E S S A Y
The Girl in the Tree:
On Re-Reading Green Mansions
b y k a t h l e e n a l c a l á
When I was a little girl, I lived, for a year, in a tree. It was a very fine tree, a crepe myrtle, and just the right heighth for spying on our neighborhood in San Bernardino, California, without alarming people. My piercing, two-noted whistle could be heard up and down the street as I summoned Bobby or Anita Lotz to play.
This was a time of transition in our family. My father had been superintendent of The Optimists Boys Ranch in Devore Heights for the previous five years. There had been an incident, in which the board of directors had held a dinner on the grounds of the ranch and had gotten drunk in front of the boys. My father had objected, and in doing so, lost his job. The Ranch was closed within a year, since it was also perceived to be bleeding off money from a similar facility that was closer to Los Angeles.
As a result, my family sold our house in rural Devore and moved into the closest city, San Bernardino, so that my father could begin substitute teaching in the public schools. By then, my older sisters were already attending schools in town, so it was probably seen as a convenience for all.
I was about six when we moved to that rented house at 447 West 21st Street. It was a beautiful house, full of built-in cupboards and light. There was a huge black walnut tree in the back, a jungle of bamboo, and a fruit cellar that, my father pointed out, could be used as a bomb shelter. It was also in a friendly neighborhood, where people held potlucks. We lived next door to a judge. Now, it would be called a neighborhood in transition, but then, it was just a mix of old residents and new, big houses and little, Whites, a Chinese family, a Lebanese lady, and now, one Mexican family.
Those were hard times for my parents, since money was scarce, and there were often arguments about it. I remember trying to listen to a conversation in the kitchen behind a closed door, which earned me a black eye when my father suddenly opened it and inadvertently hit me with the doorknob. A lady appeared on television with a rare folk instrument called a ukelin, lamenting the fact that the strings were irreplaceable. We had a ukelin, so my mother wrote and offered to sell her the strings from ours. She didn't answer.
So I loved my tree. Although on the street for all to see, it was the closest thing to my own room. I read in it. I napped in it. And although I did not spend the night in it, I probably would have, if allowed to.
It was some years later that I read Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson. It seems to me that there was some link between my reading it and my life in a tree. Perhaps someone, knowing this about me, had recommended the book. If so, this was probably in college, where people recommended books to each other. I don't remember much of that before then. However, I know I was young enough that Green Mansions made a deep and terrible impression on me, so searing that only now, in my middle years, have I gone back to see why this book could have affected me so profoundly.
William Henry Hudson was born August 4, 1841 in Argentina to American parents. They had moved there from Massachusetts because it provided a favorable climate for his father's tuberculosis. William himself grew up mostly self-educated and expected to lead the life of a naturalist and adventurer, until rheumatic fever in his teens made it clear he would never lead an active life. At the age of thirty-three, according to Amy D. Ronner in W.H. Hudson: The Man, The Novelist, The Naturalist (AMS press, New York, 1986), he moved to England, married, and wrote over twenty books of natural history, memoir, and adventure. But his most famous, still available in numerous editions, remains Green Mansions.
First published in 1904, Green Mansions is the adventure story of a young man from Venezuela who, fearing for his life following a botched political coup, leaves everything behind to explore the territories of the Guyanas, south of Venezuela proper. Mr. Abel follows the Amazon and its tributaries upstream, living with various indigenous groups, until he meets a "savage" (Hudson employs this term a lot) wearing a necklace made of pounded disks of gold. The savage tells him (our adventurer is very good at languages) of a place where all the inhabitants wear such neckaces, and he is off on the quest that will change his life forever.
Upon gaining the Parahuaris, Mr. Abel finds neither gold nor mountains, just some low hills and lower savages who nevertheless allow him to stick around and build them a guitar. This, along with his nifty blue cloak, his knife and his pistol, gives him the confidence to venture into an adjacent forest which is avoided by his band of savage friends. They tell him that “the daughter of the Didi” lives there and allows no hunting. If a spear were to be thrown or a dart shot, she would catch it and send it back against the hunter.
