With more than two hundred editions, Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne is one of the most published books in the English language. An environmental study of the eighteenth-century Hampshire parish where White was born and later served as curate, the book is distinguished by the author's meticulous observations of plant and animal life--the "minute particulars"--and his uncanny sense of their interdependence. His book is both the definitive expression of the English love for countryside and a cornerstone of all environmental writing.
In this Whitbread Prize-winning biography, Richard Mabey--whom the Times has called "Britain's foremost nature writer"--looks at the life from which the celebrated work grew. This is not an easy task. Although White's findings did not go unnoticed in his own time (much of the Selborne book's contents are in fact letters to Thomas Pennant, one of the era's leading zoologists), relatively little is known about this minor clergyman, who made twenty pounds a year and rarely ventured outside his parish. Mabey visits not only the public and private records but the environs of Selborne, which survive to this day and are remarkably unchanged. A portrait of exceptional detail emerges, and we begin to see very clearly this singular man whose superb scientific eye was complemented by a patient curiosity (he valued observing over collecting) and an emotional investment in his work that still speaks to us. White typifies the eclectic but intense engagement that has nearly vanished in our era of scientific specialization. We recognize in his work a crucial shift in the human perception of nature--as something benign rather than as an adversary.
The first U.S. edition of this classic biography coincides with a new BBC documentary on Gilbert White, for which Mabey is a featured commentator. These are only the latest reminders of the fascination White's book has exercised upon readers for two centuries.