Reading a recent issue of The Smithsonian I read an article on William H. Hudson. I had never heard of him but he was a prolific author and a famous English/Argentine ornithologist who grew up on a plantation in Argentina during the 1840s and 1850s. In the article it talks about his autobiography about his childhood years, Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life. I found it interesting that amid the praise for the book that it was also a text used to teach children in Japan English. I suppose much like Caesar’s Commentaries are used to teach Latin, or was at one time.
I just have to say what a delight the book was. While written when he was 77 and the first draft started when he was fairly ill, it resounds with childhood’s innocence and wonder. I cannot recall a childhood autobiography that I have enjoyed more, although Little Britches by Ralph Moody comes very close. The book kept reminding me of many things from my childhood which was odd since there is no parallel. It is just that Hudson manages to maintain the joy of discovering new things every day and project it to the reader.
Growing up on the plains he was a small and shy child, in love with the outdoors and all that lived in it. While birds are clearly his first love, everything in nature seemingly fascinated him, flowers, plants, trees, mammals and so on. Without formal education he learned all about these things and their seasons. I was envious that at 6 he could identify so many birds simply by their call- all I can get right is a crow. One of my favorite stories in the book is how someone told him that if he put salt on a bird’s tale it could not fly. I wonder how old that joke is? The joy of childhood is also revealed in tales about his and his siblings loved how one neighbor laughed and another sang.
His life was anything but ordinary. Having a pony at age 6 and free to roam at will across the pampas by 8. Watching cattle and sheep drives, talking with old gauchos and witnessing them have knife fights. Having the remnants of a defeated army flow by his home. All through the books is a growing love of nature and most specifically birds, slowly at first and then with a growing admiration. His growth into reading and education as well as spirituality, and then subsequently questioning spirituality is very interesting, heartfelt and relatable.
Very rarely does he display cynicism that might have come with age but he does lament the loss of those days, and in part what he decries is the fact that the area where wild animals swarmed and birds flew is now plowed under to make way for corn fields.
One odd note in the book is that he never names his brothers or sisters, or his parents. His father is very rarely mentioned and his mother occasionally. His oldest brother obviously holds a very important position in his life, including a helpful push to be a naturalist, but is unnamed. I wonder why, as it does not sound like he disliked them, but I do get the impression that they were nowhere near as important as seeking a new bird or flower.
I am really looking forward to reading more of his writings. I found it incredibly approachable but I had to continually stop and look up what a bird or a plant looked like. His book about Patagonia particularly interests me.