Significance of Hudson’s birthplace
Almost half a century ago, shortly after I arrived in Argentina, I went in search of the birthplace of William Henry Hudson, an Argentine writer who wrote in English, lived most of his life in England, and yet figures prominently in Argentine literature. Hudson, who left Argentina in 1874 shortly before his 33rd birthday, never to return, died in 1922.
He was a legendary figure to me, because his books gave meaning and substance to the stories that my father, who visited Buenos Aires when he was a wireless officer on the steamships of the Royal Mail Line, told me about Argentina. That faraway country must have seemed like the Promised Land to my father when he was made redundant during the depths of the Depression in England between the two great wars.
I found the place after travelling by train from Constitución station, getting off at Florencio Varela. The station that is named after the man who was both a writer and naturalist of international stature is some way away from Hudson’s birthplace as is the area of country clubs that also bears Hudson’s name. I do not remember how I found the place where Hudson was born, but I do remember my disappointment. Echoing in my mind were the luminous descriptions of the magical pampas that Hudson wrote in the last years of his life from his sick bed:
The house where I was born, on the South American pampas, was quaintly named Los veinticinco Ombúes, which means “The Twenty-five Ombu Trees,” there being just twenty-five of these indigenous trees — gigantic in size, and standing wide apart in a row about 400 yards long. The ombu is a very singular tree indeed, and being the only representative of tree-vegetation, natural to the soil, on those great level plains, and having also many curious superstitions connected with it, it is a romance in itself. It belongs to the rare Phytolacca family, and has an immense girth — forty or fifty feet in some cases; at the same time the wood is so soft and spongy that it can be cut into with a knife, and is utterly unfit for firewood, for when cut up it refuses to dry, but simply rots away like a ripe water-melon. It also grows slowly, and its leaves, which are large, glossy and deep green, like laurel leaves, are poisonous; and because of its uselessness it will probably become extinct, like the graceful pampas grass in the same region. In this exceedingly practical age men quickly lay the axe at the root of things which, in their view, only cumber the ground; but before other trees had been planted the antiquated and grand-looking ombu had its uses; it served as a gigantic landmark to the traveller on the great monotonous plains, and also afforded refreshing shade to man and horse in summer; while the native doctor or herbalist would sometimes pluck a leaf for a patient requiring a very violent remedy for his disorder. Our trees were about a century old and very large, and, as they stood on an elevation, they could be easily seen at a distance of ten miles. At noon in summer the cattle and sheep, of which we had a large number, used to rest in their shade; one large tree also afforded us children a splendid play-house, and we used to carry up a number of planks to construct safe bridges from branch to branch, and at noon, when our elders were sleeping their siesta, we would have our arboreal games unmolested.
I cannot recall seeing a single ombu, although some members of the Phytolacca family must surely have survived. The house itself was neglected, possibly abandoned. I felt like a trespasser so I looked around somewhat furtively until I found a weathered sign that confirmed that I had found the place where Hudson was born.
I walked back to the railway station, fearing that Hudson was in the process of being forgotten and that the place of his birth would not be preserved much longer.
Over the intervening years, while occupied as a journalist by the turmoil in Argentina from 1959 to 1979 and while in exile until 1984, I read of the efforts being made to preserve the Guillermo Enrique Hudson Historical Museum, established in 1957 on the site of Los veinticinco Ombúes. The actual house was located in 1929 by Fernando Pozzo, a Quilmes physician who was an admirer of Hudson. Pozzo and his wife Celia Rodríguez translated Far Away and Long Ago into Spanish in 1938. They were both instrumental in making Hudson known and in preserving his home — a long low structure, built of brick — and the natural surroundings that gave life and sustenance to the native flora and fauna that Hudson celebrated throughout his life and which live on in his literature.
The following extract was written when Hudson was ill in bed:
The pampas are, in most places, level as a billiard-table; just where we lived, however, the country happened to be undulating, and our house stood on the summit of one of the highest elevations. Before the house stretched a great grassy plain, level to the horizon, while at the back it sloped abruptly down to a broad, deep stream, which emptied itself in the river Plata, about six miles to the east. This stream, with its three ancient red willow-trees growing on the banks, was a source of endless pleasure to us. Whenever we went down to play on the banks, the fresh penetrating scent of the moist earth had a strangely exhilarating effect, making us wild with joy. I am able now to recall these sensations, and believe that the sense of smell, which seems to diminish as we grow older, until it becomes something scarcely worthy of being called a sense, is nearly as keen in little children as in the inferior animals, and, when they live with nature, contributes as much to their pleasure as sight or hearing. I have often observed that small children, when brought on to low, moist ground from a high level, give loose to a sudden spontaneous gladness, running, shouting, and rolling over the grass just like dogs, and I have no doubt that the fresh smell of the earth is the cause of their joyous excitement.
Celia Rodríguez recalled that on the centenary of his birth Hudson had “become Argentine again and curiously there is enormous sympathy for this man who was not an entrepreneur, or a landowner, or a politician, who did not improve cattle breeds, did not cultivate the land, who was unemployed, who sang of the Solitude of the Pampa, of the gaucho, of the roaming cattle, of the birds of La Plata, of the simple and at times tragic life of the country dweller, of everything that seems rustic and of the wilderness who makes us feel emotions of a world that has disappeared.”
The joy of my return visit after a half a century was to discover that Hudson’s world has not disappeared. It has changed but it is still a world apart, nestled in a landscape composed of the stark contrasts that characterize the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The flourishing Museo y Parque Ecológico Cultural Guillermo Enrique Hudson www.museohudson.gov.ar exists because the people who have tended it over the years, bringing it back from the brink of destruction, embody what Hudson lived for. Six words from the epitaph on Hudson’s grave in Richmond Park, London, England, capture the spirit that still haunts his place of birth, Calle 1356 entre Av. Hudson y Calle 1379, Florencio Varela, provincia de Buenos Aires, Argentina: “He Loved Birds and Green Places...”
It is also a blessed place because it signifies that love of nature and humanity can transcend nationalism. The life and work of Hudson may be seen as a parable on how to solve the question of those faraway islands fought over by the country of Hudson’s birth and by the country he adopted. He loved them both.
Having rediscovered the place I searched for in 1959, I will return next year to report on a place that is well worth visiting and pondering its significance.