The healing power of birdsong
The ornithologist W.H. Hudson sought wilderness in the city. It is as if he was writing for us today
Until very recently, we couldn’t hear ourselves talk when we sat in the back garden as the planes flew low overhead and drowned out our voices. But today when the sky is clear and we can hear birds singing, I think again of William Henry Hudson.
W.H. Hudson is now largely forgotten but, in his day, he was famous as a naturalist and novelist. His legacy in his native Argentina—where he is known as Guillermo Enrique Hudson—is as a founder of ornithology with his Birds of La Plata, and as the author of an autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago. When he died in London in 1922, at the height of his fame, the Times obituary wrote that he was “unsurpassed as an English writer on nature” and referred to him as the latest in a line of great naturalist writers such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, both of whom had explored South America. The bird sanctuary in Hyde Park, with its stone memorial carved by Jacob Epstein, commemorates Hudson; he was a leading light of the RSPB in its early years.
Born in Argentina in 1841 to parents who had emigrated there from New England, Hudson worked there as a gaucho and self-taught ornithologist until he left his birthplace for good. On arriving in England at the age of 32, he wrote fiction and published countless nature sketches that were collected into books to earn his living. He became very popular around the First World War and his nature sketches were read in the trenches.
As rural England was lost for good to industrialisation he knew that urban life lacked what he loved most, a feeling for the freedom of an untamed nature. Hudson roamed Southern England all his summers, staying in peasant cottages and boarding houses, and interacting with life beyond the towns. Every winter he would return to his turret in Paddington and write about what he had witnessed from notes taken on the spot; he could write ten pages about a raven or a sparrow. But what made his reputation was that he viewed everything through a foreigner’s lens. Curiously he had learned about English nature through his reading of unfashionable poets while growing up in Argentina. Hudson rarely mentioned that he was Argentine-born and underwent the sternest of tasks in Victorian England of starting from the bottom as a penniless outsider, but by the end of his life he had attained sufficient fame as a writer not to have to worry about money.
He viewed his life in his turret in Paddington—where he lived with his wife Emily, an opera singer who was also his former landlady—akin to being locked up in a “prison”. He always preferred the rural to the urban, the wilderness to the city, but he sought the former in the latter. He wrote to escape from the grime and the dirt. I realise today that it is as if he was writing for this future in which we too are confined.
Hudson’s best work derived from his ability to view reality as if for the first time, like a child. He endeavoured, in his prose, to keep in touch with that emotional jolt. He wrote slowly, with much correction and to deadlines, and kept his prose rhythmical and simple.
As I sit in a communal garden in London at sunset and listen to more familiar, supposedly less exotic, birds, I recall Hudson’s Birds in London. 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.
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.
To sit and listen to any birdsong is to meditate on the wildness of birds. If you mix the songs of birds you might hear in London—robins, blackbirds, thrush, crows, ravens and green parakeets—is it so different to that astonishing wall of sound I once heard when listening to the dawn chorus on an estancia in Argentina? Hudson teaches us that bird song is a medicine that restores freedom and wildness to our minds. Even the “croaking carrion crow” and the screech of the green parakeet, so seemingly unmelodious, bring this “medicine” to our ears.
I have another vivid memory from Argentina, of the green parakeets—cotorras—on a small estancia in the pampas where they built hanging nests from tall eucalyptus trees. These social birds would chatter so loudly that conversation was impossible outside. They are considered a pest in Argentina and pest controllers come with long sticks which they light at the tip to torch these drooping, communal nests, but the birds come back and rebuild and torment those who haven’t learnt how to listen. What Hudson taught me, after 30 years of reading and writing about him, is that there is no such thing as bad birdsong. That loud constant chatter, where the parakeets communicate to each other, is music to the ears, albeit atonal song.
Birds are the true “savages”, as Hudson wrote of the raucous crows. Any bird, be it a duck flying past with whistling wings or a blackbird singing on a treetop, can transport you “into the midst of a wild and solitary nature”.
To re-contact with this wild nature, I take a walk towards Wimbledon Common, as my daily exercise. There is a pond in a small green with tall trees, reached by a footpath, and there I watch two moorhens who have built their nest in the middle of this pond with five chicks. One of the adults makes clucking sounds, moves its head up and down and feeds in the edges of a pond. This glimpse of an alien life integrates me momentarily with wild nature. It reminds me of another passage in Birds in London in which Hudson describes some unusual behaviour he observed at a pond in West London:
This moorhen was quietly feeding on the margin [of the pond], but became greatly excited on the appearance, a little distance away, of a second bird. Lowering its head, it made a little rush at, or towards, the new-comer, then stopped and went quietly back; then made a second little charge, and again walked back. Finally it began to walk backwards, with slow, measured steps, towards the other bird, displaying, as it advanced, or retrograded, its open white tail, at the same time glancing over its shoulder as if to observe the effect on its neighbour of this new mode of motion. Whether this demonstration meant anger, or love, or mere fun, I cannot say.
It confirmed his belief—and perhaps mine too—that “the birdwatcher’s life is an endless succession of surprises”.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.