Far Away & Long Ago
W. H. Hudson
Far Away & Long Ago
W. H. Hudson
Seen through the eyes of a young boy, the Argentine pampas is a land of freedom and endless exploration. In scintillating detail Hudson recalls its wild artichoke thistles, seasonal lakes, spectacular storms, unforgettable trees and its pulsating bird life. He also captures the idiosyncrasies of its human inhabitants and their multiracial households: Englishmen manufacturing sheep’s cheese, obsessive breeders of piebald horses and long, companionable evenings filled with extempore ballads. Underlying it all are the violent realities of the times – tortured slaves, murderous, macho gauchos delighting in the agonising ritual of animal slaughter and the simple ever-present threat of nineteenth-century mortality.
‘A masterpiece ... It was but one of many whose favourite book it was in childhood and beyond.’ - Kathleen Raine, The Tablet
‘He writes as the grass grows. It is as if some very fine and gentle spirit were whispering to him the sentences he puts down on the paper.’ - Joseph Conrad
Far Away & Long Ago: A Childhood in Argentina
Format: 248pp demi pb
William Hudson was born in 1841 in the district of Quilmes near Buenos Aires. His father was an Englishman from Devon who had travelled to South America to try his hand on the pampas of Argentina. For a time Hudson and his family lived on an estancia near Caseros and this period including Hudson's contraction of Rheumatic fever and the death of his mother, is the subject of Far Away and Long Ago.
In 1868 his father died and soon after Hudson left for England. Despite renown as an ornithologist and naturalist, publishing The Naturalist in La Plata (1892) and Idle Days in Patagonia (1893), and some success as a novelist, whose works include The Purple Land (1885), and Green Mansions (1904) Hudson never fully recovered from leaving South America. He died in 1922, shortly after re-capturing his childhood in this book.
Extract from Chapter One
IT WAS never my intention to write an autobiography. Since I took to writing in my middle years I have, from time to time, related some incident of my boyhood, and these are contained in various chapters in The Naturalist in La Plata, Birds and Man, Adventures among Birds, and other works, also in two or three magazine articles: all this material would have been kept back if I had contemplated such a book as this. When my friends have asked me in recent years why I did not write a history of my early life on the pampas, my answer was that I had already told all that was worth telling in these books. And I really believed it was so; for when a person endeavours to recall his early life in its entirety he finds it is not possible: he is like one who ascends a hill to survey the prospect before him on a day of heavy cloud and shadow, who sees at a distance, now here, now there, some feature in the landscape – hill or wood or tower or spire – touched and made conspicuous by a transitory sunbeam while all else remains in obscurity. The scenes, people, events we are able by an effort to call up do not present themselves in order; there is no order, no sequence or regular progression – nothing, in fact, but isolated spots or patches, brightly illumined and vividly seen, in the midst of a wide shrouded mental landscape.
It is easy to fall into the delusion that the few things thus distinctly remembered and visualized are precisely those which were most important in our life, and on that account were saved by memory while all the rest has been permanently blotted out. That is indeed how our memory serves and fools us; for at some period of a man’s life – at all events of some lives – in some rare state of the mind, it is all at once revealed to him as by a miracle that nothing is ever blotted out.
It was through falling into some such state as that, during which I had a wonderfully clear and continuous vision of the past, that I was tempted – forced I may say – to write this account of my early years. I will relate the occasion, as I imagine that the reader who is a psychologist will find as much to interest him in
this incident as in anything else contained in the book.
I was feeling weak and depressed when I came down from London one November evening to the south coast: the sea, the clear sky, the bright colours of the afterglow kept me too long on the front in an east wind in that low condition, with the result that I was laid up for six weeks with a very serious illness. Yet when it was over I looked back on those six weeks as a happy time! Never had I thought so little of physical pain. Never had I felt confinement less – I who feel, when I am out of sight of living, growing grass, and out of sound of birds’ voices and all rural sounds, that I am not properly alive!
On the second day of my illness, during an interval of comparative ease, I fell into recollections of my childhood, and at once I had that far, that forgotten past with me again as I had never previously had it. It was not like that mental condition, known to most persons, when some sight or sound or, more frequently, the perfume of some flower, associated with our early life, restores the past suddenly and so vividly that it is almost an illusion. That is an intensely emotional condition and vanishes as quickly as it comes. This was different. To return to the simile and metaphor used at the beginning, it was as if the cloud shadows and haze had passed away and the entire wide prospect beneath me made clearly visible. Over it all my eyes could range at will, choosing this or that point to dwell upon, to examine it in all its details; or in the case of some person known to me as a child, to follow his life till it ended or passed from sight; then to return to the same point again to repeat the process with other lives and resume my rambles in the old familiar haunts.
What a happiness it would be, I thought, in spite of discomfort and pain and danger, if this vision would continue! It was not to be expected: nevertheless it did not vanish, and on the second day I set myself to try and save it from the oblivion which would presently cover it again. Propped up with pillows I began with pencil and writing-pad to put it down in some sort of order, and went on with it at intervals during the whole six weeks of my confinement, and in this way produced the first rough draft of the book.
And all this time I never ceased wondering at my own mental
state; I thought of it when, quickly tired, my trembling fingers dropped the pencil; or when I woke from uneasy sleep to find the vision still before me, inviting, insistently calling to me, to resume my childish rambles and adventures of long ago in that strange world where I first saw the light.
It was to me a marvellous experience; to be here, propped up with pillows in a dimly-lighted room, the night-nurse idly dozing by the fire; the sound of the everlasting wind in my ears, howling outside and dashing the rain like hailstones against the window-panes; to be awake to all this, feverish and ill and sore, conscious of my danger too, and at the same time to be thousands of miles away, out in the sun and wind, rejoicing in other sights and sounds, happy again with that ancient long-lost and now recovered happiness!
During the three years that have passed since I had that strange experience, I have from time to time, when in the mood, gone back to the book and have had to cut it down a good deal and to reshape it, as in the first draft it would have made too long and formless a history.
The house where I was born, on the South American pampas, was quaintly named Los Veinte y cinco Ombúes, which means ‘The Twenty-five Ombú Trees’, there being just twenty-five of these indigenous trees – gigantic in size, and standing wide apart in a row about four hundred yards long. The ombú 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.