Gilbert White’s Swallows, by Tim Dee.
Where are we at home? What is it to feel at home? In these days and weeks, now stretching to months, when we have been sent home and told to stay there, I have been thinking about what home might signify to the birds I have been watching from my back garden and front porch in Cape Town, South Africa. I had intended to be in Europe this spring.
With a book coming out called Greenery that tried to follow the season northwards in the company of its migratory birds, I thought I would do as my book has done and repeat the journey from my sometime new home at the bottom of Africa to my sometime old home in England, I would follow the swallows that spend their winters (the austral summer) in southern Africa and their summers in Europe.
Instead, I am locked down at home in one place like millions of us around the world. It is indeed my home in Cape Town, and a good one, but being confined here I cannot but feel stuck. ‘I can’t get out!’ says the caged starling in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and the bird makes Sterne think how people can be like that too (his own name might have evolved from an old name for the starling).
I feel for that starling and I feel like it. Meanwhile the swallows – European barn swallows – that I have been watching all through the local summer as they have fed along the Atlantic shore on kelp flies, gathering to roost in their millions in the reed-fringed pools of the city sewage works, and, more recently, twittering into song on the telephone wires crisscrossing our garden sky, all these have stretched and pulled at my understanding of home and of whatever we may call its opposite.
Gilbert White thought with swallows all his birdwatching life. They pushed at his understanding of the wider world and its workings, and also at his feelings for his own place and his need for home. I have collected some of his thoughts and swallow occasions together as I have been negotiating, in my mind, with the same species outside my new home here in Cape Town. As it became clear that I wouldn’t be travelling north this year with the swallows, what I have read of Gilbert White’s swallow world has been a comfort. That sounds strange to say, but it is true.
Gilbert White’s brother, John, was a chaplain to the British garrison on Gibraltar from 1756-1774. Gilbert encouraged him to make natural history notes and collect study specimens. John’s observations, especially his notes on migratory birds, were original and they contributed considerably to Gilbert’s evolving understanding. Part of their correspondence finds its way into the Natural History of Selborne.
In the early 1750s, before he left for the Rock, John had studied in Oxford and been expelled from Corpus Christi college (perhaps for associating with a taverner’s daughter from Wallingford); he also helped in the digging or cutting of the zigzag path, up the steep hanger of beech trees from Selborne village to Selborne common. It was this path, up through the trees and their singing birds, which Gilbert took repeatedly on walks. It was there that Gilbert became the first person to knowingly separate the three British Phylloscopus warblers (willow warbler, wood warbler and chiffchaff).
On Gibraltar, a similar series of switchback paths would have taken John from the bottom of the Rock to the top, and allowed him, as an observer of natural phenomena (and what his brother called their ‘life and conversation’), to walk up from the buildings and human noise of the garrison, through native matorral and maquis vegetation and its resident birds and apes, towards the summit of the Rock and its airborne migratory traffic.
In February 1772, urged on by his brother (‘Write to Scopoli; he is clever’), John White wrote (in Latin, the scientific lingua franca) to Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, the Italian naturalist. Scopoli was, like Gilbert, a diligent student of the local. John’s letter asked questions, queried some of Scopoli’s findings, and described a plan to write a natural history of Gibraltar. He began a species list for the Rock, starting by talking about its migrant birds. With God’s blessing, he said, he will achieve his aims; or rather with God’s blessing, he would obey the command of Linnaeus, the high priest of systematics. He quoted Linnaeus to Scopoli:
‘. . . if any experienced naturalist were to make observations of birds in the far south of Spain, when they come and go southwards and northwards, that is to say by keeping a record of the days, months and species, this matter [the migration of birds], at present obscure, would in a short time be fully elucidated.’
Linnaeus’ remarks, John White wrote, are like a commandment. Migration is to be studied. To make steps towards its understanding involves a certain looking into the future and the knowledge that what is here now will not be later. To know that the bare trees of the winter hanger will be filled with green song next spring, teaches that the flight of birds is a kenning, that migration itself is a kind of prophecy or augury, and a commitment to the future of life. John White continued:
‘. . . in this area, not far distant from the shores of Africa, there is opportunity to observe the yearly migration of birds of almost every kind. An incredible army of Accipitres [hawks, eagles] travels to our shores in the spring, and returns again to Africa with its very numerous offspring in the autumn months.‘
In 1772, White returned to England, to be a vicar in Blackburn. (His son, also called John, was born on the Rock. Known as Gibraltar Jack in the family, he lived near his uncle Gilbert in Hampshire and grew up to be a doctor; he might once have tended Jane Austen when she was immobilised with a bad back.) He started writing up his natural history (it was to be called Fauna Calpensis) but he died in 1780 before it was finished. Gilbert inherited his brother’s manuscript and wrote of it. Both it and John’s specimens, sent north, have since gone missing and are now believed lost.
