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A revival of Argentina's Thoreau

The rediscovery of the work and influence of William Henry Hudson fans the flame of romantic naturalism.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2007

Buenos Aires, Argentina

If Reuben Ravera has his way, one day his museum will be a destination for culture tourists, like the Café Tortoni, jammed these days with Americans, Europeans, and Japanese eager to be in a place where the great Jorge Luis Borges hung his hat.

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Mr. Ravera's task is as hard as rocks. Unlike Borges, whose fame seems brighter today than when he was alive, the name William Henry Hudson doesn't sit on the lips of the literati, local or foreign. He lived a long time ago, which is why most people know little of his contribution to Argentina's national culture, though his books are available in stores and libraries across the land.

"The fact that he wrote in English is a problem," Ravera said, as we squirmed out of the dense traffic of downtown Buenos Aires, heading out of town toward the William Henry Hudson Museum and Ecological Park. "Most Argentines think he was English."

During our drive through the suburbs we saw evidence of at least an institutional memory of Hudson's presence here so many years ago: a train station bears his name, a small town by the side of the highway, too; there are ads for a housing development called Altos de Hudson (Hudson Heights), and Hudson Avenue leads into the eponymous park.

Confusion about Hudson's nationality is understandable. He was himself confused. Argentine born, the child of Anglophile immigrants from Massachusetts, Hudson thought he was destined to be an Englishman. He would be that, and much more. Through his writings and civic efforts to create laws to protect birds and other animals, he fiercely rejected the biblically sanctioned notion that the natural world was man's to conquer and dispose of at will. His was a voice in the wilderness which, like that of Henry David Thoreau, was actually heard. Were he to be writing today, he'd surely find an audience in the green movement.

To Hudson, the natural world, the environment, was sacred and not to be abused. Even in works like "Green Mansions," a romantic fantasy, one cannot help but come away feeling that the principal character in the novel was the forest itself. John Galsworthy wrote in 1915: "Hudson, whether he knows it or not, is now the chief standard-bearer of another faith.... All Hudson's books breathe this spirit of revolt against our new enslavement by towns and machinery."

In "The Purple Land," Hudson wrote, "Ah, yes, we are all vainly seeking after happiness in the wrong way.... We are still marching bravely on, conquering Nature, but how weary and sad we are getting."

When he was 32, Hudson left Argentina for England, never to return. He told his brother he wanted to live in the land of his father's father, and, it is said, to write. So what did he write about? Argentina's flora, fauna, and other wonders. Hudson was a naturalist; he spent the first three decades of life exploring the pampas and the Patagonian desert, observing birds and animals, trees and other elements of the natural world, and collecting stories from the people.

His observations from The Naturalist in La Plata" have been with me for decades, non-sequiturs to glaze the eyes of my friends: The puma will never attack a human being, not even to defend itself. Birds in some flocks tend their injured or exhausted members, while cattle who are ill are often attacked by the herd. Guanaco in Patagonia have a place where they go to die. Nobody knows why.

One of his more famous books, a memoir of his youth, "Far Away and Long Ago," is rich with tales of Homeric gaucho knife-fighters, bandits, the cleverness of armadillos, the olfactory intelligence of horses, and the behaviors of spiders and serpents. The book reveals the preoccupation of Hudson's life: birds above all, birds during the time when they had no fear of men and darkened the skies in uncountable numbers.

Hudson began his memoir with a recollection of his natal house, the very building we were heading for: "The house of the Twenty-five Ombu trees ... gigantic in size and standing wide apart in a row about four hundred yards long."