Green Mansions

On January 28, 1969, a blowout occurred on Union Oil’s Platform A, creating an 800 square mile oil slick known as the Santa Barbara oil spill.  The spill fouled the Channel islands and the coastline from Goleta to Ventura, and killed more than 10,000 seabirds and marine mammals.

Six months later the Cuyahoga River burst into flames. The first images of the fragile Blue Marble had been transmitted back from the Apollo missions. America was gaining a new perspective of our world.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin rented a temporary office in Washington, DC and staffed it with 85 college students, directing them to organize a nation-wide day of environmental awareness. The next spring, on April 22, 1970, over 20 million people gathered across the country in protest and celebration. The first Earth Day, as it later became known, has been called the birth of the environmental movement.

Some people push the birth of the movement back by twenty years, to the publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1950. And there are some who push the date back even further, to 1904, when the novel Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson was published.

Cover of 1944 Random House edition, by E. McKnight Kauffer

The protagonist of Green Mansions, Abel, is a young Venezuelan political exile hiding in the jungles of Guyana. He wastes his life in an Indian village, hunting and telling stories. The plot veers into uncharted territory when he becomes involved in inter-tribal warfare, changes his loyalty, then warns his former friends of an impending attack.

The element of the book that endures is the character of Rima, a bird-like creature who is the last of her kind. Abel hears her haunting, elusive calls, and is drawn deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the jungle.

Rima with her coral viper, by E. McKnight Kaufer

Abel falls in love with Rima, and with the jungle. He is determined to spend his life in her world. The sense of foreboding is palpable; clearly this is a story that will not end well.

Publishers continue to issue new editions. A recent edition, a facsimile of the 1922 edition with woodcuts by famed Scottish Art Deco artist Keith Henderson, includes a critical essay by Margaret Atwood.

Abel at the moment Rima reveals herself to him. Woodblock print by Keith Henderson.

After a century and a quarter the demand for used copies continues undiminished. An inscribed first Duckworth & Co. edition is currently available for $7,500 from a rare book dealer. Fine copies of illustrated early editions can be had for $500 – $1,000. Appreciative articles continue to appear, often in conjunction with Earth Day.

One reason for the continued appeal of Green Mansions is that Rima is an undying source of inspiration for artists. Some of them, McKnight and Henderson among others, have tried to capture the ineffable beauty of nature, as personified by Rima, at the moment of its destruction. The book leaves some readers with the ache of a loss that will never heal.

The machine in the garden

George Inness, one of America’s great landscape painters, became known for interweaving both the physical and spiritual nature of experience in his work. Late in life he became a Swedenborgian mystic, but in 1855, at the beginning of America’s Industrial Revolution, he incorporated both technology and wilderness within an observed landscape.

The Lackawanna Valley {detail}, 1855, by George Inness. Note the field of stumps where trees recently stood.

Whether Lackawanna Valley is read as an affirmation of technology or as a lament for a vanishing wilderness, this painting exemplifies a crucial philosophical dilemma that confronted many Americans in the 1850s; expansion inevitably brought about the widespread destruction of unspoiled nature. The tension in the painting made it an obvious choice as the cover of the influential The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal by Leo Marx. The book, published in 1964, (60 years after Green Mansions and over a century after Lackawanna Valley) continues to serve as a prime source for the field of American studies.

Marx’s book appeared a few years before the Santa Barbara Oil spill, on the cusp of the environmental awakening of America. Careful observers, including Marx, could see that technology was no longer merely a threat to the environment; it had already gone a long way toward the destruction of it. The Machine in the Garden is a work of cultural criticism. In it Marx concludes that literature and art can expose problems; we must look critically to politics for any possible resolution.

From Tyrol to Ohio

The family is posed in front of a massive house: mother, father, and grandfather.. The photograph, taken in 1912, was probably taken by an itinerant photographer. The mother holds an infant, my father Josef. They are standing before the ancestral home, which dates back to 1450 and is still standing.

The pasture starts in the center of the village and climbs for miles through meadows to the Alpine pasture itself. The village children spent their summers taking the cows to these high pastures, with panoramic views down to the River Inn, winding its way through the valley to Innsbruck.

The priest saw that Josef was bright, and kept him well supplied with books. Before the age of 12 he had read Der Letzte Mohikaner, the German translation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, and other classics. In 1924, after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the loss of many family members, the family emigrated to Ohio.

Joseph married and started his own family. He became an organic orchardist and a machinist, and he continued to read. He started a family library. The bookplate below, incorporating both the pastoral and the industrial, is pasted on the inside cover of his books, including his copy of Green Mansions.


  1. Lackawanna Valley by George Inness courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. We have also borrowed commentary from their Overview,
  2. W.H. Hudson was primarily an ornithologist, having published a number of books about birds prior to his novel. Any relationship between the publication of Green Mansions and the formation of The National Audubon Society a year later in 1905 is purely speculative.
Rima leading Abel into the underbrush, by Miguel Covarrubias. Covarrubias, from Mexico, was associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
Rima at the moment of her greatest suffering. Miguel Covarrubias