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W. H. HUDSON (1841-1928)

W.H. Hudson would not have called himself an ornithologist.  Indeed, he had little affection for those who studied dead birds and contempt for those who displayed them. “I shall never forget the first sight I had of the late Mr. Gould’s collection of Hummingbirds,” Hudson wrote, “. . . shown to me by the naturalist himself, who evidently took considerable pride in the work of his hands.  I had just left tropical nature behind me across the Atlantic, and the unexpected meeting with a transcript of it in a dusty room in Bedford Square gave me a distinct shock. Those pellets of dead feathers, which had long ceased to sparkle and shine . . . how melancholy they made me feel!” (Hudson 1893, 186). Nor would he rank today as much of a birder.  He said that he knew personally 233 birds from the home of his youth, Argentina (Hudson 1920), to which could be added a few hundred species regularly found in southern England – a “life list” of perhaps five hundred species.  He was simply a field naturalist, an observer of every living thing; as his friend and biographer Morley Roberts put it, “It is obvious that his was not wholly the scientific mind; he rarely saw things in a ‘dry light’; but all the world was colored and irridated by his imagination” (Roberts 1924, 125). Or more simply, as Hudson himself said, “The visible world is to me more beautiful and interesting than to most persons” (Hudson 1918, 331).

His imagination was formed by his childhood. As recounted in his wonderful memoir, Far Away and Long Ago, he spent his days riding a pony in the still wild regions near Buenos Aires, among a host of unusual and interesting neighbors – gauchos, soldiers, farmers, and patriarchs, plus a few strong women (including his mother) and a couple of rather odd family tutors. Birds were the leitmotif of his young life, and he described the pampas as they were in the 1850s, when he could ride for mile after mile flushing plovers at close intervals, later watching countless flocks of the same birds cross the sky for weeks during their northward migration. By the time he was eighteen, after suffering nearly fatal bouts of cholera and rheumatic fever, he was spending months at a time in the wild; after 1867 he supported himself by collecting specimens for Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian. In 1868 Baird forwarded some of the specimens to Philip Lutley Sclater in London. Hudson was soon corresponding with Sclater, sending accounts of birds in the Buenos Aires region, which Sclater published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society. In 1874 Hudson left Argentina for England, where for many years he toiled in obscurity, “shut out from Nature in London . . . sick and poor and friendless” (Hudson 1918, 332). A measure of success came with the publication of The Naturalist in La Plata in 1892, financial security with the award of a Civil List pension in 1901, and he became famous with the publication of the novel Green Mansions in 1904. By the time of his death his Collected Works filled twenty-four volumes. The books of his later years were mostly devoted to nature in the English countryside and to a passionate defense of English birds against the various threats to their existence.  All the while, a part of his spirit lingered in Argentina. On his decision to emigrate to England he wrote, “When I think of that land so rich in bird life, those fresher woods and newer pastures, where I might have done so much, and then look back at this – the little I did as shown in these volumes [Birds of La Plata] – the reflection is forced on me that, after all, I probably made choice of the wrong road of the two then open to me” (Hudson 1920, xii). Yet he also knew that the Argentina of his memory was no more.  Recalling a particular beautiful marsh, he lamented, “That very spot is now, I dare say, one immense field of corn . . . And when I recall these vanished scenes, those rushy and flowery meres, with their varied and multitudinous wild bird life – the cloud of shining wings, the heart-enlivening wild cries, the joy unspeakable it was to me in those early years – I am glad to think I shall never revisit them, that I shall finish my life thousands of miles removed from them, cherishing to the end in my heart the image of a beauty which has vanished from the earth” (Hudson 1918, 265).