THE CHARM OF NATURAL HISTORY.
A REVIEWER, himself a naturalist, discusses at some length in another column to what the vast popularity of White's "Natural History of Selborne" is due, and arrives, we believe, at the true conclusion, when he points out that it is, in consider- able measure at least, from the strong feeling impressed on Gilbert White that all the creatures he studied were his fellow- creatures, that the charm of his book for ordinary readers arises. Yet the way in which Gilbert White shows this, is hardly suffi- ciently insisted on in the paper to which we refer. One thing which gives the charm to the book is the sense of real living interest in the latest news which the writer has gained about his neighbours the birds, or beasts, or insects, that the letters convey. Gilbert White's letters are, in fact, gossip about the other races of living creatures, and gossip given with all the true vivacity and animation of a human gossip, though without any of the ill-nature or sense of scandal. The very form of letters adds to the effect of this. You seem to see Gilbert White, so full of his last news about the tortoise, or the field- fares, or the toad, or whatever might be the last creature he had been studying, that he felt compelled to talk about it to somebody who cared as he did for these creatures. So he sits down and writes a letter about them, just as a girl would sit down and tell the news of the last " engagement " she had heard of, to an intimate friend. Take, for instance, as illustrating what we mean, the way in which White wrote to Wines Barrington that, as far as he had observed, many birds that dust themselves never wash, that he had once sup- posed that those which wash did not dust themselves, but had found out his mistake, since the common house-sparrows are exceedingly fond both of dusting themselves and of washing,—and then puts in a postscript, where the interesting point of a letter usually comes, that Mahommed may very likely have borrowed the sand-washings whiCh good Mahommedans perform in the desert, where they are far from water, from the birds who dust themselves instead of washing themselves. Now the mere form of this postscript recording the good clergyman's sudden thought that Mahommed got an idea from his fellow-creatures the sparrows, gives a new charm to the subject he is talking of. You see at once how the man's mind was occupied with the habits of these creatures, how completely he thought of them just as fellow-lodgers in the same house think of each other before they know each other well, how his mind kept coming back to the topic, so that he needed a postscript for this sug. gestion of Mahommed's debt to the sparrows. Or, again, take such a sentence as this from his letters :- " We now begin to expect our vernal migration of ring- ousels every week," just as a good housewife would write to her friend that the spring-cleaning was likely to come off any week ; or a devotee of the Turf that he was beginning to look eagerly for one of the spring meetings. Or see how full of inter- est he is as to the personal habits of a friendly tortoise,—no village gossip was ever more deeply interested in the proceedings and manners of a mysterious arrival from town :—" No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain ; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire,—shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner. If attended to, it becomes an excellent weather-glass ; for as sure as it Walks elate, and as it were on tiptoe, 'feeding with great earnestness in a morning, so sure will it rain before night." And to this letter, also, is ap- pended one of those charming postscripts which give to White's natural history so much of the flavour of neighbourly gossip :—
" P.S.—In about three days after I left Sussex, the tortoise retired into the ground under the hepatica." We hold, then, that the great charm of White's "Selborne " is the effect of membership of true animal society which it produces, a society in which Gilbert White spent his time. Weather from it the impression that in April, and again at Michaelmas, he looked for the short visit of the field- fares, just as a hospitable friend looks for the passing visit of a country cousin to London. He records that all the owls hoot in B flat as he would record the note of a monotonous human voice ; and he comments on the tendency of the hen chaffinches to assemble in crowds, without any number of cocks worth mentioning, just as
he would comment on the features of a "mothers' meeting" to make baby-clothes, with a curate or two here and there to read poetry to them and " improve the occasion." It is this easy
sociability between Gilbert White and his humbler fellow- creatures which seems to us to constitute the great charm of his book.
A book which has just appeared illustrates a slightly different variety of the same kind of charm,—and if it be as trustworthy from the naturalist's point of view, of which the present writer is no judge, is destined, we suspect, to the same kind of popularity.
We refer to the delightful sketches called "The Gamekeeper at Home,"* which have just been republished in a small volume, after
having first appeared in the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette. The difference between these sketches and those in " White's Selborne" is, that while they are little less chatty and neighbourly, and give
less of the air of easy membership in a pleasant animal society in which the naturalist moves freely, exchanging greetings with the water-rats, hedgehogs, inissel-thrushes, efts, toads, squirrels, mice, owls, leverets, and other members of the great public which is so much larger and more various in its ways than the human public of any place,—they are, on the other hand, more distinctly picturesque and poetical, conveying more of the sense of homely beauty and vivid vision than Gilbert White's chatty anecdote and curious gossip. But in 'The Gamekeeper at Home," no less than in Gilbert White, there is the real sense of citizenship in that larger world to which rabbits, mice, dogs, birds, fishes, and insects, &c., as well as men, belong, though in this case the citizen is something more of a muses and an artist, and less of an inquirer and gossip-retailer. He does not tell you so many anecdotes of the creatures he meets, but he does seem more pene- trated with wonder at the half-imaginative relations which the different tribes of creatures assume to each other. Here, for in- stance, is a description of a casual meeting with a rabbit, and the way to prolong it,—and the secret of cultivating easy relations with the birds :—
" When waiting in a dry ditch with a gun on a warm autumn after- noon for a rabbit to come out, sometimes a bunny will suddenly appear at the month of a hole which your knee nearly touches. Ho stops dead, as if petrified with astonishment, sitting on his haunches. His full (lark eye is on you with a gaze of intense curiosity ; his nostrils work as if sniffing ; his whiskers move; and every now and then he thumps with his hind logs upon the earth with a low, (lull thud. This is evidently a sign of great alarm, at the noise of which any other rabbit within hearing instantly disappears in the bury.' Yet there your friend sits and watches you as if spellbound, so long as you have the patience neither to move hand or foot nor to turn your eye. Keep your glance on a frond of the fern just beyond him and he will stay. The instant your oyo meets his, or a finger stirs, ho plunges out of sight. It is so also with birds. Walk across a meadow swinging a stick, even humming, and tho rooks calmly continue their search for grubs within thirty yards; stop to look at them, and they rise on the wing directly. So, too, the finches in the trees by the roadside. Let the wayfarer pass beneath the bough on which they are singing, and they will sing on, if he mores without apparent interest ; should he pause to listen, their wings glisten in the sun as they fly."
