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England's first ecologist: Gilbert White

One of the most published books in the English language, Gilbert White's 'The Natural History of Selbourne' has been in print ever since it first appeared in 1789. In this pretty little Hampshire village of Selbourne where he lived, you can tour the house and admire the overarching forests of beech trees known as the Hampshire Hangars - then return, and see the original manuscript (below). In fact you can see just about every published version of this charming book - with wonderfully decorated bindings, and fabulous illustrations by artists such as

Eric Ravilious (above).

Don't you love original manuscripts? Future researchers studying our sterile wordprocessed files will be deprived of those telling crossing-outs and additions that give us insights into the writer's process. 'Cut and paste' removes the organic flow that handwriting on paper demonstrates.How I wish my handwriting could match Gilbert's for elegance and his clear sense of direction in his prose.

In his house, you can stand where he stood and almost hear the scratch, scratch of his nib on paper. You can picture him gazing out at the misty fields one autumn day like today, his pen in hand, taking a moment to reflect on the next choice of word or exact phrase - before dipping his pen in the inkpot, and returning to his manuscript with renewed focus and clarity. Perhaps with a spider for company........

"Every day in fine weather, in autumn chiefly,I do see those spiders shooting out their webs and mounting aloft: they will go off from your fingerif you will take them into your hand.Last summer, one alighted on my bookas I was reading in the parlour; and, running to the top of the page, and shooting out a web, took its departure from thence. But what I most wondered at, was that it went off with considerable velocity in a place where no air was stirring; and I am sure that I did not assist it with my breath.So that these little crawlers seem to have, while mounting, some loco-motive power without the use of wings,and to move in the air, faster than the air itself."

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