Apocalypse Narrative, Chaotic System: Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne and Modern Ecology
Florida International University
The catastrophic worldview, which has been formalized into various scientific theories (punctuated equilibrium, chaos, tipping points), covets disaster as its aesthetic, with entropy and negentropy as vying principles. At the close of the eighteenth century, science centered around the new findings of Geology, and scientists like Cuvier, Lamarck, and Buffon debated the predominance of gradual change through time versus sudden, widespread calamities or ‘punctuations.’ This essay investigates Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789), a non-fiction, late eighteenth century natural history chronicle of a single parish through decades of close environmental observation. Its epistolary form conveys an aesthetic of discrete, close readings of nature through time, and the chronicle breaks off with the catastrophic effects of the Laki volcanic eruption of 1783. I suggest ways in which White’s famous work is unusually precocious in ecological methodology, a particularly fruitful angle because my reading goes against the perennial critical reception of Selborne as a tome of Enlightenment balance and economy. Instead, I argue that White’s work is a distinctly modern vision of catastrophic change in nature that foregrounds the contemporary science of Chaos Ecology.
“There was reason for the most enlightened person to be apprehensive” (White 243). Faced with the oppressive, smoky sulfur dioxide pollution from the Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland, the summer of 1783 was extraordinarily hot, and the succeeding winter of 1784 was one of the coldest on record. Thousands of laborers in Europe died of inhalation and exposure, as well as a quarter of the human population of Iceland. Shortages of food and extreme storms in France that were downstream effects of Laki were a contributing factor in the French Revolution five years later (Brayshay and Grattan 1999). Over the course of this essay I hope to stir up a vision of wild weather and what its unpredictable diversity, even chaos, meant to an early English ecologist who had a profound impact on nineteenth century thought. Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789) was the most popular treatise of its genre before Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), and remains influential to this day as an early vision of the oikos that gave ecology its name. The chronicle of letters progresses over 20 years from an Enlightenment aesthetic of Classical cycles in the seasons towards a more bewildered vision of wild weather and human-wrought landscape changes. Selborne is a good place to start looking for literary influences on the nascent sciences of nature, especially Ecology.
A dynamic nature, the one beginning to be conceived in the post-Enlightenment epistemologies of the nineteenth century, is a natural world with a history of change. Enlightenment Geology posited two distinct patterns for how deep history might have unfolded. These contrasting theories of catastrophism (Cuvier’s paradigm) and gradualism (Lyell’s) were both supported by the fossil patterns to a limited extent, and lively debates about the nature of deep time continued through the nineteenth century when biological change came to the fore among scientific concerns. Darwin’s evolution by natural selection adopts Lyell’s geological views without question, and the doctrine natura non facit saltum (nature does not proceed in leaps) is essential to Darwin’s theory that omniscient natural selection slowly, inexorably carves adaptive forms from the variations in populations, and requires a steady, deep evolutionary time to make those forms apparent. This essay proposes, conversely, that innovative environmental narratives of the nineteenth century used catastrophism to make sense of how nature is forced to change over time, and that this new appraisal of the role of the stochastic in natural history foregrounds the contemporary ideas of chaotic causation and punctuated equilibria as driving forces of evolution.
My use of the trope of chaos requires a brief introduction. In literature beginning with the Renaissance, but perhaps most famously in Milton’s work, chaos appears as a formless void, an imbroglio of elements, a conglomeration of things without shape or order. There is an awesome power unleashed in images of chaos in Paradise Lost, as chaos is the realm of Satan, but it is also God’s workshop from which He creates the divinely ordered natural world. Chaos is the Garden’s ontological opposite; however, the two realms are polarized by a difference in coherence, not in an opposition of materiality. Chaos is the elemental world deprived of any principle of organization; its analogue in biological origins is the primordial soup of amino acids from which, it is theorized, life spontaneously organized (helped by the energy of lightning). These images of ultimate material disorder, which hold essential imaginative power in their potential for a future order, are the chaos that writers of White’s Enlightenment age would have held in their lexicon. In this sense, though chaos denotes disorder, it is inconceivable without the complement of some system in which the chaos of elements will find coherence. In Creationist tradition, the Deity is the organizing force; in evolutionary theory, there inheres a principle of nature that spontaneously (without requiring an outside intellect) articulates adaptive forms from an internal dynamic; Darwinists would call that principle natural selection, but postmodern evolutionists have further appraised the random agents of environmental disaster at the ecosystem level, and genetic mutation and drift at the individual.