All of this was well and good, so far. It did bother my younger self that Mr. Abel seemed to have so little regard for the people who helped him along the way. Then he finds Rima and falls in love with her. Better than the daughter of the Didi, Rima turns out to be a real live girl who lives in the forest, protects the animals within it, and saves him from snakebite. She is extraordinarily beautiful and bears no resemblance to any indigenous forest dweller ever before seen in the Amazon. She is singular, a sort of Ishi, the Last of His Tribe before Ishi's story had been told.
The problem, of course, was that I fell head over heels in love with the idea of Rima. Here was someone much like me, of dubious ancestry and unclassifiable appearance, down to her fuzzy halo of hair that appeared to be a different color depending on the light. She spoke a wonderful, bird-like language that Mr. Abel was unable to understand and could travel through the treetops like a monkey. Rima lived the life I wanted to live, far from the common places of California, far from the confining behavior that had been imposed on me in ever larger doses as I grew and matured away from the girl in the tree.
Had I known anything about literature, I would have understood that calling the indigenous people "savages" was W.H. Hudson's idea of foreshadowing: The people who shelter Mr. Abel during his sojourn eventually kill Rima in order to gain access to her forest.
When I got to this part of the story I was so upset that I barely made it through the rest of the book to the end. In fact, I may not have made it to the end. I probably read just as far as Mr. Abel gathering her bones so that, in death, they might mingle with his. Once her death was incontrovertibly confirmed in the book, I think I abandoned it. Only now have I gone back to try to understand why Rima had to die.
Hudson, by portraying Rima as the last of her mysterious people, makes it clear that there is not room in a modern world for such gentle souls. Her own mother was found injured by Rima's guardian, an old man (Nuflo) who until that point had lived the life of an outlaw. He rescues her from his more blood-thirsty cohorts. It soon becomes clear that she is expecting a child, and he convinces her to travel with him to a village where women can help her with her delivery. Lame from her injury, Rima's mother alternately pines for her lost people, while teaching Rima their unique language. She wastes away, apparently from the unhealthy climate, and before dying, convinces Nuflo to take Rima to a higher altitude, where she has a chance of surviving. Thus they come to live in the isolated forest where Mr. Abel finds them.
I reread a version of this book (Magnum, 1968) at the age of 48, lying on the shore of glacier-fed Wallowa Lake in Eastern Oregon. In a box canyon isolated enough to generate its own mythology, Wallowa feels as innocent as Rima's paradise, where protected deer move among the tourists like life-size audio-animatronics from Disneyland, and the water is the purest I have ever tasted. One could easily imagine the bird-girl flitting near the mountain trails, moving from tree to tree as effortlessly as the butterflies.
Yet here, too, has been ugliness. The White settlers evicted the Nez Perce from Chief Joseph's resting place and told them never to return. The grandmother of the spiritual leader of the Nez Perce tribe, Horace Axtell, grew up here. He remembers watching her weep, too respectful to ask why. Horace and his wife, Andrea, are now allowed to visit as guests of Fishtrap, a writers conference where Horace teaches the Nez Perce language to eager White students. He seems to bear no grudges, but is thankful for each moment he spends in this place of magic.
In Green Mansions, Hudson describes an indifferent God, a God who does not reward good nor punish evil, but looks upon both with an equally jaundiced eye. He describes Nuflo's hopes for divine intervention by Rima's deceased mother, and Rima's prayers to that same mother, in the same childish terms as he describes the superstitions that the Indians have about Rima and her enchanted forest.
By taking her to the land of her birth (and source of her name), Riolama, Hudson's protagonist carefully kills Rima's spiritual ties to her past, the expectation that there might be others like her with whom she can converse in her "true" language. This yearning for the missing others reminded me of Zenna Henderson's novels about the descendants of a group of space travelers who crash-land on earth. They intermarry with the locals, so that their children inherit supernatural traits here and there. But the books are suffused with an intense longing for the unknown community, the wholeness of a culture that has been handed down in bits and pieces. Only when disabused of her unrealistic notions does Rima awaken to Mr. Abel's carnal passions. There is a section in the book during which she slowly returns from the brink of death. As Mr. Abel holds her in his arms, the color gradually returns to her lips until he cannot refrain from kissing them, and she does not resist. It is, metaphorically, a description of her first orgasm. Only then does she call him by his name.
