Friday, April 24, 2015

Classic #9

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

The Naturalist in La Plata – W.H. Hudson, 1895

W.H. (William Henry) Hudson is best known for the modernist novel Green Mansions. This “return to nature” story from 1904 used to be popular among ecology-minded teenagers in the Sixties and Seventies. They liked the romantic fantasy cum with the beautiful descriptions of nature, not to mention Edward Abbey-like livid meditations on the loss of wilderness.

Green Mansions has not survived, however. Apparently, it does not appeal to delicate post-modern sensibilities. Not liking the grossly overwritten copiousness of words words boring words - yuck subordinate clauses -  post-modern readers deplore the racist, misogynist, ageist attitudes and call the self-centered pretentious hero a pedophile.

Sigh. So the greatest prose writer of his day is thus dismissed.

“For of all living authors–now that Tolstoi has gone“ said John Galsworthy, “I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson. “ Joseph Conrad once said that Hudson writes as the grass grows. This from, Ford Madox Ford:

You walked beside him, he stalking along and, from far above you, Olympianly destroying your theories with accurate dogma. He was very tall, with the immense, lean frame of an old giant who has for long stooped to hear men talk. The muscles of his arms stood out like knotted cords. He had the Spanish face and peaked gray beard of a Don Desperado of the Spanish Main; his features seemed always slightly screwed together like the faces of men looking to windward in a gale. He paused always for an appreciable moment before he spoke and when he spoke he looked at you with a sort of humorous anticipation, as if you were a nice cockatoo whom he expected to perform amusing tricks. He was the gentlest of giants, although occasionally he would go astonishingly off the deep end, as when he would exclaim violently: "I’m not one of you damned writers: I’m a naturalist from La Plata." This he would put over with a laugh, for of course he did not lastingly resent being called the greatest prose writer of his day. But he had a deep, dark, permanent rage at the thought of any cruelty to birds.

Hudson (1841 - 1922) was indeed a naturalist and conservationist but he was a professional writer, too. Born of American parents on the pampas of La Plata, Argentina, Hudson loved observing birds, flowers, snakes, and insects. With no other kids around in a sparsely populated region, the sickly teenaged Hudson was influenced by Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.  He read everything he could about zoology and became an expert on South American birds.

From 1866 to the early 1870s, Hudson made living as professional collector and writer of essays. He moved to the UK, married, and made a living out of writing magazine pieces. They were collected in books such as The Naturalist in La Plata (1892), Hampshire Days (1903), Afoot in England (1909), and A Shepherd's Life (1910). Historians say that Hudson contributed considerably to an increased awareness of nature among the thinking public in the US and UK.

Hudson preferred to write in a simple style, with comprehensible grammar and straightforward word choices. Hudson wants to get to the essence of his subjects, but outline the complexity of the natural world. For instance, a pampa fowl makes her nest 400 or 500 yards away from the feeding ground. After the egg is laid, the hen flies directly from the nest 40 or 50 yards and then, silently, runs to the feeding ground. Only then does she make a low cackle. The cock, if within hearing, answers her, runs to her, and the cackling ceases.  Hudson speculates:

If we may assume that these fowls, in their long, semi-independent existence in La Plata, have reverted to the original instincts of the wild gallits bankiva, we can see here how advantageous the cackling instinct must be in enabling the hen in dense tropical jungles to rejoin the flock after laying an egg. If there are egg-eating animals in the jungle, intelligent enough to discover the meaning of such a short, subdued, cackling call, they would still be unable to find the nest by going back on the bird's scent, since she flies from the nest in the first place.

I feel it best just to step aside and show how Hudson writes about fireflies

I also once had the rare good fortune to witness [firefly gatherings]. Riding on the pampas one dark evening an hour after sunset, and passing from high ground overgrown with giant thistles to a low plain covered with long grass, bordering a stream of water, I found it all ablaze with myriads of fireflies. I noticed that all the insects gave out an exceptionally large, brilliant light, which shone almost steadily. The long grass was thickly studded with them, while they literally swarmed in the air, all moving up the valley with a singularly slow and languid flight. When I galloped down into this river of phosphorescent fire, my horse plunged and snorted with alarm. I succeeded at length in quieting him, and then rode slowly through, compelled to keep my mouth and eyes closed, so thickly did the insects rain on to my face. The air was laden with the sickening phosphorous smell they emit, but when I had once got free of the broad fiery zone, stretching away on either hand for miles along the moist valley, I stood still and gazed back for some time on a scene the most wonderful and enchanting I have ever witnessed.

The book will be of interest to fans of nature writing who enjoyed books such as In the Land of Blue Poppies by Kingdon-Ward or The Naturalist in the Amazons by Bates.

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