Mathematical sciences of the mid-twentieth century began to call chaos the empirically-demonstrated pattern of spontaneous order that can appear in complex systems. Order does not demand a teleological endpoint; this fortuitous order merely implies that the elements of a system generate emergent relationships through time. With the proper scope of investigation chaotic systems demonstrate an articulate organization, an emergent interrelation of parts. In the twenty-first century reality of climate change, ecologists studying the environment-to-be have introduced chaotic possibilities such as tipping points into our imaginations, Hollywood movies like “2012” thrill in environmental apocalypse, and National Geographic’s footage of puréed ice sheets provides contextual immediacy in this geological era of the Anthropocene. Inherent to such imagery is chaotic narrative: from where these energies of change have come (volcanoes, industrial emissions, Milankovitch cycles), to what they will lead (permanent temperature changes, rising water levels, salination), and at what pace (gradual or precipitous).
Early environmental narratives such as White’s Selborne partake of similar sensations. White establishes how chaos looks, not in equations or in recursive computer modeling, but in a close history of a neighborhood in southern England, where the fabric is stressed by stochastic events. Selborne, I argue, foreshadows science’s notion that chaotic climactic events are essential to the articulation of surprising new forms and patterns in nature. This new ecological dynamic went on to inform the nineteenth century cultural imagination, and was wrought not only into scientific ideas, but into science fiction narratives like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Richard Jefferies’s After London, and a cohort of Thames valley catastrophe narratives in the late nineteenth century.
Beginning in earnest in the 1990s, scientific chaos found a small place in literary studies. Using the energy of a new public enthusiasm for the catastrophism, scholars, most prominently Katherine Hayles and Alex Argyros, carved out a narrative literary theory around the paradox of chaotic order. Hayles admits the reciprocal influence of cultural and scientific moments, which form a feedback loop of information and new ideas. Part of the cultural receptivity to chaos was the condition of post-modernity, which literary deconstruction had outlined as an “emergent awareness of the constructive roles that disorder, nonlinearity, and noise play in complex systems” (5). The conditions for higher levels of understanding could emerge from the dissolution of linear narrative and the identification of absences and omissions as themselves explanatory principles and new ways to organize complex thought. The project of Hayles and her contributors in Chaos and Order was to identify several ways in which this new form of the chaos trope informs our readings of coherence in the postmodern world. The trope belonged to both science and literature and had evolved through a series of exchanges, which eventually brought the insight that chaotic systems were “rich in information rather than poor in order” (6). The perceived poverty of order in a chaotic worldview was merely the myopia of reading into a narrative that it ought to be linear, coherent, comprehensive, and playing the rules of an old Enlightenment game.
In Chaos Ecology, a new aesthetic of dynamics in nature was coming into view, involving “the recognition that nonlinear systems are all around us, in every puff of wind and swirl of water” (15). Hayles maintains the necessary balance that makes an idea like chaos particularly useful. Chaos does not obviate order; it merely reorients our understanding of how order is wrought in the natural world. She describes the increasingly evident environmental dynamics brought into focus by the trope of chaos:
Industrial pollutants are released into the atmosphere; along with carbon dioxide, also a by-product of technology, they create the greenhouse effect; the resulting climate changes wreak havoc with the global ecosystem. Cascading effects from initially small causes could, and have, been observed at any time. But whereas in earlier epochs they tended to be seen as anomalous or unusual, now they are recognized as paradigmatic of complex behavior.
With this perspective, it is surprising that none of the twelve essays in her volume are concerned with theories of chaotic nature in literature; the entries, most of which are limited to twentieth-century works, approach chaotic dynamics largely through established literary theory, especially deconstruction. Perhaps this omission is an emblem of the book’s age (published in 1991); only in the intervening decades has the evidence for global climate change become unassailable, both in scientific circles and in any reasonable public sphere.
I believe a new moment for literary chaos has arrived. Within the continuum between its ancient and modern denotations, chaos holds a generous cache of information to elucidate the nineteenth century narrative fascination with fragmentation, dissolution, and the rise of new ecological orders. Humanists may appear too glib in applying this highly-quantified modern principle to literary epistemology. “Chaos” itself is a sensational term, and is at least half misnomer: the feature that distinguishes scientific chaos from mythological chaos is the spontaneous order that arises from the seemingly-random behavior of the system. The word ‘chaos,’ then, indicates how a system looks before an epistemology has arrived at the proper level of perspective to recognize its organizing principles. However, humanists are under no obligation to play by scientific epistemology’s rules in their analyses, and a certain amount of cross-reading can have a freshening effect on a quantified, overly-rigid paradigm. My use of “chaos” gestures to the evolution of a set of connotations associated with this concept in the seedbed of the Romantic era.
