The first Ecologist – A reflection on Modern British Nature Writing (1789- 2020)” by Rev Ian Tattum

What is ecology and who was the first ecologist? Considering both terms only came into existence in the late C19th , it might seem anachronistic to claim that Gilbert White was the first ecologist. The first use of the term ecology has been attributed  to the German zoologist Haeckel! This sort of hesitation reminds me of the exam question in Primary School; ‘ Which was the largest island in the world before Australia was discovered?’ to which most of us confidently but wrongly answered ‘ Greenland’.

 If ecology is the study of how nature connects and fits together, Gilbert White has a good claim to be a pioneer as he was observing , recording and thinking about the complexity of the natural world over a century before the subject first appeared on any syllabus. Such is one of the primary arguments of Modern British nature Writing ( 1789- 2020) which traces the development of that genre since the moment White’s Natural History of Selborne was first published. The five authors who, appropriately chose to work collaboratively in community, argue that most of the approaches that White took to mapping the natural world  have left their  legacy in a genre which is especially popular today: at a moment when knowledge has exponentially increased and we humans have become increasingly aware that we live in a time when the whole environment faces an existential threat, and all of ‘ nature’  shares in that vulnerability.

Mythology has often conspired to distort our impression of White, and even as recently as last century he was sometimes depicted as a parson with too much time on his hands, or an idealised figure of rural Englishness, but books such as Ted Dadswell’s ‘ Gilbert White- the Selborne Pioneer’ have, as the authors of this study demonstrate, corrected the picture. So White is revealed not only as someone who wrote delightfully about the countryside but someone who was constantly seeking to understand more and communicate with, and exchange ideas, with others, often more eminent, if not more expert in the field. White’s famous letters were drawn from his detailed observations kept in his journals, and addressed to such as Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington-the last of whom by perpetuating legends of hibernating swallows undermined White’s more acute observations about their likely migration!

 Influenced by John Ray, White believed that God had ordered creation but like Ray, not in a way which necessitated creatures being confined to silos or niches. His own observations and his conversations with his brother John when he was posted to Gibraltar are full of remarks about the movement of birds , and his thoughts about the importance of worms to the eco-system are a perfect example of the science which had not yet been named. He remarks that the ‘ humble earth worm’ feeds the birds, prepares the soil for rain and plant root, and fertilises thanks to its worm-casts!

Thomas Bewick ( 1753-1828) is best known for his woodcuts of birds but he also had an ecological perspective. He was precise about names for example, not just because he thought it was important to be able to differentiate one bird from another, but because names can reveal their true character or mislead. The Nightjar appears at dusk and jars the human ear with its eery song, he insisted, so is much better given that name than ‘ Fern Owl’ or ‘Goatsucker’ as it is no owl and has no interest in the blood of goats. Just as we moderns tend to compare the Nightjar’s curious call to a some kind of screeching radio technology Bewick followed the convention of his time and noted its similarity to a whirring wheel. The authors of MDNW point out that Bewick underscored how ‘ human and natural history are entwined’ by adding local examples of human manufacture, a hat, a walking stick, and a flagon, to the tailpiece to his ‘ A history of British Birds.’

Nature Writing that can be described as explicitly ‘ ecological’ emerged at the beginning of the C20th , with the writings of Max Nicolson and Charles Elton( author of a seminal text of the newly named science, Animal Ecology, in 1927) and the conservation endeavours of Charles Rothschild. All of them were substantially motivated by a realisation of the parlous state of the environment, which had become apparent at the close of the C19th and the beginning of the C20th, and a sharpening awareness of the impact of human activity. In the Victorian era concerns about creeping industrialisation had often ,as in the writings of John Ruskin and his friend Charles Kingsley, focused on the negative effect this had on  human beings and encouraged the enjoyment of the outdoors and nature as a way to elevate the human spirit. The importance of wonder was not abandoned  but after 1918 period more attention was paid to the effect that humans had on the non- human world- building on the campaigning of the RSPB, which was granted in 1904- and more determined  efforts were made to improve the state of nature, or at least, stop things getting worse.

The authors of MDNW remind us that by the time the Great War ended, in 1918, birds that have for us become iconic representatives of the wild, through re-introductions and literature, had been declared extinct as breeding species. There were no more Goshawks, Ospreys, Marsh Harriers or White Tailed Eagles, and many other species were in rapid decline. Agricultural practices, persecution by landowners, and the activities of egg collectors were all identified as factors. Connections were increasingly being made, and Rothschild’s movement to create Nature Reserves was one wing of a movement and Charles Elton’s ecological writing and campaigning was another. The lives of people, plants, animals and habitats, which White and Bewick saw as connected were increasingly seen as interwoven in ways which were destructively problematic.

The authors of MDNW make a robust case for championing Elton as a nature writer against those who argue he was too grumpy and laconic and not quite enough of a literary stylist to qualify. They point that, not only was he a direct inspiration on Rachel Carson, they champion  him as a bridge between the emotionally charged writing of the Victorian era and the writers of today who are often as intent on getting  the science right as they are to capturing the imagination of readers. I think they are also insightful when they see Elton and other writers of his generation as laying the ground for those  writers today who think it irresponsible and dishonest to write anything about ‘ Nature’ without mentioning the Anthropocene.

The book covers many other themes and a large range of writers and concludes with some reflections on the contemporary state of British Nature Writing but it continually looks back to the decisive influence of Gilbert White as someone who paid attention to his context and observed and reflected on the connections between landscape , people, other creatures and distant places and events. Nature Writing and Ecology have both experienced a great shift in sophistication and temper since the publication of  ‘ The Natural History’ , but its legacy remains with us.

Ian has also written a reflection for Church Times on this book, focussing on the relationship between faith and nature writing: Tidings-of-a-new-creation

Rev Ian Tattum

Ian Tattum is the Vicar of St Barnabas Southfields and Area Dean of Wandsworth. He has written numerous articles for the Church Times on themes of nature and science, two of which have been anthologised. He is a member of the team behind Pilgrim House magazine, for which he has written a number of autobiographical pieces and reviews. He has been a long- term collaborator with the Land Lines Nature Writing Project, contributing regular blogs and speaking at their 2019 Conference on the stories of BB- Denys Watkins-Pitchford. He has had had poetry and creative non-fiction published by Spelt Magazine. He is a member of numerous conservation charities and a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.