Gilbert White 2020

December 14, 2019

It is Gilbert White's tercentenary year in 2020.

On the eve of Gilbert White’s three-hundredth anniversary year, I’m constantly reminded of the unwitting contribution he made to my profession of wildlife conservation.  My latest book is nearly finished, and while it is not intended as an explicit celebration of White, I have by chance devoted many pages to his work and his legacy runs tacitly through all of it.  One chapter relies so heavily on him that it is in effect a tercentenary homage to the great man.

Gilbert White
Gilbert White 1720-1793

The chapter in question concerns the field cricket, a species I have covered before on this blog.  It is one of several chapters that comprise detailed portraits of a single species, exploring the cultural past and future of conservation through their stories. 

Field cricket Farnham Heath RSPB
Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) nymph basking at burrow entrance to promote moulting. Sussex, UK. April. Classified as Vulnerable in the UK. Photographed under license.

Gilbert White understood that the animals we despise (in the literal and ambiguous sense of ‘look down upon’) are connected to humans in vital ways.  In 1777 he wrote:

The most insignificant insects and reptiles [he was using the word in the earlier sense of creeping/crawling thing] are of much more consequence, and have much more influence of the economy of nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity.  Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost would make a lamentable chasm.

Gilbert White, letter 35 to Daines Barrington, May 20, 1777

It is impossible to overstate the revolutionary nature of this view, at a time when even farmers believed that earthworms were pests.   It was arguably the first modern ecological statement.  White was one of the first, and for centuries one of the few, naturalists to study invertebrates with scientific dispassion, while allowing his enthusiasm and sense of wonder to remain undisguised.  American entomologist E.O. Wilson is his direct intellectual descendent and dispenses a steady stream of aphorisms like an ecological Dalai Lama, or a modern-day Gilbert White.  One of his most-quoted is that if all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.

A few weeks ago, UK entomologist Dave Goulson published a report for the Wildlife Trusts with its own variation on the same theme:  For many insects, we simply do not know what they do. We have not even given a name to perhaps four-fifths of the perhaps five million insect species that are thought to exist, let alone studied what ecological roles they might perform. Goulson went on to quote Aldo Leopold: The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts.

Gilbert White was born nearly three hundred years ago, on 18 July 1720.  I shall be marking his tercentenary throughout 2020 with events and projects, including regular blogs.  2020 is also Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, and I have at least one concert (15th May, details to follow) and a podcast from Vienna planned, in celebration of that other self-confessed nature-lover.

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