Between 1768 and 1787, Gilbert White brought to the Enlightenment’s resources the first in-depth, in situ study of an ecosystem. The text has never been out of print since it was first published in 1789. White’s chronicle of Natural History, which discursively reports on several aspects of Selborne’s environment -- its geology, botany, and zoology in particular – is notable for its movement through time, with the three dimensions of space fixed in White’s home parish. His original use of phenology, the study of naturally-recurring cycles such as the seasons, provisionally advanced knowledge according to Enlightenment expectations of stability. A devotion to ornithology, in particular, predisposed him to detailing species migration according to predictable annual patterns.
Almost in spite of its design, however, The Natural History of Selborne deconstructs the Enlightenment sensibility of static, coherent nature. By the end of White’s chronicle, it is clear that the author views extraordinary environmental events as essential to Selborne’s natural state. The stochastic becomes a principle of ecological behavior that White is determined to address, though the only epistemological tools at his disposal are close observation, basic measurement and epistolary narrative. The latter, as it turns out, opened the way for a new century of chaotic environmental stories, as generations of nineteenth century Britons adopted his text as the model for a new kind of relationship with nature based not only on eternity and balance, but more importantly on sublime awe and indeterminacy.
Critics have nearly always distilled White’s text down to precisely the inverse of chaos. An Enlightenment aesthetic of economy and balance, White’s intellectual milieu, might seem to obviate influence from less established traditions of knowledge like catastrophism. David Allen’s important study of the evolution of biological science, The Naturalist in Britain, partakes of such paradigmatic valuations: White’s chronicle is “an irresistible classic: somehow, it enshrines a portion of our necessary collective mythology” (50). Allen’s “somehow” circles around White’s gift of deep feeling and empathy for the nature around him, a “much more modern gift” than mere observation, and which allows White to supersede his contemporaries in the detail and color of the chronicle and pushes it towards Romantic sensibility (50). Allen continues, “For it is, surely, the testament of Static Man: at peace with the world and with himself, content with deepening his knowledge of his one small corner of the earth, a being suspended in the perfect mental balance. Selborne is the secret, private parish inside each one of us” (50-51).
Though the first two-thirds of White’s chronicle are passably “at peace with the world” (with important exceptions), Allen’s quasi-Edenic summation of Selborne’s cultural import, his coalescence of a “collective mythology” that knows Paradise only as sunny spots of greenery, appears to me an incomplete reading. Though the Static Man may be responsible for outlining Selborne’s initial coordinates like so many creations in the Garden, before the end of 25 years White has grown into a much less self-assured reader of the complex climactic dynamics around him. Indeed, the opposite principles of unpredictability and discord come to command the narrative contours of Selborne, and bring it into the modern epistemological age of bewildering change.
Donald Worster’s evaluation of Selborne also figures the work within an Enlightenment sensibility of stasis; Worster begins his encyclopedic history of ecological ideas with a lively discussion of Gilbert White’s influences in contemporary and future ecological science. Worster emphasizes the importance of biological heterogeneity in the legacy of White’s work, claiming that Selborne’s diversity allowed White, “a man of considerable sophistication and learning, to devote his life to so small a terrain. In any case, in contrast to the general mania among eighteenth century British scientists for collecting and cataloguing exotic species from the farthest corners of the world, White’s attention was remarkably focused on this microcosm, the natural order of his little parish” (6). Selborne possessed the diversity required to demonstrate intricate symbioses between species, the anchor of an ecological vision based on nature’s balance or economy (indeed, Worster’s history is entitled Nature’s Economy). But the microcosm of Selborne, White would discover, was vulnerable to violent change and rapid degradation partially by virtue of its diminutive scope. These theories of stochastic endangerment have not been developed in the critical literature on Selborne.
If Selborne were really a chronicle recording eternal peace and reciprocal empathy, it would be functionally obsolete; a twenty-first century visitor to the parish would find very little to recognize from White’s account. Selborne is a classic text for modern times not because it depicts a set of poignant by-gone myths about the balance of mother nature, but because White successfully divests the static paradigm in favor of the more frightening natural condition of discord and contingency. White pushes the vanguard of post-Enlightenment epistemology towards a recognition of stochastic change in natural patterns, which he supports using occasional pairings with thermodynamics and population ecology. He kept many correspondents among a range of scientists, from Linneaus to Sir Joseph Banks. He honed his methods from his location using the natural trope of the microcosm, the system that can be isolated and simplified and seen whole. At times his Selborne method resembles a narrative of early population ecology, lashed together with species lists and arithmetic.