Like Mary Shelley before him in Frankenstein, published in 1818, Hudson has breathed life into a monster. An ethnically ambiguous woman in complete harmony with Nature, unfettered by church or civilization in her newly awakened sexuality, cannot be allowed to live in such a book. W.H. Hudson's readers could not have accepted this violation of the natural order of things any more than could Hudson himself. As a respected naturalist specializing in the birds of England and South America, Hudson described the social and ethnic differences among his human characters with the same particularity as he did his flora and fauna.
Rima's abandonment of her hopes leads her to trust Mr. Abel and return to her forest to wait for him. It is there that she is struck down "like a great white bird killed with an arrow and falling to the earth, and it fell into the flames beneath," perishing in the huge conflagration built around her tree by the Indians (p 299). The balance of faiths is destroyed by the nonbelieving Mr.Abel's involvement, yet he survives all. The series of events is described as the inexorable march of progress—regrettable, but nevertheless, unavoidable.
This theme is echoed in Hudson's other adventure books, such as The Purple Land and The Crystal Age, in which he describes the potential pairings of ideal women and mere mortals, each of which is cut short before consummation. At least in The Crystal Age, it is the man who dies.
When I first read Green Mansions, I did not know anything about archetypes or stereotypes. I had begun reading science fiction at an early age because I found Have Spacesuit, Will Travel published by Robert A. Heinlein in 1958, in a school library, and it had a female protagonist, albeit one who behaved oddly. By the time I was twelve, Star Trek, bless their pointed ears, had Lieutenant Uhuru on board, female and black, even if the planets they visited were all populated by blonde women in tinfoil bikinis. I had tried and failed to make sense of classics like Little Women or Pride and Prejudice—who cared what kind of gloves she was wearing? The symbols of civilization in British drawing-room dramas were more alien to me than the attributes of a good horse or a good car.
Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes, I got. Most idealists are seen as fools. But it wasn't until the essays of Joan Didion that I would recognize a familiar landscape, familiar details of people whose lives ran out of gas in the anonymous cities of Southern California. The urban jungles of the New World were my home territory, and perhaps I had been waiting for literature that addressed this terrain. The works of García Márquez had not yet been translated into English—to be followed by a subsequent flood of Latin American authors in translation—and my contemporaries had not yet grown up and written our version of the world.
And yes, now I remember. I had stopped reading Green Mansions after the Indians describe Rima's death to Mr. Abel. I hoped it was a lie, and perhaps I was afraid to find out. My freshman year roommate—for I read the book during my first year of college—had regarded me with the same fear and suspicion with which any respectable townswoman would have regarded Rima. Either discovering that I had not finished the book, or sensing my discomfort with it, she had insisted on reading the passages of Rima's death, and the discovery of her bones, out loud to me.
Why this was so important to her, I do not know, but it was certainly symptomatic of our relationship—she, the political science professor's daughter, defender of rationality and civilization; I, the half-formed creature of shadows and an alien culture, crouched at the outer edge of the collegiate campfire. (And this in spite of the fact that I had hidden her in the closet from her Mormon cousins when they came to invite her to youth activities.)
The part after Rima's death is even darker. Mr. Abel, crazed with grief, spends two months inciting a neighboring group to attack and destroy every member of the small tribe that had killed Rima. He takes part in the nighttime raid, and is only brought to his senses by the sight of an old woman, lying dead, who had been a good friend to him. He then slinks off into Rima's forest and lives hand to mouth, deep in depression and hallucinations, until he is able to kill a sloth and provision himself for a journey. Bearing Rima's bones, he makes his way back to civilization, where a convenient inheritance allows him to resume the life of a gentleman and tell this story.
While recalling the scene of Rima's death, I was reminded of a series of murals I once saw in Chihuahua, Mexico. It was in an Art Nouveau mansion that is now a regional museum. The little girl's room was decorated with illustrations from "Little Red Riding Hood." The story culminated with the girl and the wolf, say my notes, as "good buddies." The illustrator understood the meaning of the fairy tale very well, and it made me wonder how well acquainted he had been with the little girl whose room he painted. Yet, the image I recall is that of a fox hiding in a great tree, only the red brush of his tail showing. The image seems to be purely a work of my own imagination, based on those murals. It is a rebus or transliteration of the phrase, "burning bush."