From Gibraltar, John White had written to Linnaeus in Sweden as well as to Scopoli. The White brothers’ circle of like-minded pioneer naturalists rarely (in many cases, never) met. The talk was all done by post. The puzzle of migration was worked through in correspondence. Perhaps, as well, the means of communication played a part in interpreting the subject under discussion. Letters about migrants travelled up and down and across Europe and, in this, they mimicked what they were about.
As well as writing, John White sent Linnaeus a specimen of an insect from Gibraltar, a distinctive spoonwing. Linnaeus named it in 1758 as Panorpa coa and later revised this to Nemoptera coa. The insect has very long and thin hind-wings that extend behind it like pennants. Entomologists know these modified wings as remiform: they are oar-shaped. Where, White asked, did Linnaeus think the spoonwing was going with these paddles, how would it use them?
Writing to Scopoli, John followed his mention of migrant raptors with a list of the other migrant birds known from the Rock that ‘regularly conform to the same laws of nature’: this included bee-eaters, hoopoes, wagtails, warblers, wrynecks, woodcock (isn’t it ‘popular rumour’ only, he said, that they carry their young in their beaks in flight from their ‘enemy’?), nightjars (isn’t the belief that they ‘sucked the udders of farm animals’ also a fantastical story?), swifts, swallows and house martins. . .
Hirundines, the swallow and martin tribe, were key birds for the students of migration. John had reported on the hirundines of Gibraltar in an early letter to his brother and this seems to have been a prompt for Gilbert to encourage further study of the birds and of the wider natural history happenings on the Rock. John had noticed that crag martins (as we know them now) appeared in Gibraltar in the winter only. He secured a specimen and had it skinned and sent north. Thanks to reading Scopoli’s work, Gilbert was able to identify it and went on to deduce something of the species’ migratory habits. Gilbert wrote to John:
‘So these birds build & spend their summer on the airy tops of the Alps; & their winter under the warm & sheltry shores of Spain & Barbary. However you will have the honour of first discovering their winter quarters.’
Gilbert encouraged John to finish his Fauna on his return to England. His close and detailed observations of crag martins suggested that bigger truths about migration were in reach. But John was thwarted by illness and seems to have fallen into a depression; Gilbert tried to cheer him up:
‘I verily think your dissertations on the Hirundines are the best tracts I ever saw of the kind, as they throw much light on the dark but curious business of migration, and possess such merit as alone might keep any book from sinking. If consulted, I therefore protest loudly against the intention of throwing your papers aside.’
Gilbert always regretted that John had stopped and had left the birds flying over Gibraltar behind him.
We know also that he fretted and worried himself about swallows and migration and never quite forswore the popular belief that some birds hibernate. The mud at the bottom of ponds was thought a winter home for them. Gilbert had sand banks excavated hoping to find torpid martins. Having the birds back in his midst was a big part of his life, and as he got closer to his end – his inevitable way out – he seems to have allowed the thought into his otherwise questioning and empirical mind that his beloved birds never actually left his parish at all. Just as Selborne was all but inaccessible through the winter months of mud or snow, so, maybe, the swallows were still there, locked in and hunkering down.
In 1792, a decade after his brother had died and just a year before he did, Gilbert sent a correspondent, Thomas Marsham, a gift of a letter about swallows that go in the winter (barn swallows) and swallows that come in the winter (crag martins). Marsham had reported hearing nightingales singing throughout the winter on the southern Spanish coast. White suspected a misidentification, but disillusioned Marsham gently:
‘I had a brother who lived 18 years at Gibraltar, & who has written an accurate Nat. Hist. of that rock & its environs. Now he says, that Nightingales leave Andalusia as regularly towards autumn as other Summer birds of passage. A pair always breeds in the Governors garden at the Convent. This Hist. has never been published, & probably now never will, because the poor author has been dead some years. There is in his journals such ocular demonstration of swallow emigration to & from Barbary at Spring and fall, as, I know, would delight you much. There is an Hirundo hyberna, that comes to Gibraltar in Octr, & departs in March; & abounds in & about the Garrison the winter thro’.’
On Gibraltar, as Gilbert figured its hirundines, you need never be without your swallows.
Last year, moving from England to South Africa in June, I had two springs. This year it looks like I’ll have two autumns – I am unlikely to be leaving Cape Town before the European fall at the earliest. Though there are still swallows outside today, it is autumn here now. Time then to take medicine from my books. I have made a transcription of the entries on spring swallows from Gilbert White’s Journals. They make a season-song or a reverdie – a poem of regreening – as good as any I know.
