Gilbert White’s Swallows, by Tim Dee.
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. . .