W. H. Hudson was an English naturalist and writer who had a gift for making the common things in life seem rare and beautiful.
I found a treasure-trove of his books in a used book store in Denver years ago that were previously owned by a western writer named Charles Roth. They were old, faded hardbacks, and I got some of both Hudson and Roth in the bargain.
Inside the back cover of one of the books, Roth stapled a two-page typewritten note, dated 1937, that stated in part: “This man Hudson, I wonder if English ever had another writer like him — one who said so much, said it so simply, said it so well — one who made such simple subjects seem so entrancing?”
Eleven years later, in the back of another book, Roth answered his own question: “There is no other writer like Hudson! Can’t say more.”
So, who was this man Hudson, that he should win such lavish praise from another writer?
William Henry Hudson grew up on the Argentine pampas and moved to England in 1874. For 18 years he lived in great poverty, until he gained recognition with a book on Argentine birds.
He won high praise from Charles Darwin for his knowledge of birds, and Joseph Conrad admired his fluent style. More books followed, and it was not long before Hudson was acclaimed as the best nature writer of his time.
Hudson called himself a field naturalist who “had a sense of being at home wherever grass grows,” but he also described himself, perhaps more effectively, as “A Traveler in Little Things,” which is the title he used for one of his books.
Examples of his simple subjects include the vanishing curtsy; the dimples of a young girl; the beauty of a boy singing in the open air; small-town shopkeepers and their nobility of character; the luminous color of a dandelion; the laughing bindweed; the charm of thistledown; and his wordless conversation with a statue.
Hudson had a sympathy for other lives that carried him far beyond the bounds of common feeling. He loved and defended all living things, including those that were generally thought to be unlovable. He resisted the unnecessary killing of animals, even the poisonous adders, and he had a special attraction to the insects, which he called “fairy fauna.”
Hudson had the ability to see with the fresh eyes of a child. His sense of wonder never faded, and common things never lost their charm. As a grown man he was still capable of shouting with joy at the sight of a rainbow.
He earned the respect of his fellow scientists, but while they were hunting for the big fish, he was content to seine for minnows. They dealt with facts, he dealt with facts and impressions.
The mere sights, sounds and smells of nature enthralled him. He wrote: “It is for biologists to seek for pearls in the deep waters; for me to keep to the safe shallows where the children paddle, and the wet sands at low tide where I can gather my little harvest — my ribbons of seaweed and a few painted shells.”
The little harvest became a trademark of his writing, and from that modest theme he created an enduring classic of literature.
At the end of his biography “Far Away and Long Ago”, Hudson wrote: “When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it…I am apt to think they have never been properly alive nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it — not a blade of grass.”
People who thought meanly of the earth were his nemesis. The fad of collecting bird eggs, the caging of birds, killing and stuffing them for ornaments, the fashion of decorating women’s hats with bird feathers, and all the mindless cruelty that went with it, aroused his anger.
Hudson worked hard to change these attitudes. He became a force for the conservation of birds and a strong influence in the nature movement of the 1920s and 1930s.
His life was all about seeing clearly and conveying a message. He reminds me of a child who saw something wonderful in nature and wanted nothing more than to tell us about it, and though it be only a dandelion, Hudson carried the message to us with a childlike zeal. Nearly a hundred years after his death he is still speaking to us, still expressing the joy he felt in a world he loved. Many of his books remain in print, and they have been translated into seven languages.
Hudson is saying that we don’t have to run off to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls to see the wonders of nature. We can also find them closer to home, in the beauty of little things.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast
living in Ellis County.