In her introduction to W. H. Hudson: A Biography, Ruth Tomalin says that the great naturalist and writer, W. H. Hudson, was very secretive about details of his life. For example, when he wrote his pioneering biography of Hudson in 1924, Hudson’s longtime friend Morley Roberts did not know Hudson’s exact age or the date he first landed in England or even whether Hudson and his wife were actually married. Since that time, a number of scholars have managed to answer many puzzling questions about Hudson’s early life in Argentina and his later years in England. Tomalin has gathered information from many sources to compile a complete and scholarly yet very readable biography that includes much previously unpublished material.
Hudson was born in 1841, the third son in a family of four boys and two girls born to Daniel and Caroline Hudson in a farmhouse about ten miles from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Originally a New Englander, Daniel Hudson had injured his back in a fall and developed tuberculosis while working in a brewery, and the young couple decided to look for a more hospitable climate in which to rear their family. Many North Americans were buying land in Argentina, so the Hudsons decided to buy a ranch on the Pampas to raise sheep or cattle.
Their first estancia, named The Twenty-five Ombus, challenged the Hudsons. The farmhouse was small and surrounded by the trees that gave the house its name: The ombus were huge, overgrown trees in which the small Hudson children built secret tree houses, and where they saw the small animals that lived in the tree roots. When William was only five years old, his parents were able to buy a larger house about forty miles further out on the Pampas, The Acacias.
Here in the country, the young Hudsons wandered as they chose, for their mother and father were kept busy by the demands of the ranchero and their lively sons and daughters. The children were fascinated by the numerous birds and animals that lived in the grassy wilds and groves of trees near their home. Caroline Hudson loved birds and even the native Argentinians were tolerant of the little songbirds that lived in the trees around their homes. The area also had many butterflies living in the fields of flowers. At the age of ten, William learned to shoot, and he and his brothers hunted opossum, weasels, and foxes; the future naturalist spent many happy hours hunting partridges or ducks for the family table.
Even though they lived far out in the country, the Hudsons wanted all of their children to be educated. The English school in Buenos Aires was rumored to be unhealthy, and the parents did not want to send their children away from home, so they hired a succession of tutors to instruct the children. One teacher after another came, but the result was generally unsatisfactory. Hudson later regretted his informal schooling, believing that his years of observation of nature would have been enriched by formal education. Thus, when a young man in England, he spent his meager funds to attend many public lectures to improve his formal learning.
In order to learn all that he could, William read whatever he could find. One of his favorite books was Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1900), which gave the boy an idea of what a naturalist might do. He also was introduced to Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), and although he eventually came to see the logic of Darwin’s theory, Hudson found it difficult to reconcile his long-held Christian beliefs with the notion of evolution.
As a teenager, William contracted typhus during a vacation in Buenos Aires. The loving nursing of his mother saved his life, but his heart was permanently damaged, and thereafter he never felt confident about his life or his span of years.
The mysterious lost years of Hudson are those of the period after his parents died, when the children left home to begin their own lives. William decided to earn a living by collecting and selling native birds. Fortunately, he was introduced, by letter, to Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institution; Hudson sent Baird his first carefully labeled assortment of bird skins. Later, Hudson was able to send reports on the nesting habits of many birds that were rare in North America. Thus, the first printed reference to Hudson’s work can be found in the Institution’s report for 1866.
Hudson spent the next few years living in the open, catching birds and curing the skins to send to Washington, D.C. It is ironic that the future protector of birds, who was shocked to see private collections, should spend years as a hunter of songbirds even for scientific purposes. Perhaps because of his later beliefs, Hudson never referred openly to...
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