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.