A revival of Argentina's Thoreau
The rediscovery of the work and influence of William Henry Hudson fans the flame of romantic naturalism.
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.
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."
The museum house blazes with white-washed brilliance as we approach through a forest. Only two 400-year-old ombus remain. "Hudson predicted it would disappear," Ravera said of the species which is actually a giant herb, "because it has no use for man." But it won't, if the park staff has its way: in the past two decades they've planted 25 ombus and thousands of other indigenous trees.
Hudson artifacts are displayed in the three-room house: his watch; a sketch for the William Rothenstein portrait of Hudson that hangs in London's National Portrait Gallery; and rustic touches that recall his naturalist activities: ostrich eggs, a puma skull, the skeleton of an armadillo, the clay nest of the peculiar oven bird.
A painting of a bird, donated by the Japanese city of Yokohama, recalls Hudson's link to Japan, established by the marriage of his grandniece, Laura Denholm Hudson, to Yoshi Shinya, the first Japanese immigrant to Buenos Aires. Their child, Violeta Shinya, became the first director of the museum, in 1964. Hudson's books reached Japan late in the 19th century, and were included in the curriculum when the study of English was instituted in the schools.
"The Japanese," a local historian wrote, "found in Hudson a defender of nature, an attitude close to the pantheistic spiritualism of Shinto, the traditional veneration of the natural world."
Japan's conservation-oriented Suntory Foundation donated the money to purchase 120 acres to establish the park, which shelters 144 species of birds, 25 species of trees, and animals such as the avestruz (Argentine ostrich) and the nutria. There are paths through the forest beneath the surging ombus, the weird palo boracho (drunkard tree), and the hackberry. There are meadows spotted with shafts of pampas grass, and the Arroyo de las Conchitas, the stream and stopover for migrating birds where, Hudson wrote, they'd gather by the thousands. Bird-watchers frequent the place; others seek its tranquility.
While I walked with Ravera, a large, blue butterfly arrived suddenly on the periphery of my vision. Then as if annoyed at my indifference, it flew directly in front of my face and seized my full attention. Surely in those millions of words he wrote, Hudson must have said something about these shimmering creatures that dance in the air. I would find it.
Violeta Shinya died in 1993, two years before Ravera, my guide, chauffeur, and fellow admirer of Hudson, took over. Ravera hopes for an "awakening of interest" in Hudson's books: "His writing is relevant now, owing to the preoccupation with the environment." He hopes to connect with the tourist industry in Buenos Aires, which these days is crowded with visitors from five continents and the interior. He wants to arrange transit out to the museum, only about 30-odd miles away. A taxi now will get you there and back for about $20.
Ravera is a bearded, bearish man who studied engineering before landing his job at the museum and whose principal qualities may be patience and the ability to make do with less. Though the house was officially declared a historic monument by the Province of Buenos Aires in 1970, and is visited by 20,000 people a year, he and his staff are hardly flush with government money. Seven employees earn between $270 and $600 a month, and there is little left for maintenance of the house, plantation, and three outbuildings, including a small library full of books by and about Hudson and correspondence among Hudson and his siblings.
While poring over this material I found something that alluded to the pain often imposed by the separation of loved ones back when continents were connected only by slow-moving ships. It was Hudson's dedication of his new book, "Long Ago and Far Away," to his favorite sister: "To my dear sister, Maria Elena, love and best wishes. From W.H. Hudson, New Year's Day, 1919."
He could not have known that she would never see his book, that she'd died even before he picked up his pen in London, leaving him as the last of the six children of Daniel and Caroline Hudson.