Gilbert White and His House

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
There are people in history who can be looked up to, Gilbert White was one of those.

Submitted: August 05, 2016

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Submitted: August 05, 2016



Henry had never heard of Gilbert White, but he wanted to go to his house because he heard that there is a display of Capt. Oates memorabilia.

According to Henry’s father, Captain Lawrence Oates was a real hero because of his self-sacrifice on the return leg from the South Pole with Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal expedition. Capt. Oates had frostbite and gangrene, which was slowing the expedition down dangerously, so during a blizzard he left the tent saying those immortal words, ‘I’m going out, I may be some time.’

Henry’s Dad often spoke the man’s heroism and Henry remembered being taught about it all at primary school. He regularly admired the statue of Scott in Christchurch, standing beside the Avon River and he recalled his class had been taken to see a black and white movie about the ‘Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition’.

Many times Henry’s Dad had told him that in 1910, as a ten year old boy he had been on the wharf at Lyttelton to see Scott and the Terra Nova set off for Antarctica. So there was a tangible connection that interested Henry.

Under cover of darkness the Terra Nova arrived back at Oamaru Harbour and crew members climbed up the steep Arun Street to the Harbourmaster’s residence from where a coded message was sent to England advising of the deaths of the five men.

It happens that Henry’s doctor’s surgery is just a whoop and holler away from the oak tree that was planted 28 November 1913 to commemorate that nocturnal party’s visit and the loss of the explorers.

Henry with his two granddaughters and the other adults headed off to Selborne, East Hampshire to visit Gilbert White’s house. The girls enjoyed their outing because there was a search for an owl concealed in each room, and later they had a run-around in the garden. Henry was certainly not disappointed with the display, especially the glossy black and white centre pages from The Weekly News showing the crowd at Lyttelton, waving off the Terra Nova – he couldn’t pick his Dad, but enjoyed trying to find him.

The surprise was old Gilbert White whose passion was the environment and ecology ’way before the sciences were invented. He was born 1720 and died 1793 and he wrote a famous book Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Unread by Henry.

Old Gilbert was keen on the study of birds and the link earthworms have in the environment, and Henry comfortably identified with him. He carried out an early example of phenology, a 25 year phenology. The one Henry did covered one year only. Penology? The study of a single tree to record its development and changes over a period of time. You have to be keen, but Henry was fascinated.

In his dairy of 1783, he 84 records the climatic impacts of the Laki Haze. Again Henry had never heard about the Laki Haze, so he did some research to find that there were these volcanic fissures at Lakagígar in the south of Iceland that erupted over an eight month period 1783. Some 84.8 million tons of hydrogen flouride and 120 million tons of sulphur dioxide belched out to cause what became known as the Laki Haze. It hung over most of Europe causing a measure of climate change.

The eruption was devastating for Iceland, losing 25% of its population and most of their domestic animals, but worldwide some six million people died caused by inhaling sulphur dioxide, the reaction with moisture in the lungs caused sulphurous acid to form!

The summer became extremely hot, causing thunderstorms and large hailstones that actually killed cattle! The winter of 1783/1784 was extremely severe and Gilbert recorded twenty eight days of continuous frost! The extreme winter is estimated to have caused 8,000 additional deaths in the UK alone. During the spring thaw through Europe, severe flooding caused huge damage.  

It was not only Europe that was effected by this haze, it effected the monsoons in Africa and Asia and the winter of 1784 was the longest on record for North America!

Henry wondered if today’s climate scientists know about this example.

He particularly was intrigued with White’s writing about the summer of 1783 as ‘an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phenomena; for, besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunderstorms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smoky fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man. The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. All this time the heat was so intense that butcher's meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed! This was caused by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland between 8 June 1783 and February 1784, killing up to a quarter of the people of Iceland and spreading a haze as far as Egypt.’

Out in the garden, Henry found a Maidenhair Tree, Ginkgo biloba. He picked a fan-shaped leaf and explained to the girls that the tree is a living fossil (previously they had been fossicking around the Jurassic Coast together) meaning that fossils of the tree have been dated away back to 270 million years ago and he reminded them that dinosaurs died out much later, just 65 million years ago. He kept the leaf, pressed it, labelled it and added it to his small collection or random things.

He recalled the lectures and about Linnaeus, the man who figured out the system of Latin two word names for flora and fauna. He named Gingko biloba. He also wondered if Gilbert White had ever corresponded with him – they were alive at the same time.

For Henry it was a happy day out and he was sure that his granddaughters enjoyed their day too, topped off by a stop under the big red and yellow M sign.

Sometimes, Henry mused, adults have the most fun!



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