Nature 2011 April

Some musings on nature

This being a sort of landmark for my Nature Notes articles, (number 50) I have chosen four of my favourite naturalists who I have enjoyed reading over the years and have provided some of the inspiration for my contributions in Hilltop News over the past eight years.

The Reverend Gilbert White (1720-93), who happened also to be the subject of a biography by Richard Mabey (see later), was arguably one of the first natural historians to commit his thoughts to writing, and these writings had the capacity to reflect with refreshing simplicity and honesty the sights and sounds he came across on his daily walks from the Wakes in Selbourne. He recorded these ‘religiously’ in his exchanges with other men of the clergy who, as was the vogue, were also like-minded naturalists. I find it fascinating that, at a time when relatively little was understood about the life histories of animals and plants, he made almost daily insights. His conversational style of prose is a delight, such as in this observation on swallows…

‘When I used to rise in the morning last autumn, and see the swallows and martins clustering on the chimnies (sic) and thatch of neighbouring cottages, I could not help being touched with a secret delight, mixed with some degree of mortification: with delight, to observe with how much ardour and punctuality those poor little birds observed the strong impulse towards migration or hiding….. and with some degree of mortification when I reflected that, after all our pains and inquiries, we are still not quite certain to what regions they migrate, and are still farther (sic) embarrassed to find that some do not actually migrate at all.’ (The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, 1789)

Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) writings have been so influential in every walk of life, not just biology, that it is impossible to find just one example to reflect his life’s work. Rather than seek the most notable, the most controversial, or the most beautiful, I have chosen an extract from one of his least known works. He spent much time studying earthworms. Employing his children to collect them from his garden at Down House in Kent, he turned the billiard room into a giant wormarium. He calculated that for every acre of pasture more than ten tons of dry earth passes through the bodies of worms annually and that every few years, therefore, the whole of the topsoil has been so transported. He concluded in a monograph…

‘When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms….. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals that have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures.’ (The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Actions of Worms, 1871)

Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) who, like her uncle Walter who founded the natural history museum in Tring, was a zoologist and almost as eccentric. Her major area of research was the diminutive flea: however, her writings covered the whole range of the animal kingdom, incorporating philosophy and history into her zoological treatises. One of her observations I came across was about the cuckoo…

‘The cuckoo was thought by the ancient Hebrews to be a hawk and for this reason along with nightjars and owls they excluded it from their diets.’

She goes on to speculate that this assumption, which persisted until the 18th century, was down to the bird’s habit of:-

‘beating along hedgerows or gliding out of a thicket or copse much like a sparrow-hawk or like bird of prey.’

Today, we who live in this part of the Chilterns would be very lucky to see such a sight. Instead we know there are cuckoos around because of the onomatopoeic calls of the males. Miriam, in her unique writing style, describes the female’s song as like:-

‘a soft burbling call rather like a sudden rush of water through a narrow-necked bottle.’ (Fleas Flukes and Cuckoos, 1952)

Richard Mabey (1941- ) attended school in Berkhamsted and spent 30 years observing and recording nature’s happenings around him. He wrote the following in 2010, having recently moved to a remote cottage in Norfolk:-

‘Beetles sidle in under ill-fitting doors. Crickets hang out in lamp lit corners of the living room. Goodness knows what’s going on in the thatch. But I also have the sense of the house being a kind of squatters’ encampment on anciently occupied territory.’

Much of Mabey’s writing has been about flora rather than fauna. His book ‘Food For Free’ was a landmark publication in the 1970s foretelling the resurgence of allotments, self sufficiency and TVs ‘The Good Life.’ His ‘Flora Britannica’ broke new ground by combining, through vibrant writing, plant taxonomy with social history and folklore. However, it is his observations about insects and the like that I enjoy the most. One of the easiest traps for the nature writer to fall into is anthropomorphism. I came across the following words from Mabey…

‘How does one write about creatures whose states of consciousness are so remote from ours, whose lives are so brief and mercurial and full of what we see as the horrors of cannibalism and slavery and living parasitism? Not, certainly, by trying to interpret insects’ behaviour in terms of human institutions, as in so much embarrassing writings about social bees and ants’. (On the anger of hornets in Nature’s Cures, 2010)

All the examples of animal behaviour in the extracts above are ones we can enjoy, or in Mabey’s house endure, but above all appreciate still today in this part of the Chilterns. So, in anticipation of the arrival of Spring, it’s a great time to get out there to see our local wildlife in the raw.