Nothing So Natural

“…and what with this and that we are frolicsome as the article on Natural History in the Daily.”
George Meredith

Attachment-1This is likely the only time you will see the skeleton of a monkey on my blog. He’s a cheerful looking fellow, to be sure, with that certain je ne sais quoi, and it remains to be seen if he belongs here–here in a post about natural history that is actually supposed to be about Victorian poet George Meredith. I liked him a great deal, though, and named him Dudley. (the monkey, not George).

Rather warm and fuzzy for a skeleton, I thought…

‘Teach me to feel myself the tree,
And not the withered leaf.’ [George Meredith]


We might love nature, we might love history, but Natural History is another thing, altogether. I was reminded of this over the weekend.

Saturday was a brisk autumn day in downtown Portland, gorgeously clear and sunny. My husband and I were strolling through the university blocks of Portland State, my thoughts alight with all sorts of yummy dreamy snippets of literature, being surrounded, as we were, by old architecture, halls of learning, glistening trees, and the slow…slow…poetic float of falling leaves.

We soon found ourselves at the Natural History exhibit in the Science Building.

It was fascinating, but….a startling contrast to my previous perambulations. We went from glowing leaves and warm old brick in October sunlight to skeletons, dead carcasses, and dried feces of some sort at every display. Grim evidence of the food chain and our own mortality was suddenly everywhere. I do know what Natural History means, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the change in mood. Actually, it was great fun!


We saw, not just a skeleton of a zebra, but the skeleton of a zebra being pounced on by the skeleton of a lion. A strangely electric moment of both life and demise,  sketched in one lyrical arc of calciferous white.

Rounding the corner we came across a reticulated python, which at first I confused with ‘articulated’ as he was quite dried out but still flexible enough in the joints to be woven back on himself several times over. I was trying to calculate his reticulations, just to see if I could figure out how long of a vermin-consuming monster he might have been in his younger days. However, my brain is not what it once was in my younger days–in this I shared a brief moment of sympathy with the python–and therefore calculating any sort of reticulation is not as easy as it sounds.

Oh, and those little tiny mouse paws under glass, severed from the body they once knew, still clutching a precious morsel of food… Possibly an al fresco lunch, gone horribly awry.

‘She realized she could skip lunch; suddenly even a light salad seemed excessively cruel.’


The grizzly skeleton was awesome to see, and I greeted him almost like an old friend. Ever since 1966, when I watched Night of the Grizzly and fell in love with Clint Walker I have been fascinated with tall, menacing grizzlies. And have declined the tent, while camping.

‘No thanks, I’ll take the cabin.’

Perhaps that movie scarred me–I don’t know. I just know I was happy to see a grizzly skeleton, and think of Clint Walker once again. Youthful crushes are never forgotten.


My brain can turn around just about anything to a ‘this is fascinating and I’ll tell you why’ level of interest, so naturally, in our little pop-up version of a Museum of Natural History, I began to think of Victorian writers. So many of our beloved poets and authors were naturalists, as well. Often they might spend a lifetime collecting dried out dead things and then, upon their own death, donating the lot to a museum (after having themselves properly buried, of course, because—who wants to look at THEIR skeleton?).

One of the most popular naturalists—pre-Victorian—is Gilbert White. His book The Natural History of Selborne, has outsold even the works of Jane Austen. However, as I have written enthusiastically of dear Gilbert more than once in these pages, I will content myself with just one tiny little quote, (okay two), that highlights his curious preoccupations and therefore mine:

‘A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn.

This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.’

Did I mention that Gilbert White has outsold Jane Austen? Oh, yes, I did…but I’m not sure how recent those calculations are, and if they were done before or after Jeremy Northam was cast as Mr. Knightley. This might have shifted the balance, being Natural History of a different sort.

On our tour, I was able to pet an owl’s wings, marvel at the downy undercoat, and closely examine a regurgitated pellet for exoskeletons. I felt very Gilbert White at that moment.

‘Selborne, May 7, 1779.
It is now more than forty years that I have paid some attention to the ornithology of this district, without being able to exhaust the subject: new occurrences still arise as long as any inquiries are kept alive.’

I truly believe that a lively curiosity keeps us young. By all means, let us ‘keep inquiries alive’! I should also mention the delightful and warm enthusiasm shown us by the science students who were hosting our tour. From antarctic mosses and their effect on global warming, to those aforementioned charming exoskeletons in owl pellets to ‘feeling’ how elephants communicate through the ground, at every display was a smiling face and a knowledgeable student eager to impart a love of the natural world.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of poetry from George Meredith. This is my year of reading George, so to speak. Perhaps he might enter these pages a bit more, and nudge out Gilbert in popularity. (ah, the silence which chirping crickets rush to fill!) As it turns out, he was a natural history enthusiast par excellence, and a tireless walker. I am enjoying, very much, his finely tuned ear for poetry, and his expressive love of the beauties of nature.

