Wednesday 29 May 2024



                LETTER L

                Selborne, April 21st, 1780


                The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property. I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing; and, packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises. The rattle and hurry so roused it that, when it turned out in a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden; however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried itself in the loose mould and continues still concealed.

I am nearing the end of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, my nocturnal book for the past few weeks. Apparently Gilbert White did not enjoy coach journeys, and took days afterwards to recover. Maybe the tortoise did too. The tortoise is more ancient than humanity. Sleep may be the key.

When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than half of its existence in joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.

Gilbert White was mainly interested in birds, but he also recounts other creatures, insects, the weather and labourers' wages, quotes latin and greek as among friends. Nature is his language; swallows, swifts and martins are his dialect, the letter his natural form. He was convinced that swallows did not go south in winter but withdrew some few hundred yards to a sheltered spot. A natural history always includes some wishful thinking.

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