Note his open queries:
how [animals] came [to America], and whence? is too puzzling for me to answer; and yet so obvious as often to have struck me with wonder. If one looks into the writers on that subject little satisfaction is to be found. Ingenious men will readily advance plausible arguments to support whatever theory they shall chuse to maintain; but then the misfortune is, every one’s hypothesis is as good as another’s, since they are all founded on conjecture.
His intrepid tallies:
Jynx, sive torquilla
Middle of March
2. Smallest willow-wren
Regulus non cristatus
(chirps till September)
These tallies include listed cross-references to Linnaean names, adding to the bewilderment of an age that so stridently tried to make order from this lovely, messy excess, or Concordiadiscors. His methods touch on early puzzles in ecological science, such as how the biology of populations could study distribution patterns, and how ecological hypotheses themselves are to be tested empirically. Later I will discuss this in relation to his notes on the variations of wasp populations. The predator-prey relationship is one of several in the ecological sciences to make use of the chaos concept as essential to its non-linear dynamics.
But first, White had to learn how to detect the small, conceptual earthquakes in his parish, such as individual deaths and the occasional species extinction. By 1770, two years into his study, White details the work of the “monographer,” he who writes on a single, scientific subject:
Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.
White’s single subject is not a taxonomic group, it is a location; his circumference is not defined by species, but by ecosystem. Though Selborne is not an “ecosystem” in the modern biological sense of a semi-closed unit of interdependent organisms and their abiotic media, Selborne is a parish, the socio-political analogue to ecosystem. Before the work of Alexander von Humboldt, philosophers only had social and geographical concepts of circumscription to work with. Natural History had not developed a theory of delimiting nature into autonomous parcels strictly by virtue of biology, which became the work of ecosystem science. A parish represents a territorial unit governed by a representative of the church, and geography operates using the natural structures of mountains, rivers, and oceans. White’s parish-ecosystem, then, revisits the limiting principles of ancient feudal territories: The Anglo-Saxon estate established borders by defensibility, a highly geographical consideration that holds connections with the ecological relations of an area. Selborne is not a coastal parish, nor is it featured like the midlands. White celebrates Selborne for the biodiversity it holds as a southern, transition parcel of land not far from the sea, and its feudal history assures the circumscribed autonomy necessary for a monographic study.
Over the course of four letters he comes to realize the strong potential of this serendipitous method of monography-by-location. It began, as most formal studies do, with simple recording designed to enable a more detailed report. But even from this commonplace, White’s instincts push his science towards innovation:
For many months I carried a list in my pocket of the birds that were to be remarked, and, as I rode or walked about my business, I noted each day the continuance or omission of each bird’s song; so that I am as sure of the certainty of my facts as a man can be of any transaction whatsoever…
The key concept here is White’s notice of “omission” in migratory patterns. Not merely the presence of an individual from an identifiable species, but also the absence becomes an important fact in the natural history of Selborne. Here is a crucial turn in methods of ecological knowledge: science was accustomed to in-depth study of apparent, observable, material entities, but it had no way of getting to the gaps and absences that are equally important to understanding patterns of species distribution through time, especially in disturbed environments. White’s pocketed list accumulates the ✓ of presence alongside the O of absence, and observation gains a new dimension of explanatory power by making use of both a phenomenon (the red-breast was singing today) as well as its inverse.
Before White, the commonsense assumption was that where a species is not found, that species is not to be studied. His decision to focus on the organic interactions and environmental events of his home parish provides a crucial trial of the stability through time that Natural History assumed inherent to created nature. Today around the world there are monographers recording the details of shifted migratory patterns and flowering times as climate change stretches spring and fall into the winter months. By focusing on a single place through time, and appreciating the elucidating power of a negative phenomenon, White was able to provide a foundation for the scientific observation of ecological variation, and even irreversible change. The natural world gained the potential of dynamism, which is far afield from White’s original phenological rationale to formalize the reliable and unvarying episodes that guided Selborne through the cycle of a cosmic year. Dynamism, and not cyclical stability, guided the most notable episodes of White’s history, and these stochastic events of environmental disturbance (cold, hot, drought, landslide, extinction) become more and more frequently White’s occasion for writing on some phenomenon, especially for the letters of the 1780s. Because of its innovative methodology, White’s Selborne implicitly disavows Enlightenment cycles set in eternity, and looks towards Modern contingency with some trepidation, as I will show.