There is not so much of quaint method in that as in Gilbert White's " Selborne," but then there is a deeper feeling of the scene as a whole, of the charm and silence of the meeting,—of the way the rabbit's embarrassment and hesitation add to the effect,—of the easy manners of the birds while they see
man only as one of themselves,—of their alarm directly they find such attention fixed upon them as, to their mind, bodes them no good. Here, again, is such a picture of " the inhabitants of a hollow tree " as paints the whole community of which such a tree is the abode, in a way to fix it in the fancy, and leave a deep feeling of its exquisite beauty and richness of life :-
" These hollow trees, according to woodcraft, ought to come down by the axe without further loss of time. Yet it is fortunate that we are not all of us, even in this prosaic age, imbued with the stern utilitarian spirit, for a decaying tree is perhaps more interesting than one in full
• Smith, Elder, and Co.
vigour of grow th. The starlings make their nests in the upper knot- boles, or, lower down, the owl feeds her young; and if you chance to pass near, and are not aware of the ways of owls, you may fancy that a legion of serpents are in the bushes, so loud and threatening is the hissing noise made by the brood. The woodpecker comes for the insects that flourish on the dying giant; so does the curious little tree- climber, running up the trunk like a mouse; and in winter, when insect-life is scarce, it is amusing to watch there the busy tomtit. He hangs underneath a dead branch, head downwards, as if walking on a ceiling, and with his tiny but strong bill chips off a fragment of the loose dead bark. Under this bark, as be well knows, woodlice and all kinds of creeping things make their home. With the fragment he flies to an adjacent twig, small enough to be grasped by his claws, and so give him a firm foothold. There he pecks his morsel into minute pieces and lunches on tho living contents. Then, with a saucy chuckle of delight in his own cleverness, be returns to the larger bough for a fresh supply. As the bough decays, the bark loosens, and is invaded by insects which, when it was green, could not touch it. For the acorns the old oak still yields come rooks, pigeons, and stately phea- sants, with their glossy feathers shining in the autumn sun. Thrushes carry wild hedge-fruit up on the broad platform formed by the trunk whore the great limbs divide, and pecking it to pieces, leave the seeds. These take root in the crevices which widen out underneath into a mass of soft decaying touchwood ;' and so from the crown of the tree there presently stream downwards long trailing briars, bearing in June the sweet wild roses, and in winter red oval fruit. Ivy comes creeping up, and in its thick, warm coverts nests are built. Below, among the powdery tonchwood ' which lines the floor of this living hut, great fungi push their coloured heads up to the light. And hero you may take shelter when the rain comes unexpectedly Fettering on the leaves, and listen as it rises to a roar within the forest. Sometimes wild bees take up their residence in the hollow, slowly filling it with comb, buzzing busily to and fro; and then it is not to be approached so carelessly, though so ready are all creatures to acknowledge kindness, that ere now I have oven made friends with the inhabitants of a wasp's nest."
"The Gamekeeper at Home" is, in fact, more of an artist than Gilbert White, but not quite so much of a gossip. What White tells you interests you like the study of a new character. He always wants to make out what his queer fellow-creatures are about, what their motives and drift are in what they do, what ways of life their actions imply ; and his whole feeling, though kindly and neighbourly in the truest sense, is neighbourly curiosity. " The Gamekeeper at Home" has the same kind of interest in their habits, because this is essential to really know- ing when and how to meet them, but the pleasure he gains from them seems to culminate in meeting them rather than in knowing about them. It is when he is free to live with nature, —animal and vegetable,—that he seems best satisfied with him- self. He leaves on your mind a distinct sense that all the interviews he gains are delightful in themselves, that he is amply repaid if he can but surprise the mole shaking the dust from his fur as a water-spaniel shakes the water from his coat, or come upon a party of field-mice making a reconnaissance, or even a single mouse reaping the fruits of his labours after this fashion :- "Once on a hawthorn branch in a hedge I saw a mouse descend- ing with an acorn ; he was, perhaps, five feet from the ground, and how and from whence he had got his burden was rather puzzling at first. Probably the acorn dropping from the tree, had been caught and held in the interlacing of the bush till observed by the keen, if tiny, eyes below." In a word, the " Gamekeeper at Home" is a less curious, less eagerly investigating, but more eagerly enjoying watcher of nature than Gilbert White. It is the contem- plation itself of his fellow-creatures, the mice, the birds, the dogs, and so on, that rewards him, not so much the piecing-out of their ways and habits from the hints they drop. But in " The Game- keeper at Home," as in Gilbert White, there is the truest sense of fellow-creatureship with the creatures he observes. In both alike the charm is that they seem to be citizens of a much larger world than the mere human world, and to feel almost a deeper interest in the characters and habits of which they can but dimly guess the meaning, than they do in the characters and habits of that human world of which it is so easy to be told a great deal which is true, and a great deal more which is false and bewildering. In both alike you recognise a sincere feeling of brotherhood with alto- gether simpler and more limited natures than human nature, and that is unquestionably a charm which is as rare as it is fresh and fascinating, when you get it in perfection. And you do get it in perfection in White's " Selborne " and " The Gamekeeper at Home."