In this image lie the three meanings I must take away from Green Mansions: That Rima's tree is a burning bush, her death caused by people who feared her. Like the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," it is also the onset of sexuality. Finally, the burning bush was God's way of getting Moses' attention, a terrible and inescapable miracle, speaking to the inarticulate young man and telling him to demand that Pharoah let his people go. What does Hudson's burning bush have to say to Abel, slain by his brother Cain so long ago, or to us?
There is a clue to Hudson's private iconography in The Crystal Age (Doric Books, 1950), when Smith, a traveler from Hudson's England, awakens from a fall to find himself in a utopic future society:
I regretted too late that I had not exercised more restraint; but the hungry man does not and cannot consider consequences, else a certain hairy gentleman who figures in ancient history had never lent himself to that nefarious compact, which gave so great an advantage to a younger but sleek and well-nourished brother. (p 40)
In that case, Hudson has split man's nature into that of the hungry, hairy individual ruled by his baser instincts, Esau, and Joseph, the more cerebral of the two brothers, who uses his wit to gain his brothers birthright. In Green Mansions, Mr. Abel, the product of a "civilized" society, is balanced by his adopted brother in the tribe, Kua-kó, who must play Cain. He resents Mr. Abel's easy acceptance into tribal society and covets his gun. Eventually, he leads the assault on Rima's forest, and Mr. Abel returns to kill Kua-kó, along with the rest of the group. Mr. Abel is rewarded with material wealth and left without the ability to form close human relationships. The preface of the story is a frame in which his friend insists on hearing Mr. Abel's story, which he has kept a secret for years. Only when pressed does he tell his tale.
Throughout his career, Hudson's ideas veered between the widespread influence of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, and utopianism. He thought the ideal was man living in complete physical and spiritual harmony with nature, yet felt that the human race was incapable of doing so until it evolved past its baser instincts—greed, war and, yes, even sexuality. In The Crystal Age, Smith gives up hope of marrying his Rima-like Yoletta when he thinks that she can never share his physical passion. In Green Mansions, Rima becomes tainted by Mr. Abel's lust, and so loses the otherworldly advantage that had kept her safe from her neighbors.
A great deal is made in the book of Mr. Abel's pistol, which is stolen from him by Kua-kó. We are led to assume that the pistol will be turned against either Mr. Abel or Rima, but in the end, the Indians use fire, the primitive equalizer, to reclaim Rima's forest. Mr. Abel is, bit by bit, deprived of the accoutrements of civilization that he thinks are merely the trappings of his own superior nature, so that at the end, he must survive without even the advantage of a group working towards a single purpose.
It is unclear why Nuflo, the old man, stays in the forest. In part, he stays to fulfill his promise to Rima's mother, but Rima seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself. He seems to be there primarily as a chaperone between Rima and Mr. Abel during their "indoor" scenes. Later in the book, it is made clear that Nuflo considers Rima capable of interceding on his behalf with her mother, who Rima believes is in heaven looking down on her, listening to the bird-like speech that only the two of them, Rima and her mother, can understand.
Hudson constructed a carefully hierarchical order in which Rima, in complete harmony with nature, is also the closest to heaven. Mr. Abel, with his civilized upbringing, is the only reasonable suitor to such a creature. Nuflo, with his ability to speak Spanish, is nevertheless prone to superstition and lying in his own self-interest, and so takes third place. The Indians, portrayed as treacherous and incapable of grasping any ideas higher than their own physical well-being, fall a distant last.
Yet, if Nature is the highest ideal, why don't the Indians, who must wrest a living from the forest on its own terms, come before Mr. Abel and Nuflo? And why doesn't Mr. Abel, with his conceit and trappings of the city life, fall last? Maybe this is why the novel bothered me so, and why I failed to perceive the warning signs of Rima's impending death. It would have made a lot more sense to me if Rima had formed an alliance with one of the native boys, and Mr. Abel had stumbled on down the trail to further adventures. Belatedly, we are even told of the fiancée he left behind when he falls for Rima, and he spends about fifteen minutes regretting that he plans to abandon her for the bird-girl.
Interestingly, Ronner's biography tells us that Hudson himself had married a bird-like woman, Emily Wingrave, "so tiny that when she stands on the floor she cannot look over the edge of the dinner table," (Ronner, p 41). She was fifteen or twenty years older than Hudson, a professional singer who lost her voice shortly after their marriage. None of his literary friends could figure out what he saw in her, but she was clearly the model for several of Hudson's heroines, tiny guardians of Nature Ronner describes as "pre-Eve women," (p 61).