The widespread appeal of White’s chronicle rests partially on his caring and concerned voice for all the non-human denizens of Selborne; he shows more affection for oaks, turtles and worms than for the “hordes of gypsies which infest the south and west of England” (179). The results of human activity are too-often destructive of the peaceable web of species in Selborne: where the oak is felled, the intrepid mother bird is struck dead (11); where hunters are unreasonable in their kills, the partridges and red deer become rare or extinct, leaving a “gap” in Fauna Selborniensis (22); lowly worms are essential to soil health (196). White writes,
Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm…Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms…But these men would find that the earth without worms would become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile.
White’s religious-Enlightenment paradigm of the great chain of being is here stressed by these undeniable gaps and chasms in the interdependent biotic network. His point falls hard on the ignorance of humans, when even those who make a living from the earth, the farmers and gardeners, assume the subordination of other species rather than their natural mutualism. As White observes, nature’s economy of interaction is a precondition to stability; when that economy is violated, surprising imbalances become manifest. The red deer, clear in the memory of generations past, is now merely a specter of seventeenth-century Selborne, and other game species inevitably become stressed under the hunters’ sights. But the question remains as to whether the ontology of natural balance is temporarily ruffled by chance events, or whether chance events are nature’s true ontology and the aesthetic of balance is a social or cognitive imposition on nature.
White’s history shifts from an occasional tone of lamentation for a species lost, towards less self-reflexive expressions of awe and fear at the unpredictable meteorological events of the 1780s. The chronicle gains an appreciation for the power of stochastic weather over the course of 25 years, and the narrative gains momentum by considering the effects of climate-based anomaly on established ecological relationships. White explicitly brings meteorology, the study of the unpredictable or “meteoric,” into Selborne’s history:
Since the weather of a district is undoubtedly part of its natural history, I shall make no further apology for the four following letters, which will contain many particulars concerning some of the great frosts and a few respecting some very hot summers, that have distinguished themselves from the rest during the course of my observations.
This letter, number 61 out of 66 total, opens an extended exposition of horrifying and sublime phenomena noted objectively as temperature and barometrical readings, but also attendant to the subjective psychological affect of the unusual, and even the unprecedented, in these surprising turns of natural history. White is never able to return to his initially calm narrative voice that observes cyclical, consistent patterns from the commonplace of Deistic design, or Enlightenment intelligibility.
His language comes to rely on exceptional terms quite foreign to a natural theology based on the balanced economy of nature: paradox, severity, loathsome, amazing, tremendous, extraordinary, portentous, superstitious, strange, prodigious, violent, deluging, convulsed, and fierce all appear as descriptors in the final series of letters (253-268). The four letters that detail sudden and unseasonable extremes of warmth and cold prepare the reader for the last two entries, which detail the atmospheric affect of 1783’s Laki volcano eruption in Iceland and the sublime thunderstorms that accompanied this many-leveled catastrophe. White uses these extreme observations rhetorically, as well as epistemologically: The ethos established by his talent for close and patient description measures his brave new narrative of wild weather and brings to those passages a face-value believability that would have been lost in the work of more histrionic writers. White feels the need to “make no further apology” for the unorthodox content of his final letters; he feels confident as a respectable member of establishment science, as well as an independent-thinking scholar who knows the subject of his monography better than anyone else. Though Enlightenment natural history purports equal-access to the facts of nature, rendering the history’s author irrelevant (the fraternity of equality based on an ideal of objective observation), White has come to possess Selborne as his own epistemological microcosm. Its own dynamic of nature makes intelligible the movements of a larger natural world, and he knows that his audience is eager to learn the lessons of the model, however surprised they are by its sudden recalcitrance.
White himself is surprised. Sudden, unseasonable changes in temperature determine the biological character of entire years, they are not merely passing inconveniences of physical discomfort. On the cold front, White
would infer that it is the repeated melting and freezing of the snow that is so fatal to vegetation, rather than the severity of the cold…thaws often originate under ground from warm vapours which arise…cold seems to descend from above…the author had occasion to go to London through a sort of Laplandian-scene, very wild and grotesque indeed.