It is striking how often White used the word appears to describe the return of the swallows to Selborne. It doesn’t necessarily mean more than it says but it does carry some sense of the birds materialising and the suddenness of their arrival. The word begs the question – From where? There can be magic in appearances. White was challenged right up until his death by what he saw and what he could deduce and what he could know about migration. He wavered in his opinions and never totally gave up on the idea that the hirundines were hiding, were birds that hibernated like Timothy, his inherited tortoise.
The word appear trips up time. It arrives without coming. Its now is all. Hey presto! There it is – this instant – a swallow. In this it is good for all sorts of spring action. Swifts appear even more than swallows. Blossom appears. Ezra Pound saw something of the ecstatic time-collapse or compression that is suggested by appearance, and he twisted his words sometimes to capture it. His archaism in his version of The Seafarer does this: ‘bosque taketh blossom’; and in his poem ‘The Spring’ he has this: ‘every branch have back what last year lost’. That sounds like a translation from some other time and somewhere else and that is good because it describes a translation in life too.
These are Gilbert’s swallows (and house and sand martins, called bank by him) on loan from his Journals, on loan from Africa, on loan from the mud at the bottom of the pond at the edge of his village, on loan from within the thatch of an empty house, on loan. . .
13 April 1768. Hirundo domestica!!!
11 April 1769. Hirundo domestica!
11 April 1770. Hirundo domestica Swallows amidst frost & snow.
14 April 1771. Hirundo domestica Swallow appears as last year amidst frost & snow.
6 April 1772. Hirundo domestica! Swallow comes early.
6 April 1773. I am informed that three swallows appeared over a mill-pond at Bramshot on Sunday March 28. They were seen over the paper-mill pond by Mr Pym.
12 April 1773. Hirundo domestica Swallow appears.
4 April 1774. Hirundo domestica. Two swallows appear at Faringdon.
9 April 1775. Hirundo domestica. Swallow appears.
28 March 1776. Hirundo domestica! On the 28: Farmer Tredgold saw five hirundines at Willey-mill near Farnham playing about briskly over the mill-pond: four, he says, were house-swallows, & the fifth an house-martin, with a white rump. These birds are very early.
9 April 1776. Four swallows at Alton.
10 April 1776. One swallow at Wallingford.
13 April 1776. Two swallows at Shillingford-bridge.
15 April 1776. Swallow appears at Selborne.
26 and 27 March 1777. Two sultry days: Mr Snooke’s tortoise came forth out of the ground; but retired again to its hibernaculum in a day or two, & did not appear any more for near a fortnight. Swallows appeared also on the same days, & withdrew again: a strong proof this of their hiding.
11 April 1777. Hirundo domestica. One swallow seen at Farnham, & three at Selborne.
4 April 1778. A swallow was seen this morning near Ripley.
15 April 1778. No swallow yet at Selborne.
16 April 1778. No swallow.
17 April 1778. No swallows appear.
18 April 1778. Swallows at Selborne.
6 April 1779. Hirundo domestica. Two swallows at Selborne.
15 April 1780. Swallow appears.
4 April 1781. Swallow appears.
7 April 1782. Some swallows, or bank-martins over Bins-pond.
10 April 1782. Swallow appears over the streams near Alresford.
19 April 1782. Two swallows.
20 April 1782. Swallows in the village.
8 April 1783. Swallow appeared at Liss.
13 April 1783. Three swallows at Goleigh.
18 April 1783. Swallows at Faringdon.
22 April 1783. No hirundines.
23 April 1783. No hirundines.
24 April 1783. No hirundines.
25 April 1783. No hirundines.
26 April 1783. Several swallows on the road.
27 April 1783. Many swallows Selborne.
7 April 1784. A farmer told Mr Yalden that he saw two swallows on this day at Hawkley!!
9 April 1784. Swallow seen near the forest.
16 April 1784. Many swallows seen at Oak-hanger ponds: perhaps they were bank-martins.
22 April 1784. Some swallows are come but I see no insects except bees, & some phalaenae in the evenings.
21 April 1784. Two swallows about the street.
12 April 1785. Swallow seen at Petersfield. Swallow at Selborne.
6 April 1786. Swallow appears near the forest.
15 April 1786. Three swallows at Rood. Three swallows at Candovers
Swallows were first seen this year at Messina in Sicily. 27 March 1787
On March 29th some swallows were seen over the lake of Geneva, & at Rolle. On March 30 several were seen at the same place.
