Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

Nature Writing, Argentina & Serendipitous Connections

Following my Top Five Nature-Inspired Reads, in the comments, Julia Hones recommended the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). She grew up close to his childhood home in the Pampas (fertile South American lowlands), which have their own climate, wildlife and vegetation.

Julia mentioned enjoying Far Away and Long Ago, a mix of childhood escapades, keen observations of nature, wildlife and neighbours, set against a somewhat turbulent history, as various war skirmishes were waged not far away.

Curious, because of the unique Argentinian setting, I looked it up, and because it was published in 1918, over 100 years ago, I was able to download it from Project Gutenburg (a library of free ebooks).

International Booker Prize 2020

I hadn’t planned to read it straight away, but when the International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 was announced, I had read two of the books and had a third on the shelf, The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.

I began to read it becoming completely hooked, then part through I skipped to the translator’s note where they mentioned the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández and the influence of William Henry Hudson. I read a couple of chapters of Far Away and Long Ago, to get a flavour of what that meant and immediately sensed the connection.

Review

At the opening of each chapter are a series of mini titles or references to everything that will be covered, Cámara sticks to using one of these in her chapter titles, while Hudson lists about 12 for each chapter.

Chapter 1 EARLIEST MEMORIES – Preamble – The house where I was born -The singular ombu tree – A tree without a name – The plain – The ghost of a murdered slave – Our playmate, the old sheepdog – A first riding lesson – The cattle: an evening scene, My mother – Captain Scott – The hermit and his awful penance.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

William Hudson wrote this book during a period of illness and six weeks of confinement, while living in London.  His fever brought back many of his childhood memories in startling clarity, providing a clear vision of the past.

Though he is often referred to as British, his parents were American, he was born in Argentina and lived there until the age of 33 and is proudly known locally as Guillermo Enrique Hudson.

The house where he was born was named Los Viente-cinco Ombues, (the twenty-five Ombu Trees), an indigenous tree that grew in a long row near the house and was a gigantic landmark to any travellers on the great plains, there being little else of tree-vegetation natural to the area. Today his home is part of a 133-acre ecological reserve and park, with a small museum.

Being on the main route south of the capital Buenos Aires, there were often itinerant beggars, weary travellers or gauchos (cowboys) passing by, looking for rest or a meal, some of these characters making an impression on him, that he shares. A succession of teachers, who often don’t last, the family not being well enough off to send the children away to school.

He is one of six children, though he has very little to say about his siblings and even less about his parents, apart from a brief mention of his father and a beautiful lament for his mother in the final chapter.

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com

He has much to say about their neighbours and their devotions and passions. Most of the estancieros were cattle breeders but some had passionate side interests, of interest to a young boy. The English neighbour Mr George Royd, whom he refers to as being different to other neighbours, being an educated man who loved to meet with others of like mind, was a sheep farmer with ambitious dreams, another had a tame ostrich, or rhea that followed them around.

One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep’s milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a  small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders.

There was Gandara, completely obsessed with breeding piebald horses and Don Anastacio, devoted to a wild-pig descended from a breed introduced by Spanish colonists that had adapted after three centuries of feral life. He makes excuses for one patriarch Don Evaristo, indicating he was esteemed and beloved above most other men.

It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.

It is a unique childhood, inevitably though, despite an appreciation of nature and the wild, there is the clear presence of prejudice and assumed superiority. If it is possible to see past that fact, it provides a unique glimpse into life in another era, living in a naturalists paradise on the path of many migrating birds, a freedom that came from the remove of a strict education, an entire childhood spent outside the constraints of any kind of institutional environment or influence.

The final chapter is a beautiful lament to his mother and makes me wish he was able to write more about his family and how they came to be living out there in the first place, perhaps it was childish adoration, but they seemed unsuited to the harshness of that environment and there is no sense of actual farming in his recollections, perhaps because they employed people to do the actual work, as was often the way.

Ultimately Hudson comes across as a boy who never grows out of his love of nature and eventually develops a kind of mystical relationship to it, despite indulging in many of the cruel things young boys do growing up in rural isolation with older brothers.

An enjoyable read.

Further Reading

Smithsonian Magazine – The Naturalist Who Inspired Ernest Hemingway and Many Others to Love the Wilderness

11 thoughts on “Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

  1. Glad to find another Project Gutenberg fan – it’s a marvellous organisation, isn’t it? I wondered if you came across Hudson’s utopian novel while you were there – A Crystal Age. It’s somewhat in the style of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, as well as being a matriarchy, as I recall. It depends on whether utopias are your thing, of course…

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    • Yes, Project Gutenberg is a wonderful concept and resource. I did see A Crystal Age and was tempted to get it too, Julia mentioned it to me as well and it does sound intriguing, I do like the fact that Hudson appears to have been somewhat free of convention and expectations in being to traverse science and literature and to not just imagine but share a utopian vision of life and love. I can’t say I’ve read many if any utopias, but I did once write a whole synopsis for a matriarchal utopia on a 5 hour train ride after watching the film Avatar and despairing of all the ‘man and his destructive machinery’ against nature aspect of it. So maybe I ought to read A Crystal Age?

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  2. This sounds lovely, almost meditative in a way. There’s something very life-affirming about the way nature is marching on, virtually undisturbed by our current crisis of humanity. I’ve been listening to Melissa Harrison’s nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, which is proving to be very calming, especially in times of stress.

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    • Oh thank you Jacqui for that recommendation, I’ve just found it, it reminds me of listening to Radio 4 on my visits to London some years ago. In the very early morning I’d waken an hour earlier than everyone, being on European time and I’d switch on the radio beside me and listen to a nature program, a woman who would meet up with someone and go on a ramble, it was amazing how the conversation just flowed in the natural environment and how compelling it was to listen to. I think it was Clare Balding.

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  3. Hello Claire. I’m glad to know that you enjoyed this book. An insightful review. Reading “Far Away and Long Ago” can help people understand how much destruction of nature humans have caused.
    I have to disagree with you on the part about his mother. His writing there evokes the profound love of his mother and highlights that the energy of her love was forever alive and present throughout his life. I think he honored his mother through his poetical words.
    On another note, you may feel inclined to explore Leonora Carrington. She was another interesting “hybrid” for she was Mexican-British and both a painter and a writer.
    Among other things, I have been writing about the pandemic and our interactions with Mother Nature in a journal. It may be useful to the historians of the future.
    Stay healthy and creative.
    .

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  4. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #119 – Book Jotter

  5. I’ve wanted to read this book for ages but have always put it off for one reason or another. Glad to hear that you got a lot out of it even if you would’ve liked to hear more about Hudson’s family. Have you read César Aira’s novel An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter? If not, it might make a good fictional follow-up to Hudson’s memoir for another look at Argentina and the natural world. Anyway, thanks for an enjoyable post!

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