Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sussex Tortoise Time (April 21, 1780, Gilbert White of Selborne)

Sussex tortoise



                                                                                                Selborne, April 21, 1780

Dear Sir,

     The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property.  I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing ; and, packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises.  The rattle and hurry of the journey so perfectly roused it that, when I turned it out on the border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden ; however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried itself in the loose mould, and continues still concealed

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822, who was familiar with Sussex tortoises. 

     As it will be under my eye, I shall now have an opportunity of enlarging my observations on its mode of life, and propensities ; and perceive already that, toward the time of coming forth, it opens a breathing place in the ground near its head, requiring I conclude, a freer respiration, as it becomes more alive. This creature not only goes under the earth from the middle of November to the middle of April, but sleeps great part of the summer ; for it goes to bed in the longest days at four in the afternoon, and often does not stir in the morning till late.  Besides it retires to rest for every shower ; and does not move at all in wet days.

Portway Patent Tortoise Slow Combustion Stove, Brightling church, Brightling, East Sussex, England.   Late 19th century stove, often seen in churches. Designed to burn coal slowly, to extract maximum heat, and designed by Charles Portway. A tortoise logo with motto "Slow but sure combustion."

     When one reflects on the date of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that seems to relish it so little as to squander more than two-thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months altogether in the profoundest of slumbers.

Brave (or foolish) girl leaping across “an haha” in West Sussex.

     Because we call this creature an abject reptile, we are too apt to undervalue his abilities, and depreciate his power of instinct.  Yet he is, as Mr Pope says of his lord,

 “Much too wise to walk into a well” :

and has so much discernment as not to fall down an haha ; but to stop and withdraw from the brink with the readiest precaution.

Intelligent cattle cautiously approaching “an haha” in West Sussex.

     Though he loves warm weather he avoids the hot sun ; because his thick shell, when once heated, would, as the poet says of solid armour – “scald with safety.”  He therefore spends the more sultry hours under the umbrella of a large cabbage-leaf, or amidst the waving forests of an asparagus-bed.

Cabbage leaf in Sussex

     But as he avoids the heat in summer, so, in the decline of the year, he improves the faint autumnal beams, by getting within the reflection of a fruit-wall ; and, though he has never read that planes inclining to the horizon receive a greater share of warmth, he inclines his shell, by tilting it against the wall, to collect and admit every feeble ray.

Another Sussex tortoise

     Pitiable seems the condition of this poor embarrassed reptile :  to be cased in a suit of ponderous armour, which he cannot lay aside ; to be imprisoned, as it were, within its own shell, must preclude, we should suppose, all activity and predisposition for enterprise.  Yet there is a season of the year (usually the beginning of June) when his exertions are remarkable.  He then walks on tiptoe, and is stirring by five in the morning ; and, traversing the garden, examines every wicket and interstice in the fences, through which he will escape if possible : and often has eluded the care of the gardener, and wandered to some distant field.  The motives that impel him to undertake these rambles seem to be of the amorous kind : his fancy then becomes intent on sexual attachments, which transport him beyond his usual gravity, and induce him to forget for a time his ordinary solemn deportment. 

  Sussex shell-snail

       While I was writing this letter, a moist and warm afternoon, with the thermometer at 50, brought forth troops of shell-snails ; and at the same juncture the tortoise heaved up the mould and put out its head ; and the next morning came forth, as it were raised from the dead ; and walked about till four in the afternoon. This was a curious coincidence! a very amusing occurrence!  to see such a similarity of feelings between the two фєρєοκοι! for so the Greeks called both the shell-snail and the tortoise.

     Summer birds are, this cold and backward spring, unusually late :  I have seen but one swallow yet. The conformity with the weather convinces me more and more that they sleep in the winter.

Sussex spring swallow

From:  The Essential Gilbert White of Selborne (ed. H.J. Massingham), Boston, David R. Godine, 1985

Note:  There’s nothing, really, that one profitably can add to Gilbert White’s extraordinary accounts of nature, even after the passage of 232 years (exactly!), but I just wanted to say that the smell of the blooming lilac in our garden this morning is divine.  Two nights ago at dusk on  Church Road in Devon, Jane and I saw a creature racing across and quickly ducking under the fence into fields.  Neither of us could identify it as one of the usual suspects, i.e., ground hog, opossum, fox, squirrel, raccoon.  Possibly a beaver?   Oddly, since moving to Chester County five years ago, we've never seen a tortoise.


  1. Wow! I had never heard of this writer. Wonderful. How the hell do you come across all this stuff?

    Spectacular pics, as usual. The cows my favorite.
    I will post a couple of cow pictures on facebook.

  2. I'm happy you read and liked this. I hope it eventually gets read more than it was yesterday (Saturdays tend to be slowest) and believe it will because Gilbert White is so special. I first learned about White's writing on Tom Clark's blog and I think you'll be surprised, as I was, that there is nothing obscure about him. His The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has been in continuous print since its first publication in 1789 and he is widely appreciated.

    His biography is here:

    You would enjoy reading more of White's writing, I think, as a Connecticut country person, though he also brings the country into city sojourns.

    And now I've learned what a "haha" is; never knew before, though I had seen them.


  3. What a lovely passage! We saw some magnificent ha-has when we were in the other Devon last September.

    The Greek word White mentions means "carrying houses". I'm a bit of a фєρєοκοs myself.

    You can visit White's house at Selborne. Looks like a beautiful garden. Let's go!

  4. I would love to visit Selborne. Let's plan the trip. I'm planning on changing everything. Sounds ambitious, no? I'm glad you liked this. Thought ha-has would be up your and Judy's alley. Curtis