Gilbert White and the Universe in our Back Yard

A couple of years ago I visited the home of the naturalist Gilbert White. Selbourne village in Hampshire had been a favourite place for me in childhood. My family had visited it often, climbing the Zigzag path cut by Gilbert and his brother, up the steep Hanger and across the Common. Strangely, we never ventured to the Museum that had once been his home. Some experiences need to be saved until the right moment when their impact will strike with a deeper resonance. Walking out into Gilbert’s garden for the first time as an adult, I felt like a flower opening. I wanted to cry, an inexplicable welling of emotion and joy rising in me. I love this man – he was a humble genius.

The Rev. Gilbert White was a man of great worldly ambition and yet somehow circumstance repeatedly brought him back to the place of his birth, his dreams of a life beyond the tight confines of its landscape never quite coming to fruition. The nature of Selbourne’s topography meant that before modern roads, winter access to the village was made almost impossible, the terrain of deep, waterlogged hollow lanes impassable for large sections of the year. At times Gilbert was quite literally stuck in the village. In a modern world obsessed with new horizons, Gilbert White’s life might seem perhaps stifling and deeply restricted but I think he has much to teach us about how we might re-engage with the local in our lives.

We currently face tough decisions about how we organise ourselves as communities. Our relationship with our local environment is key to our being able to lessen our negative impact on the planet. Local production and a greater use of local resources would certainly make a huge difference but how do we wean ourselves off the travel bug, which in itself increases everyone’s carbon footprint considerably?

Travel is a marvellous thing – no doubt about it. Potentially there is the opportunity for exchange – of goods, information and experiences. Travel broadens the mind and the spirit, opening us up to alternative views and approaches. The circulation of humanity across the globe has brought cultural exchange, ideas shared that have brought major advances in the evolution of humankind.

Travel can also be just another form of mindless consumption, something we buy whilst remaining oblivious to the impact that our travel has upon the social and natural environments that we visit. Travel can be a form of compensation for the unhappiness we might feel in our day to day lives. I always remember someone Laurie worked with telling him to get all the overtime he could and have ‘a bloody good holiday twice a year’. It always struck me as incredibly sad that so many people endure day to day work lives that they loath, their happiness on hold until some future and transient event.

Gilbert White – in the main – stayed put. What might seem like a shrinking horizon to the rest of us was for him the ingredients for creativity and discovery. His love of gardening led to a detailed daily journal which is a wealth of information born of trial and error – a labour of love. His focused observations of the natural world –which he expressed in correspondence, eventually became his Natural History of Selbourne. It is clear when reading it that Gilbert got out there in his local environment, studying it with an extraordinary focus and engagement. His observations in the field were to change the way we view a great deal of the natural world. He was the first to realise the importance of the earth worm on the health of the soil –up until then they were perceived as pests! It seems to me the more Gilbert looked, the more he saw. In one small area of Hampshire, he found an extraordinary diversity of life, the magic and mystery of nature there to be seen for all who seek it.

When I think of him, I think of the value of the botanist’s square. This is an object – a bit like a large picture frame – that botanists place upon the ground. They then proceed to study what is contained within the frame. It can be surprising how much life a meter square of earth can sustain. It seems to me that we need to challenge ourselves to do just this – on a slightly grander scale – with our own local environments, truly engaging with it, observing it with fresh and enquiring eyes, coming to know it intimately by our observations and, in doing so, learning to love and cherish it. This might go a long way to easing our travel bug and reducing our carbon output.

We all need to be a little more like Gilbert White. He discovered that the Universe could be found in your own back yard; that with tender observation and care, the earth magically expands to reveal the greatest of wonders – right beneath our noses. He wrote about it in his tiny little study in Hampshire – four small walls contained him but as he wrote, the depth and expanse of the world poured from his quill; the flight of birds still vibrant in its shaft.



  1. October 24, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Great piece Maria, we could all do with looking in our own backyard. I have been doing just that recently and it is truly amazing what is to be found going on. I have a very small garden but there is a whole other world in motion. I agree also about our own communities,a new way of thinking is needed, I hope if will happen. Thanks .

  2. trish said,

    November 22, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Lovely, just found this one and it mirrors exactly what I have been thinking just recently, but not just in relationship to nature but regarding my friends and family, and within myself..that I have exactly what I want and am searching for, but have been lookng too far afield, it’s just sometimes it is so hard to see.New eyes may be necessary. Thankyou for writing with clarity and clear vision.

    Love Trish xx

  3. luckyloom1 said,

    November 22, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Thank you Chris and Trish! If you ever get the chance, go visit Gilbert White’s home and walk the zigzag too. Gilbert is in my gallery of folks who inspire me – wonderful man! I know it might sound crazy but I felt like you could still feel his presence in his wonderful garden, or maybe it’s the love that he had for the place that has become a part of it and is somehow still tangible.


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