Study the Birds and the Bees

We have grown shy of exploring our sense of unhibited wonder at the natural world

We live in an age of science, therefore of accuracy and an opposition to amateurishness. While commendable in many ways, this attitude has an unfortunate tendency to kill enthusiasm – for if success in an area is connected to the precise mastery of an unholy amount of detail, we may be frightened away without having our curiosity properly engaged.

Take attitudes to natural science. I was a keen amateur scientist until I was 12, when I gave up for fear that too much had already been catalogued and known. It seemed as if it would be 20 years before I would encounter a real mystery again. Like thousands of others, I saw my spontaneous interest in science and the natural world killed by a secondary education that unwittingly suggested that everything was already known and categorised.

To remember what popular science could and should be, it’s instructive to consider the case of England’s greatest amateur scientist, Gilbert White. White published his extraordinary (but too little read) book, The Natural History of Selborne, in 1789, setting out his observations of the animals, birds and insects of his native Hampshire village: squirrels rustling in bushes, spiders levering themselves across cobwebs, slugs pulling themselves across dew-­coated lawns and insects dancing above ponds.

Like many of his contemporaries, White believed that God had, on the fifth day of creation, quite literally brought into life all the animals on earth; he had put the stripes on the tiger and the antlers on the deer. The animal kingdom bore testimony to the benevolence, greatness and, at times, the sense of humour of God. The belief may have been nonsense, but the attitude that it inspired in White was perhaps less so, for it led him to express sentiments of uninhibited wonder about animals which we have in subsequent ages grown shy of expressing.White had another advantage over secular modern people. Much about animals was still unknown. Science had not yet defined or answered all the questions – leaving those interested in animals with the freedom to follow up their own curiosity, to ask “What interests me?” rather than “What must one know?”. Reading White evokes the excitement that all subjects take on when we feel ourselves moving from the rank of pupils to that of explorers. White was struck by a host of questions. Why do cats like eating fish so much? When do the sparrows’ eggs hatch? Can bees hear anything?

Because no one knew, White was free to carry out some touchingly homespun investigations: “It does not appear from experiment that bees are in any way capable of being affected by sounds: for I have often tried my own with a large ­speaking-­trumpet held close to their hives, and with such an exertion of voice as would have hailed a ship at the distance of a mile, and still these insects pursued their various employments undisturbed, and without showing the least sensibility or resentment.” White was similarly curious about the key that owls sing in and found that it was B flat. It may be a good thing for science that many facts are now known, but it’s a sadder thing for the curiosity of most mortals.

White constantly encourages his readers to focus on the number of animals that live alongside us – but that we typically ignore, seeing them only out of the corner of our eye, having no appreciation of what they are up to and want. White prompted his readers to abandon their usual perspective to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes. One autumn, he reported: “Swallows and martins .?.?. have forsaken us sooner this year than usual; for on September the ­twenty-­second, they rendezvoused in a neighbour’s ­walnut-tree, where it seemed probable they had taken up their lodging for the night. At the dawn of the day, which was foggy, they arose all together in infinite numbers, occasioning such a rushing from the strokes of their wings against the hazy air, as might be heard to a considerable distance: since that no flock has appeared, only a few stragglers.”

It would have been easy to overlook that they had ever been in Selborne. Just the odd sound and sight, invisible to the unfocused villager more concerned with news from London or with the harvest or church gossip. And yet the swallows had been in Selborne since the end of February, the martins since the early weeks of April. They had spent the spring building their nests in chimneys, in forked boughs of trees or beneath eaves – gathering mud in their bills and applying it with trembling movements of their chins. They had searched for insects for their young, swooping low over hedges and ponds (while humans were baking bread and having arguments and darning socks). The swallows had sung in a soft, low-­twittering song – feet-feet feet-a-feetit – and the martins in a slightly lower chrrp chrrp, with the occasional treep at a moment of alarm. And now they were leaving Selborne on their immense journey back to the equatorial regions of Africa in which they ­wintered.White’s discussion of the birds guided us to view the world through a different lens; no longer just the human lens, in which Selborne was a village 50 miles south-west of England’s capital city, with a baker and a lawyer and a church, but through a ­swallows-and-­martins lens, in which it was a set of nameless eaves and trees in which to build nests and hatch children and one stop in a year that had perhaps begun and would end again in a quiet lagoon in Madagascar.

The martins and swallows were but one example of the many life-forms co-­existing so unobtrusively alongside humans, and for which familiar objects and places had entirely different meanings (the sign advertising the village inn was a convenient resting place for a martin; one swallow had made a nest in a gentleman’s hat). White’s book, which rooted the observation of animals in a specific human context (the village of Selborne; the life of the curate) almost naturally encourages us to shuttle between the human and animal perspective; to consider for a moment how everything might seem to a swallow, to look at Selborne through the eyes of an ant – and hence to appreciate the narrowness of our previous view of reality.

When we are feeling out of sync with our era or society, there may be relief in coming upon reminders of the diversity of life on the planet, in holding in mind that alongside the main business of our species there are also swallows that build nests and quietly set off over the English Channel for Madagascar.
It’s often remarked that learning anything at school tends to kill the subject, be it literature or biology. Less explored is the reason for this. It may have to do with curiosity’s relationship to authority. In order to remain personally engaged with a subject, we have to feel, however naively and narcissistically, that we could at some level make a contribution to it. The best teachers give their pupils a sense that they too could, after mastering the basics, become pioneers. But because this hasn’t generally been true for the teachers themselves, they often imply the contrary message and so quash ambition.

If a love of science and the natural world is to take firm and wide roots, we should remember the underlying lesson of Gilbert White: that ignorance and a certain clumsiness are the necessary building blocks on which mature research and insights develop.

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