In the Garden with Beatrix Potter

This week we welcome spring and I, for one, am happy to do so!  The seasonal change holds many promises – not the least of which is my front yard wildflower garden, whose charms I only discovered last year.  More on that in a subsequent post.  But, for the moment, spring holds fond thoughts of Gardens, Grandma, and Beatrix. 

Photo from the PWP Collection.



Well into her late nineties, once spring arrived, my grandmother was in her garden, tilling and tending her vegetable greens. Home grown garden goodness, nature at her fingertips, sunshine, fresh air, sweat beading off her nose – this was Grandma.  As she aged, no matter how frail and ill she might have been during the winter months, once spring arrived and she stepped into the garden, thrusting her hands into the earth to prepare the soil for seed, she was nourished and revitalized – green with new life each spring, and hope for summer harvests!  Grandma and her garden – but, for the bunnies!

Enter the rabbits – naughty little bunnies nibbling away in Grandma’s garden!  Despite traps, fence, and chicken wire, those furry little fellows were as rapturous to see Grandma working her garden again as she was to be doing so!  Too bad she didn’t find their gardening antics something to smile about the way famous children’s author and naturalist, Beatrix Potter did.

Beatrix and the Bees . . .
“Look at the bees amid the banks of thyme.  They find there a very bitter juice, but when they suck it out, they change it into honey because they have the ability to do so.” 
                                               Frances DeSales  1567-1622

Photo from the PWP Collection – No, it’s not thyme, but our
bee and butterfly are doing that which they have the
ability to do:  Using that which is created to create anew.

Our Miss Potter spent much of her sheltered Victorian childhood and later adult life amid the green goodness of nature.  As with my grandmother, Beatrix took life and sustenance from growing things, and perhaps an even greater joy in her menagerie of scampering critters – including her pet rabbit, Peter.  A Victorian era daughter of privileged society, she lived a sad, secluded childhood with a minimum of positive parental interaction in a wealthy English home.  However, such cheerlessness became the fertilizer that drove Beatrix into a deep, nurturing relationship with Creation’s landscape and life out of doors.   Immersed in the works of the Creator, like the buzzy bees “amid the banks of thyme,” Beatrix changed the “bitter juice” of her forced Victorian solitude re-creating something of lasting sweetness – like honey – because of her “ability to do so.”

Regardless of her sheltered home life, Beatrix was possessed of wit, intelligence, and keen powers of observation – all of which fed her even keener powers of imagination.  An accomplished watercolor artist from childhood, Miss Potter’s legacy in children’s literature began when a friend fell ill. She jotted a diverting story in the body of a “get well” letter about four little bunnies named, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and their naughty brother Peter, living “. . . in a sandbank, under the root of a very big fir tree” – hoping to cheer the young patient. A few sketches fleshed out the characters. Upon its receipt, an audience of one expanded to siblings and friends. Letters of response were quickly dispatched begging Beatrix for more. Eventually capturing the eye of publishers, her idea of tiny storybooks for little hands, with imaginative and whimsical tales of woodland creatures walking about in proper English clothes, taking tea, and going about all manner of human business, were an instant success!  Royalty payments for her twenty odd little books produced in the first decade of the twentieth century made her a unique woman of independent means.  

Beginning around 1906 and continuing throughout her lifetime, Beatrix was truly a “busy bee” using her earnings to purchase and preserve hundreds of acres of the English countryside and Lake District farms (making honey) during a time of rapid change in England as the monster of an Industrial Revolution roamed about over hill and vale seeking land to devour and sacrifice unto the great golden gods of speculators and developers (bitter juices).  The novelty and promising wealth of the progress of man was slowly usurping the wonder and beauty of nature.  Much like the Biblical Queen Esther, Beatrix was in a strategic place on the world stage, able to act the part of a savior – the former for her people and the latter for a landscape:  “Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”  Esther 4:14.

Author and naturalist, Linda Lear, in the epilogue of her 2007 biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, connects her subject to the “ability to do so” in making “honey” from “bitter juices” pointing out Miss Potter’s empowering strength – imagination:

“Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations.  She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation.  After her marriage in 1913 the  emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained.  Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature . . . Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something.  Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture . . . (her) stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening.”  (p. 447)

The Genesis account of Creation records God charging mankind with the responsibility to “govern” the earth (Genesis 1:28).   This word “govern” has also been translated from the original language as meaning “take dominion”.  However, in a word study of “govern” or “dominion” we find something more akin to the concept of responsible, wise, selfless stewardship – the care and superintendence of Creation.  Nature will care for man – and man will care for nature.  My Grandmother understood this about her garden and was devoted to it.

Photo by Frank Ippolito.