This poem, Autumn Evensong, is simply lovely. Enjoy…oh, and don’t give Dudley another thought. He’s quite happy, and has many admirers.

The long cloud edged with streaming grey
Soars from the West;
The red leaf mounts with it away,
Showing the nest
A blot among the branches bare:
There is a cry of outcasts in the air.
Swift little breezes, darting chill,
Pant down the lake;
A crow flies from the yellow hill,
And in its wake
A baffled line of labouring rooks:
Steel-surfaced to the light the river looks.
Pale on the panes of the old hall
Gleams the lone space
Between the sunset and the squall;
And on its face
Mournfully glimmers to the last:
Great oaks grow mighty minstrels in the blast.
Pale the rain-rutted roadways shine
In the green light
Behind the cedar and the pine:
Come, thundering night!
Blacken broad earth with hoards of storm:
For me yon valley-cottage beckons warm.


‘Gossamer Abundant’

gossamer and iron

“Slow thro’ the air                                         

The gossamer-floats; 

or stretch’d from blade to blade

The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”   Gilbert White

On this day of March 22 in 1773, Gilbert White noted the following in his diary: –

 ‘Gossamer floats about.’

It will have been noted by now that the esteemed diarist did not often give way to flights of fancy, although he occasionally waxed rhapsodical in poetry to his greatest love—the natural world. To him the ‘new-mown hay’, the moment when ‘love-sick turtles breathe their amorous pain’, and the movements of the ‘swift in rapid giddy ring’, were the stuff of poetry most sublime.

Selborne, Gilbert White's home

Selborne, Gilbert White’s home

Two years later, on this day of March 22 in 1775, Gilbert White, in one of his more prosaic moments, would merely jot down:

‘Snake appears: toad comes forth.  Frogs spawn.  Horse-ants come forth.’

To him, this plain-stated, unvarnished truth, was the essence of beauty.

spring crocus

Still, there was, for White, the ethereality of gossamer, ’the wavy net-work’, the dreamy delicate spider webs, the white cottony wisps floating from the willows. It was often noted in his diary, year after year:

’gossamer streams’
gossamer abundant’
gossamer floats’
‘vast quantities of gossamer’
‘much gossamer flying’
‘the air is full of gossamer’

and finally,

‘Much gossamer. Bat.’

On Oct. 15, 1788, overcome, he wrote a poem about gossamer:

“slow thro’ the air

The gossamer-floats; or stretch’d from blade to blade

The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”

Dear Gilbert. We love him so.

Earlier than Gilbert White, Shakespeare also wrote of ‘gossamer’. It is a word that has intrigued lexicographers ever since.

‘the gossamer that idles
in the wanton summer air.’

Footnotes to the text read:

[Dyce.”\ In Hannibal and Scipio, 1637, by Nabbes:
‘Fine as Arachne’s web, or gossamer [‘gosshemert.’ Nares], 
 Whose curls, when garnished by their dressing, shew 
 Like that spun vapour when ’tis pearl’d with dew?*

English Expositor, 1616: gossomor: ‘Things that flye like cobwebs in the ayre’…

Even in a footnote it is entrancing… ‘like that spun vapor when ’tis pearl’d with dew…’

Too evocative to just leave there.

The writing of Virginia Woolf has been likened to gossamer strands of delicate imagery. Delicate, yes—shaded, subtle; yet the overall effect is a weave of surprisingly sinew-tough prose.

She wrote in The Common Reader: (1925)
‘nothing [proves] a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.’ 

In this further segment from The Common Reader ‘Notes on An Elizabethan Play’ (which could be subtitled ‘On Being Bored by the Elizabethans’):

‘Is it not that literature, if it is to keep us on the alert through five acts or thirty-two chapters, must somehow be based on Smith, have one toe touching Liverpool, take off into whatever heights it pleases from reality? We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore “real”.

‘We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it…’

Well; except for the reference to the chameleon the reality she describes is a world away from Gilbert White’s reality, and his delight in a spring day March 19, 1787:

‘Women sow wheat.  Gossamer abounds.  Sowed a bed of Celeri under a hand-glass.’


Back to Virginia, philosophically sowing wheat:

‘Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective. The Elizabethans bore us, then, because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.

Instead of keeping a proper poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry, and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.’

[note: this reminds me of the amusing scene in Margery Sharp’s first novel, Rhododendron Pie, which I summarize at my Margery Sharp blog here: “We call them the inferno and Paradiso, and change the prospect to match our humour. One feels a little like God surveying the universe. Your room, I am afraid, commands the seamy side, but you will like the taxi-men and their many children.’”]