253, 255, 258
The exceptional winter season shows White that extreme cold at solstice is less damaging to the biotic community than is equinoctial vicissitude. Vacillation around a freezing temperature, especially during the growing season, is fatal to crops and ornamental plants, though it may be less apparently uncomfortable to humans.
Conversely, the summer extremes also bring variable effects: “The summers of 1781 and 1783 were unusually hot and dry…The great pests of the garden are wasps, which destroy all the finer fruits just as they are coming into perfection. In 1781 we had none, in 1783 there were myriads” (263). White has no desire to elide or simplify these chaotic patterns that become apparent when closely observed and recorded through decades. Though he did not have the conceptual or quantitative tools to elucidate the mysteries of chaotic population fluctuation, his work effectively acknowledges a problem that the science of ecology would come towards modeling more than 200 years later. Donald Worster has commented on the importance of this passage: The letter provides
an example of nature’s irregularities that had continued right down to the present. The point was that species did not all exhibit the same demographic patterns. Some remained numerically constant over long periods of time, others oscillated greatly from generation to generation but always around a stable long-term norm, while still others fluctuated radically each year, with no apparent norm, even when weather conditions were steady, suggesting there was something chaotic in their genetic makeup or response to the environment…the variability found among species made the science of ecology far more complicated than had long been supposed.
[my italics] 410
Culminating the wasp-laden summer of 1783, the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted, rendering the season
an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phenomena; for, besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man…the country people began to look with superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun; and indeed there was reason for the most enlightened person to be apprehensive…
Though White has generally been able to maintain his enlightened distance from the superstitious masses in the interest of forwarding good observational, objective science, here he appeals to the forthcoming Romantic discourse that appreciates the awesomeness of natural forces at the same time as he admits to their irreducible mystery. Though frosts and heat waves are damaging of a baseline species routine, and may render a growing season less productive, they are small anomalies in comparison to this extraordinary event that caused widespread famine, stifling air pollution across Europe, and a particularly severe winter into 1784.
Benjamin Franklin, on the other side of the Atlantic, is another Enlightenment figure who found that this volcanic eruption and its effects beggared reason. Franklin, not knowing whether a volcano was involved, called the phenomenon a “universal fog,” and forthrightly rendered the mystery a useful predictive mechanism: If dry summer fogs were to become a new reality, “men might from such fogs conjecture the probability of succeeding hard winter, and of the damage to be expected by the breaking up of frozen rivers in the spring; and take such measures as are possible and practicable, to secure themselves and effects from the mischiefs that attended the last.” Franklin wishes to secure a useful indicator out of a confusing phenomenon. But for White, mischief of the most imaginative variety, rather than rational prediction, takes over his prose. He seems particularly fascinated by the solar warp and decay affected by the dense smoke. Again appealing to sublime imagery, the sun in 1783 “looked as blank as a clouded moon…but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting” (265).
White turns to the resource of literature to make a lasting image of this apocalyptic summer. He writes, “Milton’s noble simile of the sun, in his first book of Paradise Lost, frequently occurred to my mind…it alludes to a superstitious kind of dread, with which the minds of men are always impressed by such strange and unusual phenomena” (265). White’s allusion to Milton is suggestive: it figures this ensanguined sun following Laki’s eruption as a principle of corruption and error. Satan’s band of fallen angels organizes in ranks, and they emit “A shout that tore Hell’s Concave, and beyond / Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night” (ll. 542-543), the revolution itself is a principle of disorder set against divine cosmic harmony. The Laki phenomenon is neither to be ignored, nor can it be fully explained away; it partakes of the chaotic, rebellious dark side of the cosmos. And it is, without question, portentous of some set of environmental disturbances yet to come; at the very least, it unleashes earthquakes in Italy, sulfurous summer thunderstorms in Selborne and dusty, cold winters throughout the northern hemisphere. As Satan has only begun to cause trouble in the balanced, hierarchical world of God’s creation, White confers a nagging sense of augury surrounding these “horrible phenomena.” Between Milton’s classical use of the Chaos trope and the contemporary, dynamical denotation, Gilbert White negotiates his observations in a baggy, bewildering scheme of modern meteorology.
