was born at Selborne, July 18, 1720. He received an excellent classical education, and became Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, in March, 1744. Of his life nothing is known beyond what is contained in the following few words prefixed to a new edition of the History of Selborne :

'Of an unambitious temper and strongly attached to the charms of rural scenery, he early fixed his residence in his native village, where he spent the greater part of his life in literary occupations and especially in the study of Nature. Though several occasions offered of settling upon a College living, he could never persuade himself to quit the beloved spot, which was indeed a peculiarly happy situation for an observer. Here his days passed tranquil and serene, with scarcely any other vicissitudes than those of the seasons, till they closed at a mature age on June 26, 1793.'

Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, his only work, is the record of his life-long observation of the habits of animals and the aspects of Nature. It derives the charm which makes it an unique book in natural history, from the freshness and vividness of its descriptions of the instincts and ways of animals, which formed for him the object of a close daily attention. He was not a systematic naturalist; yet the new species which he added to the British Fauna, among which were two quadrupeds-the harvest mouse, mus messorius, and the great bat, vespertilio noctula, sufficiently attest his skill in distinguishing animal forms. He pourtrays the life of birds with especial sympathy and delicacy. What he tells, he tells in a style simple and unaffected, yet of a purity and elegance which he perhaps owed to his classical training.

1. The Fern or Churn-owl.

On the 12th of July I had an opportunity of contemplating the motions of the capri-mulgus or fern-owl, as it was playing round a large oak that swarmed with scarabai solstitiales or fern-chafers. The powers of its wing were wonderful, exceeding, if possible, the various evolutions and quick turns of the swallow genus. The circumstance that pleased me most was, that I saw it distinctly more than once put out its short leg while on the wing, and by a bend of the head deliver somewhat into its mouth. If it takes any part of its prey with its foot, as I have now the greatest reason to suppose it does these chafers, I no longer wonder at the use of its middle toe, which is curiously furnished with a serrated claw.

There is no bird whose manners I have studied more. It is a wonderful and curious creature. Though sometimes it may chatter as it flies, yet in general it utters its jarring note sitting on a bough. I have for many an half-hour watched it as it sat with its under mandible quivering, and particularly this summer. It perches usually on a bare twig with its head lower than its tail. It is most punctual in beginning its song exactly at the close of day; so exactly, that I have known it strike up more than once or twice just at the report of the Portsmouth evening gun, which we can hear when the weather is still. It appears to me past all doubt that its notes are formed by organic impulse, by the powers of the part of its windpipe formed for sound, just as cats purr. As my neighbours were assembled in an hermitage on the side of a steep hill where we drink tea, one of these churn-owls came and settled on the cross of that little straw edifice and began to chatter, and continued his note for many minutes. We were all struck with wonder to find that the organs of

that little animal when put in motion gave a sensible vibration to the whole building.-Natural History of Selborne.

2. Earth-worms.

LANDS that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor; and probably, the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the economy of Nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work: and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted

that green corn, plants, and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae (long-legs), in their larva, or grub-state; and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.

Worms work most in the spring; but by no means lie torpid in the dead months; are out every mild night in the winter, as any person may be convinced that will take the pains to examine his grass-plots with a candle.-Natural History of Selborne.

3. An Idiot boy at Selborne.

WE had in this village more than twenty years ago an idiot boy, whom I well remember, who, from a child, showed a strong propensity to bees; they were his food, his amusement, his sole object. And as people of this cast have seldom more than one point in view, so this lad exerted all his few faculties on this one pursuit. In the winter he dosed away his time, within his father's house, by the fire-side, in a kind of torpid state, seldom departing from the chimneycorner; but in the summer he was all alert, and in quest of his game in the fields, and on sunny banks. Honey-bees, humblebees, and wasps, were his prey wherever he found them: he had no apprehensions from their stings, but would seize them. nudis manibus, and at once disarm them of their weapons, and suck their bodies for the sake of their honey-bags. Sometimes he would fill his bosom between his shirt and his skin with a number of these captives: and sometimes would confine them in bottles. He was a very merops apiaster, or bee-bird; and very injurious to men that kept bees; for he would slide into their bee-gardens, and, sitting down before

« VorigeDoorgaan »