Gilbert White’s Swallows, by Tim Dee.

Turning the Boat for Home A life writing about nature Richard Mabey

Turning the Boat for Home – A life writing about nature. Richard Mabey

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.

Crossing of the Strait of Dover by Blanchard and Jefferies, 1785

Crossing of the Strait of Dover by Blanchard and Jefferies, 1785

‘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.’


Tim Dee’s new book is Greenery: Journeys in Springtime. It is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. See his Grave Goods inventory here.


Eurasian crag martin David Raju. CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica by Dr. Raju.Kasambe

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