Selborne’s final letter recounts a particularly violent thunderstorm in 1784, usually a rare event his parish is girdled by diverting hills. New technology brings the narrative atmosphere towards the nineteenth century by anticipating moments of drama that writers like Mary Shelley would develop into poignant intersections of science and literature. White writes, “no storm was in sight, nor within hearing, yet the air was strongly electric; for the bells of an electric machine at that place rang repeatedly, and fierce sparks were discharged” (268). The electric principle, which formed the basis of new theories on the nature of life, was alive and detectable in the unsettled air over Selborne. But its purpose was dispersed and indeterminate; there was no discernable pattern to this meteorological behavior, and White is left only with his role as observer, admittedly finding in these strange events “reason for the most Enlightened person to be apprehensive” (265). Somewhat abruptly, Gilbert White concludes his chronicle to his known and trusted public with a self-effacing, and revealing, adieu: “As the length of my correspondence has sufficiently put your patience to the test, I shall here take a respectful leave of you and natural history together” (268). Natural history of the Enlightenment has succumbed to a more modern vision; this kind of extraordinary and portentous weather would only intensify as industrial emissions and more volcanoes (Tambora, Krakatoa) erupted over the course of the nineteenth century. This historian leaves the stage accompanied by the chaotic uncertainty for which philosophers would need to develop a language, and a new epistemological genre, to realize in prose.
This reading of chaotic dynamics in White’s Natural History of Selborne is intended to complicate the perennial reception of the text as the narrative epitome of Enlightenment stability and ecological balance. The work is innovative for several complementary reasons: its use of monography allows a microcosmic vision that anticipates the development of the ecosystem concept (credited to Roy Clapham and Arthur Tansley, ecologists of the early twentieth century); White observes and begins to theorize the extinction phenomenon due to human activity, which he images as gaps in the great chain of being; his predisposition to observe economy in nature by no means blinds him to the importance of extreme, unpredictable weather and its downstream effects through many seasons and across species. These elements of chaotic modernity in Selborne culminate in the chronicle’s fragmentation, where the author divests his audience and his science at once. There is no indication in the text that White is particularly disconsolate as a result of his modern observations, but there is a sense that the phenomena are beyond the state of the science. Less than a century later, John Ruskin would lament the visitations of the industrial “plague-wind” in his jeremiad “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” putting to rest all doubt that anthropogenic activity could sink a malaise upon the atmosphere. Like White, Ruskin used his longstanding diary entries on particulars of the weather as a basis for identifying meteorological anomaly amid a background stable state. Ruskin in 1884, unlike White in 1783, had the target of industrial emissions to aid his understanding of why and whence these rapid changes of climate and disposition in the elements.
White was neither scientist nor creative writer, he was a Reverend with an unusually secular reverence for the mysterious movements of nature. Considering the twenty-first century climate forecast, we would do well to revive White’s methods by closely observing the annual patterns of each of our dwelling places, thereby domesticating climactic chaos into diaries of ecological self-awareness. By close observation amounting almost to empathy, we may grow more synergetic with nature’s wild ways.
Heidi Scott is Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University. Her area of interest is literary ecocriticism, with special consideration of nineteenth century British literature. She has published on science and rhetoric, evolutionary theory, and the history of ecological science.
Like a Jane Austen novel, the wider world of colonial politics sheds indirect light on White’s observations: His migrating birds have unknown harbors to the north and south; the grand oaks felled for £20 each are hauled off to their military fates, he visits London and speculates on animal populations in America; but the circumference of his vision only occasionally gestures other places than Selborne. Like the other works discussed in this chapter, time is the mechanism that allows the observation of natural change rather than place. This distinguishes White’s epistemological strategy from, for example, that of Alexander Von Humboldt, who traveled extensively in his researches on the natural world, and first theorized the importance of elevation to the distribution of plant types in the topography of the Andes range.
Mary Ellen Ballanca’s recent study of naturalist journals, Daybooks of Discovery (2007), briefly discusses the critical reception of Selborne as an Enlightenment, static text, see especially p. 46, 75-77. Bellanca finds more subjective speculation-as-epistemology in White’s early journals, which she usefully captures as “a palimpsest of concurrent and intersecting narratives” that show “his fascination and delight in an ever-living yet ever-changing, ever-elusive, ever-miscellaneous nature” (77). Though I agree with her evaluation of White’s narrative multiplicity, my reading of Selborne centers more on the epistemological mysteriousness borne of observing unruly nature than on White’s “delight” in dynamism.
The OED shows White’s use of “monographer” in 1770 as the first in the language. The next citation, from 1826, is from an introduction to Entomology that identifies Apollodorus as the “first monographer of insects.” Later in his own narrative, White advises that “A good monography of worms would afford much entertainment and information at the same time, and would open a large and new field in natural history” (197). As Richard Mabey notes, this monograph was not to appear until Charles Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, from 1881, a work that does not acknowledge White.
