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Vanessa Kam, assistant art librarian: (650) 725-1038, (650) 723-9523,

Natural History of Selborne exhibit, interrupted by Loma Prieta earthquake, on view again after more than a decade

An exhibit celebrating the work of the late British clergyman and amateur naturalist Gilbert White opened Oct. 15, 1989, in the Cecil H. Green Library. Two days later, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, and the exhibit was forced to close.

But you can't keep a good Englishman down.

"Cultural Landscapes: Gilbert White and The Natural History of Selborne/The Bicentennial Exhibit Revisited" is set to pick up where the original show left off. It will be on view Feb. 4 through April 8 in the Peterson Gallery of the Green Library. (Slightly fewer texts will be featured, but the scope of the show is the same, said Becky Fischbach, exhibits coordinator for the University Libraries.)

The Rev. White lived in the small English village of Selborne during the 18th century. He was a keen observer of the natural world, which is the principal subject of his one -- but quite famous -- book titled The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (or just The Natural History of Selborne), first published in 1789. It is said to be one of the most frequently reprinted books in Britain. The bicentennial of its publication was the impetus for the original exhibit, the brainchild of English Professor Bliss Carnochan.

"White's Natural History of Selborne is, at least in England, a very, very well-known book," said Carnochan, the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, who wrote an introductory essay for the 1989 exhibition catalog. "It appeals to the English delight in natural landscapes. And it became a kind of cult classic."

The book consists of letters written to the naturalist Thomas Pennant and the barrister-naturalist Daines Barrington. Some were mailed, others were not. The making of the book "was mainly a matter of expansion, revision, arrangement -- an editorial enterprise, though on a large scale," according to Carnochan.

White's observations about the flora and fauna around Selborne were published the same year heads began to roll in France. Two hundred years later, while various countries planned events to celebrate the bicentennial of the toppling of the aristocratic French government, Carnochan conceived of doing something different.

"I decided it would be entertaining -- instead of celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution -- to celebrate the bicentennial of the first publication of The Natural History of Selborne," he said.

With the help of library staff, Carnochan and Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, a former doctoral student in comparative literature at Stanford, created the exhibition.

"White is an enormously talented, adept writer whose simplest journal entries about the weather and what he happened to see on such and such a day all have a kind of quality of poetry about them," Carnochan said.

The show itself will feature a copy of the first edition of the book, as well as various later editions. Other highlights will include writing by Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden and Sir Isaac Newton, who touch on the subject of White's work. The exhibition also will feature photographs, maps and an eclectic mix of rare, published works relating to natural history.

White was born in Selborne in 1720 and died there in 1793. He was ordained in the Church of England and worked as a curate in Hampshire, a county to the southeast of London. He went to school at Oxford University and, at the age of 30, began keeping a journal under the heading "Garden Kalendar." Over the years, his journal entries became more frequent and involved.

"In the prose begin to appear rhythms and harmonic effects that will be recognizable, in time, as the source of White's authentic tone," Carnochan writes in his essay. He offers, as a sample, a journal entry from Sept. 28, 1757: "Planted a row of Sweet Williams, & a row of Polyanths under the back of the melon-screen: some Polyanths along the dark walk in the orchard. Delicate Autumn-weather, & no rain for more than a month. Roads perfectly dry."

"White has begun to harmonize his world," Carnochan adds.

Indeed, these and later journal entries show that White had the exposed nerve of a poet. He is highly sensitive to the aesthetics of his surroundings, and his prose edges toward detailed and lyrical descriptions.

"He hears the world as subtle music," according to Carnochan, who points to a series of entries White made in his Naturalist's Journal, a kind of calendar in which space was provided for writing notes and observations. For example, Jan. 3, 1768: "Horses are still falling with their general disorder. It freezes under people's beds."

A few days later: "Moles work. Cocks crow. Crows crie. My Provisions are kept in the Cellar. Birds pull moss from the trees."

"In the miniature dramas, the elliptical narratives, the alliterations, the balances and antitheses, the strong rhythms and their intimations of verse, we see the authentic White," Carnochan writes.

He points to a passage in the Natural History as evidence that White was a "great writer, a rival in his own way to Swift and Johnson and Gibbon and Burke." The passage deals with an observation White made of the mating habits of swifts. Here is how it ends:

"If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing around at a great height from the ground, he would see, every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek. This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on."

Toward the end of his essay, Carnochan poses a rhetorical question:

"So what is White's secret? I would say, the interplay of prosaic and poetic, of digression and concentration, of the ordinary and the profound. Much of his book is the experience of a groundling, a dweller on the valley floor, and high-flying birds are not the whole story. There are also snakes and newts and bot-flys, tiny shrews and a large, ancient tortoise, snails and slugs and worms."

A catalog of the exhibition, with essays by Carnochan and Cook, is available for $5 plus tax and shipping. To obtain copies, contact Lucretia Cerny at (650) 725-1021 or


By John Sanford

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