It would seem that in this word picture Woolf creates for us of soaring into the empyrean, and likening it to ‘a cloud landscape’, not ‘ultimately satisfactory to human eyes’, she was loosely merging the godlike empyrean realm of classical Greek literature, the ambient aether of Aristotle, (what I like to think of as a sort of collective lint trap of creative ideas floating out in subconscious space), and even Aristophanes’ mockery of the ‘perfect city in the clouds’ i.e. ‘cloud cuckoo land’.


If this suddenly brings to your mind Angela Thirkell, then you are—oddly enough—on the same train of thought as I. It was precisely in such a ‘cloud cuckoo land’, (according to her own reckoning) a land of unreality, and airy nothings—where Thirkell placed her Barsetshire stories. As airy as they are, they have endured and been beloved to many for decades.

It is a ‘trick of strong imagination’, just as Shakespeare said:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination…A Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Beebe, the famous naturalist and marine biologist, took deep dives in his famous bathysphere in quite the opposite direction of empyrean space. Perhaps he had never read the Elizabethan playwrights and worried so intelligently over the ‘unintelligible convolutions’ as had Woolf, still he wrote:

‘Boredom is immoral. All a man has to do is see. All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes. I was walking across our compound last month when a queen termite began building her miraculous city. I saw it because I was looking down. One night three giant fruit bats flew over the face of the moon. I saw them because I was looking up.’

I feel quite sure that he and Gilbert White would have been in perfect accord; on bats, termites, lovesick turtles, the internet, and ‘the timorous hare.’ Oh, and gossamer.

Looking up. Looking down.  (I saw it because…)

Today is March 22, 2014:

‘Much gossamer floats about.’


Notes: There are lovely websites dedicated to the life and works of Gilbert White of Selborne here and here.

“Apace the wasting summer flies…”


So Gilbert White of Selborne, England wrote to his niece in 1784.

It is the shorter days and cooler mornings that get me rummaging through my library for certain reading fare–the diarists, the journalists of old, the country observers. Another season is passing, another tick of the universal clock has just echoed; yet there is a comfort in the regularity of natural life as recorded in these yellowed pages. Of this trusty lot of journal keepers the ineffable Mr. Gilbert White of Selborne is a favorite. While he wrote with the same scrupulous care and loving attentiveness to all the seasons, it is when the autumn approaches that I find him the most…well…lively.

I want to know what Gilbert was up to in August of 1788. And here we find him:

1781: August 23, 1781 – ‘Caught 8 hornets with a twig tipped with bird-lime…. No wasps in my garden, nor at the grocer’s, or butcher’s shop.  Five or six hornets will carry off a whole nectarine in the space of a day.’

“What make ye of Parson White in Selborne?” inquired Thomas Carlyle in 1832. One cannot help but note the slightly dismissive snort in this question. Yet Carlyle–who wrote thunderously of kings and controversies, not the mating habits of hirundines–is hardly read these days, while the diaries, carefully composed nature notes, and humble letters of ‘Parson White’ have never been out of print in the over 200 years since they were written. He is as beloved to the English as Jane Austen. He has a besotted following in Japan. His complete diaries are published online. His letters have made it to the ‘Penguin Classics’ distinction. His words penned on November 15th, 1792 regarding the now famous tortoise: ‘Timothy comes out’, still give a thrill of pleasure.

My copy of The Natural History of Selborne is a treasure. But I must admit that I hadn’t given it my complete attention until reading a brilliant little essay on White several years ago. If you’ve never read the work of Helen Bevington before, you’re in for a wonderful discovery. Her description of Gilbert White, in the essay, ‘The Seasonable Mr. White of Selborne’ is part of a larger collection of random essays by Bevington in a book entitled ‘Beautiful, Lofty People’.

A brief excerpt (written circa 1950):

‘The way to be happy in London in the spring,’ (Mrs. Bevington writes) ‘is to spend one’s days in the British Museum, reading the manuscript of the journals of Gilbert White. Except for a small selection, they have never been printed–ten thousand daily records, twenty five years (1768-1793) of the serenest life I’ve ever envied. Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’

Of course the journals and diaries of Gilbert White are richly available now, as surely Mrs. Bevington would have rejoiced to know; his diary is online, and in printed form aplenty.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that I didn’t get to discover him as a secret and startling pleasure while spending a month at the British Library, reading his own journals penned from his own hand. (A picture of his journal here, plus other lovely pictures of Selborne)

That’s fine. I will get my book, pour myself a cup of tea, settle in to my armchair, and open to…

September 11, 1777 – ‘Mrs Snooke’s tortoise devours kidney-beans & cucumbers in a most voracious manner: swallows it’s food almost whole.’ 

Ah. The world is restored to peaceful order again. Timothy is rampaging in Mrs. Snooke’s garden with a healthy appetite and all is well.

As Mrs. Bevington notes, ‘Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’

‘Oft on some evening, sunny, soft and still; The Muse shall lead thee to the beech-grown hill; To spend in tea the cool, refreshing hour; Where nods in air the pensile, nest-like bower.’ (Mr. Gilbert White)