1 April 1787. Three swallows appear Selborne.
16 April 1788. Swallow seen at Selborne; one yesterday at Faringdon.
13 April 1789. Swallow seen at Candovers.
20 April 1789. Several swallows, h:martins, & bank-martins play over Oakhanger ponds.
24 April 1789. Swallows at Oakhanger ponds: none yet frequent the village.
29 April 1789. Scarce an hirundo has been seen about this village.
30 April 1789. Several swallows, & martins around the village.
14 April 1790. First swallow seen at Fyfield
22 April 1790. Some swallows about the village.
7 April 1791. Swallow returns, & is seen over the village
19 April 1791. Tho’ a swallow or two were seen in the village as long ago as the 7th yet they have absconded for some time past. The house-martin is also withdrawn…
17 April 1792. Saw a pair of swallows at Alton.
21 April 1792. No swallows yet seen here, & the martins have withdrawn themselves.
26 April 1792. Few swallows yet.
7 May 1792. No swifts, & only one or two swallows, & Martins.
6 March 1793. On the 6th of last October I saw many swallows hawking for flies around the Plestor, & a row of young ones, with square tales, sitting on spar of the old ragged thatch of the empty house. This morning Dr Chandler, & I caused the roof to be examined, hoping to have found some of those birds in their winter retreat: but we did not meet with any success, tho’ Benham searched every hole, & every breach in the decayed roof.
April 9 1793.Thomas Knight, a sober kind, assures us, that this day on Wish-hanger common between Hedleigh & Frinsham he saw several Bank-martins playing in & out, & hanging before so nest-holes in the sand-hill, where these birds usually nestle. This incident confirms my suspicions, that this species of Hirundo is to be seen first of any; & gives great reason to suppose that they do not leave their wild haunts at all, but are secreted amidst the clefts, & caverns of those abrupt cliffs where they usually spend their summers. The late severe weather considered, it is not very probable that these birds should have migrated so early from a tropical region thro’ all these cutting winds, & pinching frosts: but it is easy to suppose that they may, like bats & flies, have been awakened by the influence of the Sun, amidst their secret labebrae [lairs], where they have spent the uncomfortable foodless months in a torpid state, & the profoundest of slumbers.
21 April 1793. Two swallows seen at forest-side.
23 April 1793. A swallow over my meadow.
29 April 1793. I have seen no hirundo yet myself.
30 April 1793. Saw two swallows at Gracious street.
11 May 1793. Swallows begin to build.
27 May 1793. The season is so cold, that no species of Hirundines make any advances towards building, & breeding.
4 June 1793. Many martins are gathering loam down at Gracious street, & beginning to build.
This was Gilbert White’s last hirundine note. He made one more bird report of ‘Many swifts’ on 12 June. His last entry was on 15 June: ‘Men wash their sheep.’ The doctor was called on 16 June and came every day thereafter until 26 June when White died. He was 72. His most ambitious investigations – seeking the lair or hibernaculum where the beloved birds (‘!!!’) might get through the cold times – was carried out just a few weeks before he was to take off himself for the undiscovered country. Not knowing was no state to die in.
Gilbert White remains a foundational hero for Richard Mabey, himself the spring or rootstock of all modern British nature-writing. Mabey’s writing about White in Selborne has always been wonderfully loving and alive to the particular as if he absorbed that species of attention from his subject. Through White, Mabey writes of the value of the local and of being a ‘stationery man’ and ‘watching narrowly’ in a ‘green retreat’: ‘While Joseph Banks was exploring the other side of the globe, [White] was out with a lantern, counting earthworms on his back lawn.’
In an essay (actually a sort of screenplay) in his latest collection, Turning the Boat for Home, Mabey quotes a magnificent observation from a letter by White. In October 1784, Jean Blanchard’s balloon sailed over Selborne. Gilbert spotted it. His record of the event perfectly captures his way of seeing and of knowing, his sense of the stationery and the mobile, the near and the far, the resident and the migratory, the home and the away.
‘From the green bank at the SW end of my house saw a dark blue speck at a most prodigious height, dropping as it were from the sky, and hanging amidst the regions of the upper air, between the weather-cock of the tower and the top of the maypole. . . For in a few minutes it was over the maypole; and then over the Fox on my great parlour chimney; and then behind my great walnutt tree. . . To my eyes this vast balloon appeared no bigger than a large tea-urn. . . I was wonderfully struck at first with the phenomenon; and, like Milton’s “belated peasant”, felt my heart rebound with fear and joy at the same time. After a while I surveyed the machine with more composure, without that awe and concern for two of my fellow creatures, lost, in appearance in the boundless depths of the atmosphere! At last, seeing with what steady composure they moved, I began to consider them as a group of Storks or Cranes intent on the business of emigration.’
Eurasian crag martin David Raju. CC-BY-SA-4.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CC-BY-SA-4.0
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica by Dr. Raju.Kasambe https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barn_Swallow_Hirundo_rustica_by_Dr._Raju_Kasambe.jpg