The Mindful Life of Ecologist Gilbert White (1720-1793)

Place of Serenity | Mindful Gilbert White

This year, 2020, celebrates 300 years since Gilbert White was born. He is said to be England’s first ecologist.

Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’ was his one and only publication yet it has been consistently published in many languages around the world since its first publication in 1789. I bought myself a copy many years ago as an ‘A’ Level student. Little did I know then that I would eventually spend some time living in Selborne, Hampshire!

Gilbert White and Mindfulness = paying attention

White’s publication includes letters he wrote over many years to two of his naturalist friends. His writings are based on his love and enthusiasm for the countryside and wildlife around Selborne, Hampshire as well as his own pets including cats and a tortoise. He keeps meticulous accounts of his experiences and enquiries. Place of Serenity | Footpath Selborne

When I visited the Gilbert White Museum recently, I was struck by the mindful approach White must have taken. Even his handwriting was clear and neat!

This unassuming man spent all of his time, aside from his work as a local Curate of the church, noticing the birds and insects, walking Selborne’s sunken lanes and working in his own vegetable garden.

Just as I and many others today enjoy doing, White would wander the sunken lanes, the wildflower meadows up on The Lythes and walk across Selborne Hill with its wooded slopes.

If mindfulness is a way of not taking things for granted, being present and alert with one’s senses, curious and open, then White was certainly all of those things.

Mindfulness can allow us to experience fully the moment in front of us … and to wake up from neutral so we don’t miss the small, rich moments that add up to a dimensional life. ~ Sharon Salzburg

Gilbert White was inspired by life

Gilbert White only ever travelled around South East England due to severe travel sickness. Although his own work was focused on such a relatively small area, he was fascinated about all aspects of his friend’s wildlife experiences in Scotland, and from others who travelled around the world.

He diligently observed and recorded details of his local natural history.

Over his lifetime, White learns about every possible kind of bird species. Their colours, song and breeding habits, plus annual arrival and departure for those birds who migrated.

Gilbert White kept daily records of the weather. This included rainfall and one particular recording of snow with a temperature of minus 34 degrees centigrade.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) made a pilgrimage to Selborne years after Gilbert White’s death, since he regarded White’s work so highly. They both shared a fascination with earthworms.

White states:

‘Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation…’

Gilbert White’s observations are beautifully detailed

In February 1770 he wrote:

‘Hedgehogs abound in my gardens and fields. The manner in which they eat their roots of the plantain in my grass-walks is very curious: with their upper mandible, which is much longer than their lower, they bore under the plant, and so eat the root off upwards, leaving the tuft of leaves untouched.’

He talks about the hedgehog’s dung, the babies and the colour of their spines. He noted how these babies could not yet curl up into balls and supposed it was because the relevant muscles were not yet developed.

In September 1771, White studies a bat that he has caught (and dissects). He measures its wing length and describes its shoulders, body and nostrils.

‘Nothing could be more sleek and soft than their fur, which was of a bright chestnut colour’ and ‘these creatures send forth a very rancid and offensive smell.’ Zigzag Path, Selborne

  • He was passionate about growing his own vegetables too, singing the praises of the humble potato!
  • White created the Zigzag Path that you can climb today. Follow it up to Selborne Common, carved into the 300 foot scarp slope by Gilbert and his brother John. (It’s certain many villagers helped out too!)

Gilbert White was full of questions and enthusiasm

‘Does each female cuckoo lay but one egg in a season, or does she drop several in different nests according as opportunity offers?’

Before it was really known what happened to migratory birds like house-martins, there was some belief that they possibly hid during the winter. White was determined to discover the truth,

‘House-martins came remarkably late this year both in Hampshire and Devonshire: is this circumstance for or against either hiding or migration?’ … ‘I am more and more induced to believe that many of the swallow kind do not depart from this island; but lay themselves up in holes and caverns…come forth at mild times.’

‘A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys, in G flat, or F sharp, in B flat and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat, and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals?’

Gilbert White was fascinated with the biology and natural history of his world. Attentiveness was everything to him. Mary Oliver (1935-2019) also spent her lifetime in observation of nature. Her praise became poetry:

Place of Serenity | Mindful Gilbert White

So what can we learn from Gilbert White?

Bring your attention to everyday life. You never know what you may spot! With stillness, patience and curiosity, a mindful life lets you wake up to the magic and amazement of your own surroundings.

And whatever your passion is – unique to you alone, live true to your heart’s inspiration, just as Gilbert White clearly did!

Gilbert White’s Museum  – includes plenty of events as this year is his celebratory 300th anniversary


The Ecologist – sign up for their regular newsletters on relevant subjects
British Ecological Society
Rachel Carson – Biologist, writer and ecologist (1907-1964)

Noticing nature:

Robert Macfarlane, ‘The Wild Places’
Mary Oliver, ‘New and Selected Poems’
Kenneth Grahame, ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Yvette Jane – Mindfulness & Meditation Guide

Place of Serenity | Place of Serenity





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