Bill Drummond on ‘The Natural History of Selbourne’ by Gilbert White
Up until the age of 14, my interest in the natural world was focused on fishing, collecting birds eggs and generally spending as much time in the countryside as I could because it was more exciting than being in the town. Half-a-dozen Observer’s Books was all the literature I needed.
As a 19 year old art student in late 1972 I came across a book called Food For Free. I thought this was great and it sat comfortably alongside my Jack Kerouac’s and Henry Miller’s. A few years later I found a second hand copy of a book called In A Green Shade by the same author Richard Mabey. From then on I bought all his books as they came out.
In 1986 Mabey published a biography of Gilbert White (1720 – 93). From that I fell in love with White’s own masterpiece The Natural History of Selborne. A book I have read numerous times over the years. There are dozens of quotes from this book I could have picked, but today I picked this one:
The grasshopper-lark* began his sibilous note in my fields last Saturday. Nothing can be more amusing than the whisper of this little bird, which seems to be close by though at an hundred yards distance; and, when close at your ear, is scarce any louder than when a great way off. Had I not been a little acquainted with insects, and known that the grasshopper kind is not yet hatched, I should have hardly believed but that it had been a locusta whispering in the bushes. The country people laugh when you tell them that it is the note of a bird. It is a most artful creature, skulking the thickest part of a bush; and will sing at a yard distance, provided it be concealed. I was obliged to get a person to go on the other side of the hedge where it haunted; and then it would run, creeping like a mouse, before us for a hundred yards together, through the bottom of the thorns; yet it would not come into fair sight: but in the morning early, and when undisturbed, it sings on the top of a twig, gaping and shivering with its wings.
* Grasshopper-lark is now what we call the Grasshopper Warbler