The opening passage locates Selborne geographically, with a balanced tone that appreciates both self-containment and diversity: “The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire…is about fifty miles southwest of London, in latitude 51…Being very large and extensive, it abuts on twelve parishes…The soils of this district are almost as various and diversified as the views and aspects” (7). The ornithologist White is proud of Selbone’s literal containment of the great bird menagerie: “Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden…Let me also add that it has shown near half the species that were ever known in Great Britain” (96). These passages secure the parish of Selborne as an ecological microcosm, and anticipate the modern philosophy of bioregionalism advocated by environmentalists such as Kirkpatrick Sale.
A primer for the narrative tone at the end of Selborne comes when a landslide, caused by a sudden massive thaw, tears a “huge fragment” hundreds of yards down a steep slope. Houses, woods, and farm fields are “strangely torn and disordered” by the mysterious event; all witnesses agree “that no tremor of the ground, indicating an earthquake, was ever felt” (222-223). In this as in other apocalyptic passages, White affords little speculation as to the causes; he seems to enjoy lingering in the perversity of the incident, allowing sensation to work its own effect out of the objective account.
The first mathematical model came with the famed Lotka-Votlerra equations of the 1920s, which concentrated on the predator-prey dynamic as an isolated, strictly interspecies system without relation to environmental variation. In twenty-first century population biology, as described by theoretical ecologist Peter Chesson, “there is growing theoretical interest in understanding how pattern in the physical environment interacts with biology to yield the patterns that organisms show…Many researchers appreciate that it is time to for the next step in which the role of physical environmental variation is a focus in theoretical models. There is also a growing realization that the details of how population and community patterns are affected by physical environmental pattern are every bit as fascinating as the details of endogenously generated pattern.” One of the studies outlined in Chesson’s (2003) summary involves “the rich interplay between nonlinear population dynamics and temporal environmental variability in a predator-prey model. [The researchers] show that the resulting population dynamics can look like chaos, as defined for noisy systems, and emphasize the care necessary for interpreting the nature of the fluctuations seen in short time series of population densities” (Abstract). When population ecology takes account of a variable environment over years’ time, the system often shows non-linear and emergent properties consistent with chaotic dynamics. [“Understanding the role of environmental variation in population and community dynamics” Theoretical Population Biology. 64:3, November 2003, p. 253-254]
Dr. John Grattan of Aberystwyth University, Wales, has studied local parish records from 1783-1784 across England, and concludes that the Laki eruption killed 23,000 British men and women, which would make it “the greatest natural disaster in modern British history.” An estimated 120 Million tons of sulfur dioxide was emitted, which is three times the total industrial output of Europe in 2006 (Dan Walker, When a Killer Cloud Hit Britain, January 19, 2007, BBC news: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6276291.stm). Grattan’s research has come out in the book Under the Shadow: the cultural impacts of volcanic eruptions. San Diego. Left Coast Press. 416pp.
Franklin, Benjamin, 1789. Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures, in Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. 2nd. Edition, London: T. Cadwell in the Strand, page 377.
Argyros, Alex. A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos. Ann Arbor: University of Michgan Press, 1991.
Ballanca, Mary Ellen. Daybooks of Discovery: Nature Diaries in Britain, 1770-1870. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Brayshay, M. and Grattan, J. P.. “Environmental and social responses in Europe to the 1783 eruption of the Laki fissure volcano in Iceland: a consideration of contemporary documentary evidence.” In Firth, C. R. and McGuire, W. J. (Eds.). Volcanoes in the Quaternary. Geological Society, London, Special Publication (1999), 161, 173-187.
Chesson, P. “Understanding the role of environmental variation in population and community dynamics.” Theoretical Population Biology. 64:3, November 2003, p. 253-254.
Grattan, J.P. & Torrence, R. (Eds.). Under the Shadow: The Cultural Impacts of Volcanic Eruptions. San Diego: Left Coast Press, 2008.
Hayles, Katherine (Ed.). Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” In M. Hughes (Ed.). John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1957, pp. 207-469.
Ruskin, John. “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth-Century.” In D. Mermin and H. Tucker (Eds.). Victorian Literature: 1830-1900. Boston: Heinle Publishers, 2002, pp. 634-641.
Walker, Dan. “When a Killer Cloud Hit Britain.” BBC news, January 19, 2007. <<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6276291.stm>>