W. H. Hudson

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William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), British author, naturalist and ornithologist is best known for Green Mansions (1904), an exotic South American romance with Rima, the mysterious creature of the forest, half bird, half human.

William Henry Hudson was born 4 August, 1841, near Quilnes, province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Anglo-American parents. Their first home, his father's estancia on the Argentinean pampas was this young adventurers' first playground and from where he would later venture out on many excursions into the heart of his country. They were some of the most memorable years of his life.

The estancia was named "Los Veinticinco Ombúes", which means "The Twenty-five Ombú Trees", because there were actually twenty-five of those trees growing in a line on the property to be seen from ten miles away. With a three week long bout of typhus weakening him when he was 14 years old, then a bout of rheumatic fever a few years later, Hudson spent much time alone wandering the pampas, becoming a shy yet observant young man. His parents had many books for him and his siblings to read and now and then a visiting school teacher would be available for some formal education.

Gauchos, shepherds and vast flocks of wildlife surrounded and delighted him, and like Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, left a profound impression on him. Hudson travelled on horseback to Brazil, Uruguay and Patagonia, bringing home wide collections of specimens. He wrote remarkable accounts of his travels and observations, and including Darwin himself, gained the respect from many naturalists for his talent. Two South American bird species are named in honour of him.

Hudson's immigrant father struggled to make a life in the pampas. He unsuccessfully tried his hand at sheep farming, but had to sell his land, then he opened a store, but ended up turning to growing potatoes for a meagre existence, eventually nearing financial ruin. Not a lot is known of the years following the death of Hudson's parents, but he emigrated to London, England in 1869. In the city he spent many lonely years of poverty, far away from his beloved sorties to the countryside.

The first book of Hudson's to be published, and one of his most popular, The Purple Land That England Lost (1885) is about the Banda Oriental, describing how generals traded 200 British soldiers for the independence of Uruguay, to it's demise. Hudson's biculturalism is obvious here: his allegiance to his ancestral homeland, England, and the world of his childhood, Argentina.

Hudson also wrote a series of ornithological studies, including Argentine Ornithology, (1888-1899) The Naturalist in La Plata (1892) and British Birds. (1895) A few London journals published his articles and essays. Attention and admiration from Sir Edward Grey, statesman, for his many books on ornithology procured Hudson a state pension in 1901. Other of Hudson's early works, his romances in South American settings with Quixotic narrative, showed profound awe of nature's power, such as El Ombú (1892) and Green Mansions.

Hudson met and married the owner of a London rooming house and became a British subject in 1900. His nostalgic Edwardian English countryside books were also well-received, including Afoot in England (1909), A Shepherd's Life (1910) which some say is his best work set in rural England and A Hind in Richmond Park (1922).

Far Away and Long Ago (1918) Hudson's autobiographical, poignant memoir is about his early life in Argentina, roaming the Pampas, observing the flora and fauna and revelling in it's continuous splendour.

William Henry Hudson died 18 August, 1922, in London, England. He is buried in Worthing's Broadwater Cemetery, West Sussex, England. His epitaph refers to his love of birds and green places.

Hudson is a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Recent Forum Posts on W. H. Hudson

The Physical Spirit

I'd like to introduce Mr. Hudson by discussing just one single point. It won't make for a very specific reference, but I think it is a "critical abstraction" that is valuable to understand. I have on my desk the original two volume set of Birds of La Plata, published in 1920. No, I don't. It was just a pretty lie to see how it might feel. I have on my desk the single Capra Press paperback entitled The Bird Biographies of W. H. Hudson, printed in 1988. Its forty-nine chapters, each a life history of a different species, were taken from Birds of La Plata. Until 1900, bird-watching was what we would call bird-shooting. Naturalists carried guns and sacks instead of binoculars and field guides. Personal collections of bird carcasses—often including thousands of specimens—were the way to go. A lot of people still think that is a really great idea. What is most remarkable is that the early naturalists wrote with real feeling for the birds they killed. They described the aesthetic delight in watching form and colour, of listening to song—and then they shot the bird. This was not unusual at all, nor was it considered contradictory. There seem to be two kinds of people: those who kill, and those who don't. Or maybe I should say those who find killing fun, and those who try to avoid it. If you are of the second set, the aesthetic and even romantic writings of the early naturalists might well leave you cold. Biologists like to say that ontogeny recapitulates philogeny, which means that the story of an individual retraces the paths the species has come in its evolution. I am not sure whether hunters see themselves evolving into poets, though poets might wish they would. I have watched birds, and listened to birds, for forty-six years. At least, my present-day Birds of a Lifetime—my "life list"—has a first page written September 10, 1960. I was fourteen then. A lot of what I learned followed the culture of Henry Hudson and a number of others who killed birds and marvelled at their beauty and passed along the most wonderful insights and scientific understanding of these creatures I love. I would much prefer, if I were given the choice, that I were ignorant of many truths about birds, than that I should have learned these truths because these creatures were shot. The thing has its yin and yang. I prefer gentlessness myself. I think Henry Hudson would agree. That is the odd part. It all depends where we began, and how we were shaped, and what was the example. So, if you read his books, or if you read any of these naturalists' books, you may want to contemplate that. The exception might be Alexander F. Skutch, who came along in 1904, and died a hundred years later. I think I might see about beginning a thread about his works, which are also about birds and occasionally romance; and which are also about the spirit and the mind. There has always been a connection between writers and people who study life forms. Many biologists are well-read and many are good writers.

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