Your observation that ‘the cuckoo does not deposit its egg indiscriminately in the nest of the first bird that comes in its way, but probably looks out a nurse in some degree congenerous, with whom to intrust its young,’ is perfectly new to me; and struck me so forcibly, that I naturally fell into a train of thought that led me to consider whether the fact was so, and what reason there was for it. When I came to recollect and inquire, I could not find that any cuckoo had ever been seen in these parts, except in the nest of the wagtail, the hedge-sparrow, the titlark, the white-throat, and the red-breast, all soft-billed insectivorous birds…. This proceeding of the cuckoo, of dropping its eggs as it were by chance, is such a monstrous outrage on maternal affection, one of the first great dictates of nature, and such a violence on instinct, that, had it only been related of a bird in the Brazils, or Peru, it would never have merited our belief. But yet, should it farther appear that this simple bird, … may be still endued with a more enlarged faculty of discerning what species are suitable and congenerous nursing-mothers for its disregarded eggs and young, and may deposit them only under their care, this would be adding wonder to wonder, and instancing in a fresh manner that the methods of Providence are not subjected to any mode or rule, but astonish us in new lights, and in various and changeable appearances.
Lizzie’s dad is English, so she has relatives and friends in England separate from mine. Last Saturday, she found herself hauled off to the pantomime to see an old friend’s grandson play in Treasure Island – I am not quite sure how you get a principal boy in that particular number, or a dame for that matter. Since apparently I am wandering down Nostalgia Avenue, I was a bit sorry not to go myself. I love panto! (For those of you who have never experienced it, I should say that the hero, the principal boy, is always played by a young woman with very shapely legs, and there is a dame, played by an older man, by whom there is a lot of skirt raising and mildly rude jokes about knickers. It really isn’t as sexist as it sounds.)
I went off with a friend, a historian of science, down to Selborne, an hour or so south of London and the home in the 18th century of the parson and naturalist, Gilbert White. The place is kept up really well, with extensive grounds, and they do a very nice afternoon tea. Well worth a visit. In fact, as the guide books say, even worth a detour. Rural England at its most beautiful. We were there on a sunny, slightly frosty day, and I confess I did feel a bit of a tug from the land of my birth. (Just a tug. I grew up in Walsall, on the edge of the Black Country, the industrial center of England and, in those pre-anti-pollution laws, pretty filthy.)
White’s Natural History of Selborne, ostensibly a series of letters to a couple of friends, describes in minute detail the animals (especially including birds) of his neighborhood, telling of the day-by-day changes, comings and goings. It has never been out of print since its first publication (1789), and is still a favorite at school prize days. Not being what the English call an “anorak” – the name of a perfectly good, bad-weather coat, now transferred to the kinds of people who wear them, namely those with obsessive, nerdy hobbies like bird watching – I did not get it as my leaving present. (Actually, I got Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, one of the funniest novels in the English language, which suggests that perhaps my schoolteachers knew more of my character than I then realized.)
I confess that I have always found the Natural History of Selborne quite unreadable. In part because I did (and do) consider it a bit anoraky. As far as I am concerned, you see one bird, you have seen them all. I have a biologist friend who spends all summer up in Algonquin Park, a large provincial park in Ontario, studying turtles. He sets off happily at first light and returns only at dusk. For me, one turtle a summer is enough, as I head back to camp for a beer and a detective story.
But the main reason is Evelyn Waugh. The novel Scoop is his wonderful parody of the newspaper business. Through a mix up of names, a naïve writer about natural history is sent off to cover a revolution in Africa. By chance rather than by design, he gets knowledge of the coup thus outdoing his rivals; but, to his relief, the credit is given to the man who should have been sent and he returns to writing about natural history.
Introducing our hero, we are given a priceless example of his style. “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” After that, how can one read with a straight face anything by Gilbert White and his imitators?
But perhaps I am doing White an injustice. It was because people like him did study nature so artlessly and carefully that later generations of naturalists – people like our fellow Brainstormer David Barash – have known about the habits of birds like the cuckoo and can now apply their modern tool of understanding, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, and (if they can take their minds away from breasts and sex for just two seconds) explain just why the cuckoo behaves as it does. And why other birds let it get away with that sort of behavior, in the face of their own reproductive losses. Now that is the sort of conceptual thing that a city boy like me does like.
Also, as you can see from the above-quoted passage, there is meat for someone like me, interested in the relationship between science and religion. White shows clearly that Christian theology was under strain years before Darwin came along and threw the bomb of evolution. Why did God create something as downright immoral as the cuckoo? Could this behavior really be the result of Adam’s sin? And if not, then what does this tell us about God’s nature?
So, I had a nice day out with a pal in the countryside and I came back with the thought that perhaps my attitude towards Gilbert White and his writings is my fault rather than his. Not a bad day’s work.