W. H. Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841 to American parents. He spent his early childhood on an estancia called “Los Veinte-cinco Ombues” (the Twenty-five Ombu Trees”) outside of Buenos Aires, and it was there he began to develop a passion for the flora and fauna of the Argentine pampas. And it was those early experiences with the natural world that shaped the boy into the much respected naturalist, ornithologist, “defender of nature” and gifted writer. When he was 77 years old, he wrote a memoir of his childhood, Far Away and Long Ago. That memoir, which I just read for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons book challenge, has touched my heart.
I know that I am partial to all things Argentine because of the year I spent there as an exchange student. But this book is so beautifully written, I would have loved it anyway. It is written with a grace and sensitivity that his colleague, Joseph Conrad, envied.
In this book, his memories become stories that carry you along as he paints vivid pictures in your mind of the landscapes, the wildlife, the people and the experiences of a young boy discovering his world — the boy on his horse, completely free to explore the beauty of the pampas from early morning until dusk. He spent hours observing the birds, and although his brothers would sometimes tease him, they respected his unique abilities at such a young age.
He was also a great observer of the humans around him and included tales about the neighbors, the gauchos that worked the estancias, the schoolmasters that came and went. There are stories of his escapades with his brothers, including one that told of a mock knife fight they had when his older brother wanted to practice the self-defense lessons given him by a local gaucho. Hudson was wounded during that “fight,” but won the respect of his older brother by not telling on him.
His boyhood ended suddenly, he explains, at age 15, when he became ill with Typhus, followed shortly afterwards by a serious bout with Rheumatic Fever which damaged his heart. The doctors told him he would not live very long, and facing the loss of everything he loved sent him into a period of dark despair. In the chapter “A Darkened Life,” he describes poignantly this crisis and his painful transition from the joyous innocence of his boyhood into manhood. When he recovered, and was able to finally assess maturely what he had lost and gained from those traumatic changes to his health, and also realized that he could live 20, 30, 40 more years, he rejoiced:
…That was the life I desired–the life the heart can conceive–the earth life. When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it, or that they look with equanimity to its end, I am apt to think they have never been properly alive, nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it–not a blade of grass. Only I know that mine is an exceptional case, that the visible world is to me more beautiful and interesting than to most persons, that the delight I experienced in my communings with nature did not pass away, leaving nothing but a recollection of vanished happiness to intensify a present plan. The happiness was never lost, but, owing to that faculty I have spoken of, had a cumulative effect on the mind and was mine again, so that in my worst times, when I was compelled to exist shut out from nature in London for long periods, sick and poor and friendless, I could yet always feel that it was infinitely better to be than not to be.
Today, the Argentine home where Hudson was born has become a museum and a beautiful ecological park. One of my favorite passages from the books gives you a strong sense of that time and place, and a lovingly tender memory of his mother:
All that I remember of my early life at this place comes between the ages of three or four and five; a period which, to the eye of memory, appears like a wide plain blurred over with a low-lying mist, with here and there a group of trees, a house, a hill, or other large object, standing out in the clear air with marvelous distinctness. The picture that most often presents itself is of the cattle coming home in the evening; the green quiet plain extending away from the gate to the horizon; the western sky flushed with sunset hues, and the herd of four or five hundred cattle trotting homewards with loud lowings and bellowings, raising a great cloud of dust with their hoofs, while behind gallop the herdsmen urging them on with wild cries. Another picture is of my mother at the close of the day, when we children, after our supper of bread and milk, join in a last grand frolic on the green before the house. I see her sitting out of doors watching our sport with a smile, her book lying in her lap, and the last rays of the setting sun shining on her face.