Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Hudson’

Can birdsong heal the soul? One writer thought so.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

Hudson had 240 bird calls in his mind.

We know about W.H. Hudson‘s adventures in the jungles of South America – Stanford discussed them during its Another Look evening on the author’s Green Mansions. I remember the prominence of exotic birdsong in the featured novel.

But who would have guessed that birdsong would be the very thing that we would need two years later, facing a global pandemic? On my daily walks, I’ve suddenly become aware of the birds around us, and especially their chirping and trilling and singing that gives me a momentary thrill, a sense of  a wilder world coexisting with the desk-bound life I live.

“To sit and listen to any birdsong is to meditate on the wildness of birds,” Jason Wilson writes in the current issue of Britain’s StandpointAlthough Hudson was reared in Argentina, he spent a number of winters cooped up in Paddington with his wife, an opera singer and his former landlady. Paddington took a toll on his spirits, as it has for many others. What restored him? Birdsong, in part. “Hudson teaches us that bird song is a medicine that restores freedom and wildness to our minds,” Wilson writes.

An excerpt:

In one of its essays on sparrows, which for Hudson stood for wild nature in an urban wasteland, he wrote, “it is always possible to find something fresh to say of a bird of so versatile a mind”. When I first read this, I was surprised not only by that word “fresh” but by the notion that a sparrow has a “mind”. Hudson praises this humble little bird for “its greater intelligence” and “individual character”. He found that, despite their ubiquity, “the individual sparrow is little known to us”. Here was Hudson looking at a common bird as if for the first time.

“A bird of so versatile a mind…” (Photo: Thorsten Denhard)

He was especially interested in the gatherings of the birds that Londoners then called “a sparrows’ chapel”. They congregate in a tree or hedge after a rain shower or at sunset and “their chorus of ringing chirruping sounds has an exceedingly pleasant effect; for although compared with the warblers’ singing it may be a somewhat rude music, by contrast with the noise of traffic and raucous cries from human throats it is very bright and glad and even beautiful, voicing a wild, happy life”.

All passerines—the order includes more than half of the different species of birds—have a habit of concert singing at sunset and expressing that “overflowing” of life that Hudson sought. There is no need to hanker for the exotic—the common birds around you can provide the thrill of untamed wilderness. Hudson suggests that really listening is to escape your worrying mind by concentrating on the emotion you feel when a bird sings. It is to range beyond yourself and self-absorption. When he was writing about the birds he knew as a young man in Argentina, he could hear over 240 bird calls in his mind. Bird music seemed lodged in a different area of his brain. Each time he heard a bird sing, it renewed his store of primitive bird song.

He described a starling’s song thus: “the airy whistle, the various chirp, the clink-clink as of a cracked bell, the low chatter of mixed harsh and musical sounds, the kissing and finger-cracking and those long metallic notes”. He said that however familiar one may be with the starlings, “you cannot listen to one of their choirs without hearing some new sound”. I have listened carefully to the rich variety of sounds they make and it is as if the songs of ten birds come out of a single throat.

Read the whole article here.  It’s delightful. And read our previous post on starlings here. (And by the way, while looking for a photo of a sparrow, I found this rather remarkable story about one.)

A night for W.H. Hudson and Green Mansions: his love for animals was deep and his opinions were fierce

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

About 150 devoted book fans braved the campus-wide construction at Stanford to attend our Another Look fall event on William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions on Tuesday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. The event launched Another Look’s seventh season.

First published in 1904, Green Mansions seamlessly blends nineteenth-century romanticism with the ecological imperatives that would come to the forefront in the twentieth century. Discussants included Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, director of Another Look, Prof. Laura Wittman, and the Dean of Continuing Studies, Charles Junkerman.

Harrison at the podium.

The book had more fame back then than it does now – despite a 1959 film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. Said novelist Ford Madox Ford of the novel: “There was no one – no writer – who did not acknowledge without question that Hudson was the greatest living writer of English … I have never heard a writer speak of him with anything but reverence that was given to no other human being. For as a writer he was a magician.” According to Joseph Conrad, “Hudson’s writing is like grass that the good God made to grow, and when it is there you cannot tell how it came.”

The plot: Abel Guevez de Argensola, flees to the Venezuelan interior after launching a failed coup in Caracas with his friends. In the remote jungles and savannas, he lives among the native people, learning their language and their ways. While exploring the terrain, he hears strange bird-like singing and discovers a young woman with a mysterious story. His love for her desolates and transfigures his life.

Hudson was better known as a naturalist and ornithologist, and his opinions were fierce, particularly about cruelty to animals. On his grave is written: “He loved birds and green places, and the wind on the hearth, and saw the brightness of the skirts of God.”

But his opinion of his fellow man could be harsh. In 1915, he wrote to a friend, “You think it is a ‘cursed’ war. I think it is a blessed war. And it is quite time we had our purification from the degeneration, the rottenness that comes with everlasting peace. The blood that is being spilled will purge us of many hateful qualities – of our caste feeling, or our detestable partisanship, our gross selfishness and a hundred more. Let us thank the gods for a Wilhelm and a whole nation insane with hatred of England to restore us to health.”

Photos of the event, as always, by Another Look aficionado David Schwartz. And the podcast for the event is here.