My neighborhood is at its best this time of year. A hundred kinds of flowers are in bloom, but the lilac bushes that edge the front of my U-shaped courtyard building establish precedence, sending their perfume back into the further reaches of the long courtyard and through an only slightly cracked window (it’s been cool out) to scent my living room. It’s lovely, though of course it’s a decisively urban form of natural beauty: cultivated, tended, counting on the contrast with brick and pavement for much of its effect.
At times like these, when I’m most attuned to natural world with its circumscribed but still affecting role in my citified life, I wonder: WWGWD? What was Gilbert White doing, 275 years ago in the English village of Selborne and environs, at this time of the year? What was he observing and recording, what variations was he finding in the seasonal rhythm from year to year? If you’ve been reading “About Last Night” for a while, you know that I turn to White every once in a while for the wonders he recorded, for his dogged observation and sharp discernment, for the way he puts the humble human scale in perspective by telling us tinier stories about tinier worlds, and for the poetic economy with which he expresses all of this. Here are sccenes from May.
May 23 to June 3, 1772. [Ringmer] Wryneck pipes. The Ringmer-tortoise came forth from it’s hybernaculum on the 6th of April, but did not appear to eat ’til May the 5th: it does not eat but on hot days. As far as I could find it has no perceptible pulse. The mole-cricket seems to chur all night.
May 20, 1774. Flycatcher appears: the latest summer-bird of passage. The stoparola is most punctual to the 20th of May!!! This bird, which comes so late, begins building immediately.
May 19, 1775. No chafers appear as yet: in those seasons that they abound they deface the foliage of the whole country, especially on the downs, where woods & hedges are scarce. Regulus non cristatus stridet voce locustulae [wood wren]: this bird, the latest and largest willow-wren, haunts the tops of the tallest woods, making a stammering noise at intervals, & shivering with it’s wings. Bank-martins abound over the ponds in the forest: swifts seldom appear in cold, black days round the church.
May 21. Mr. Yalden’s tank is dry.
May 23. Dutch -honeysuckles in fine bloom.
May 24. Thrushes now, during this long drought, for want of worms hunt-out shell-snails, & pick them to pieces for their young. My horses begin to lie abroad.
May 24, 1776. [Winton] Cold dew, hot sun, soft even.
May 22, 1779. Nightingales have eggs. They build a very inartificial nest with dead leaves. & dry stalks. Their eggs are of a dull olive colour. A boy took my nest with five eggs: but the cock continues to sing: so probably they will build again.
May 24. Fiery lily bows: orange lily blows.
May 26. The nightingale continues to sing; & therefore is probably building again.
May 28. Young pheasants!
May 14, 1782. Tortoise eats the leaves of poppies.
May 15, 1784. The tortoise is very earnest for the leaves of poppies, which he hunts about after, & seems to prefer to any other green thing. Such is the vicissitude of matters where weather is concerned, that the spring, which last year was unusually backward, is now forward.
May 16. Sultry. Left off fires in the parlor. So much sun hurries the flowers out of bloom. Flesh-flies begin to appear.
May 19. Flowers fade, & go-off very fast thro’ heat. There has been only one moderate shower all this month. Bees thrive. Asparagus abounds.