Thursday, March 15, 2007

Book Review: "Gilbert White"

English nature writer Richard Mabey's eponymous biography Gilbert White was first published in 1986 by Century Hutchinson Ltd., and is now available in a first American edition from the University of Virginia Press. The book won the Whitbread Prize for Biography; not a bad choice, I think.

The Natural History of Selborne, White's magnum opus (now in more than two hundred editions, the jacket of Mabey's book informs) is one of the best-known and remarkable pieces of environmental/nature writing ever written. But until Mabey's, there was no full-length biography of its author. That, a true shame, has been well-corrected here. Mabey outlines White's life in Selborne (and, briefly, beyond) carefully, but concentrates on the long process through which White emerged as a chronicler of the world around him. An idiosyncratic and not-entirely-deliberate chronicler, to be sure, but an acute observer of the "links between humans and other creatures, a celebration of the life of a whole community."

White was fascinated by the actions of birds, particularly the swallows and swifts which frequented the vicinity of Selborne. Anyone who's ever spent any time watching that group knows how entirely engaging their antics are - it's hardly a surprise that White was entranced by them and spent much time tracking their movements and working to solve the perennial question of his day - did they migrate, or hibernate over the winter? White's writings on swallows (which Mabey calls the "high point of his prose") are well characterized here, and receive a fair treatment as compared with the Natural History, which usually gets all the attention.

A fine and readable (not to mention well-researched) biography of White; it's good to see this will be easily available here in the States now.