Hudson and Wingrave stuck together until her death, through many years of poverty until Hudson finally achieved success, and Wingrave accompanied him on many of the countryside rambles that were the source for his books on birds and an idealized view of country living. Like Thomas Hardy, Hudson saw in simple country people an integrity that transcended the institutions of English society. His novel, Fan: the Story of a Young Girl's Life (1892), is the only one in which he deliberately explores the English underclass. Other books such as Hampshire Days, A Hind in Richmond Park and A Shepherd's Life glorify the country life.
Hudson's most notable contribution was probably his support of campaigns against the killing of birds for ornamenting women's hats and clothing. Long before PETA, he wrote impassioned diatribes on behalf of various conservation groups that portrayed the brutality of hunters who pulled the valuable wings off of living birds, leaving them to die in agony (Ronner, p 32). He met regularly with other nature-lovers and members of the Bird Society (p 46).
Hudson, the compulsive classifier of human and avian behavior, deliberately tried to avoid classification himself. He called himself a "religious atheist," (Ronner, p 77), but used a lot of Biblical imagery in his stories. While intrigued by Darwinism, he refused to accept it completely. He continued to hold nature as the highest ideal, and seemed to draw whatever religious feelings he had from his interactions with Nature. By blurring the lines between the poet and the scientist, he anticipated the current movement within scientific circles to acknowledge the effect of the observer on the observed, which, at least in the social sciences, has changed the way in which data is interpreted.
At that time, most people who read or heard of Darwin's theories thought of themselves, naturally, as the most evolved product of Nature. There was even a companion theory of atavism, promulgated by the Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso in his book Criminal Man, published in 1876, contending that primitive living conditions favored the criminal mind. This attitude suffuses much of the anthropological research of the era, which includes most of the first descriptions of indigenous people in the Western United States, the Pacific, and Australia. The spottiness and self-contradictory aspects of Hudson's own philosophy may account for the flaws in Green Mansions, yet most people to this day read the book as both a great environmental novel and a great love story. It was even made into a poorly reviewed movie in 1959 starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins.
Hudson's work was promoted by his contemporaries Ford Madox Ford, John Galsworthy—who wrote the preface to the American edition of Green Mansions—and the English critic, Edward Garnett. Others, such as the novelist and critic Morley Roberts, elevated Hudson to a sort of cult figure: "There was something in his character which forbade him to abandon his soul to others. He kept it in a strong secret place, as those fabled giants in ancient myths keep theirs," (Ronner, p 7). Even Ezra Pound referred to a "quiet charm which allures even him through books with seemingly inane titles into worlds which normally wouldn't entice him," (Ronner, p 11).
Since first reading Green Mansions, I've figured out that a girl of color with romantic aspirations was not the intended audience for this book. Although I now approach novels with a little more caution, I still identify with Rima. Somewhere in Hyde Park, London, is a statue of her sculpted in 1925 by Jacob Epstein. Like her, I feel that there is no place in the world for a woman who talks to birds. Any tree in which I perch is vulnerable to a lighted torch from whatever mob happens to gather around its roots. A pristine mountain lake can suddenly become a killing ground. And no sweet-talking man is going to save me with his birthright.
There is, in this modern or postmodern time, no room for the mystic, no market niche. There is only the clamor of commerce, the knocking together of the pots and pans of overt sexuality from which any spiritual yearnings have been carefully excised, the photographic negative of Hudson's idylls. Rima is nobody's hero today because she meant too much. She embodied a woman who was both physical and spiritual, a strong individualist who was, nevertheless, an innocent. She is described as bird-like, but is, more specifically, angel-like. Unlike the otherworldly half-breeds in Zena Henderson's novels, Hudson could not allow such a transcendent being to also experience carnal love.
What Hudson taught me is that girls who live in trees can never afford to trust others. The daughters of the Didi must guard themselves if they intend to stay alive. Each child, upon coming of age, must set out into the woods without the protection of a parent. What will she find? A wolf in grandmother's clothing, a fox in a tree, a burning bush—her burning bush, with all its splendor, and all its terror.
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a series of magical realist novels including Treasures in Heaven, The Flower in the Skull and Spirits of the Ordinary, as well as the story collection, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist.
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