I think, intuitively, Beatrix understood this truth, too, and as far as it was in her power, devoted herself to imaginative wonder in Creation, and the practical – if not reverent – stewardship of same.
Her accumulated wealth was invested in preserving the natural beauty of Creation in her homeland.  Anyone who has ever lost their breath gazing over the fells of the English countryside have benefited from her call to care for the beauty of God’s handiwork – and preserve that care and superintendence for generations to follow.

I am currently reading a cozy mystery series that further explores the early days of Beatrix’s independent life as a farmer raising sheep and writing stories.  Written by Susan Wittig Albert, the books are based on Beatrix’s life from the years 1906 when she bought her first farm in the Lake District country of northern England, through to 1913 when she married for the first time at age forty seven.  The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are a whimsical, diverting little series of eight family friendly stories blending historical fact with clever fiction, transporting the reader to another time and place for a season.  The little village of Sawrey, where Beatrix lives at Hill Top Farm, is filled with a cast of engaging characters whose continuing stories play out as each book in the series progresses.  Talking animals (a la Potter’s little books) add interest and plot elements, amid storyline encounters of romance, humor, warmth, and cozy crimes that tend to need Beatrix’s observant eye and practical turn of thought to solve.  I’m looking forward to reading them all this year – book eight in the series is due out in September!

5 Tips for a Springtime Literary Retreat:
1.  Break up the fallow ground in your garden and make ready to sow some wildflower seeds (end of March and beginning of April in most parts of the U.S.), looking forward to the green shoots and fragrant blossoms that will burst forth in their due time. 
2. As spring knocks on the door this week, consider picking up the first of the Ms. Albert’s Cottage Tales series, The Tale of Hill Top Farm, to get you started – check out the library or head to your nearest bookstore or online bookseller outlet.  
3.  Refresh your memory and re-read The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and the many other titles Beatrix published in her day.  Note her keen observations of the human heart dramatized by the animals that people her world.  Here or there, we might catch a glimpse of our own heart.  Ponder these things in your heart – and if you learn something akin to “bitter juices” about yourself, be glad of it and make some honey.
4.  Have some fun – read The Tale of Peter Rabbit aloud with an English accent (if you don’t already have one) and exercise your imagination muscles – rediscovering the wonder of “child” lying latent under the clutter of our industrial revolutionized adult world. 
5.  Tea and scones – goes without saying, of course!

For Further Exploration:

The Tales of Beatrix Potter, by Beatrix Potter, various editions, Frederick Warne Publishers
Beatrix Potter:  A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear, St. Martin’s Press, 2007
Beatrix Potter:  Artist, Storyteller, and Countrywoman, by Judy Taylor, Revised Edition, Frederick Warne, 1996
The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Series, by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley Publishing Group

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Website:  http://www.cottagetales.com/index.shtml

NOTE:  Portions of my review of The Tale of Peter Rabbit were previously published in my Tale Spin Stories Book Review column of South Jersey MOM Magazine, April 2008 

Sharing the loveliness of Grandma’s garden and Beatrix Potter with Kathy’s A Return to Loveliness at A Delightsome Life.

 

About Miss Kathy

"I teach families how to restore their God-given authority as the primary educator in their child’s life through the experience of reading together as a family. Learn how to use literature to create teachable moments, build strong minds, and bind loving hearts."

Kathryn Ross, writer, speaker, and dramatist, ignites a love of literature and learning to equip young and old towards developing a Family Literacy Lifestyle—reading together, learning together, loving together. Her works challenge families to deepen their literacy skills and grow into the greater things God has purposed for them. She’s taught in Christian and homeschool circles, trained in the Principle Approach® through the Foundation for American Christian Education. Miss Kathy owns Pageant Wagon Publishing, producing homeschool enrichment materials, devotional works, study guides, and theatrical dramas for church, school, and community production. She podcasts at TheWritersReverie.com and blogs at PageantWagonPublishing.com.

Comments

  1. Dear Kathryn,
    I enjoyed very much reading about your Grandma story, and about Beatrix. What a beautiful memories to keep near your heart. Thank you for sharing it with us, and stopping by.
    Have a wonderful weekend!
    Blessings ~Wendy

  2. Hello, Dear Kathryn….what a wonderful post about one of my most beloved illustrators and inspiring women! Have you seen the movie, “Miss Potter”? I really love it and wish I could live a life of that kind of tranquility. I just love reading your stories and we share a love of many of the same treasures..old letters and cards, Byers Choice…and my life scripture is, “Be Still and Know That I am God” which I see in your picture, not to mention that my eldest is named “Kathryn”…what more do we need to be kindred spirits? Not much, I would say! Hope you have a blessed weekend! I am busy illustrating my book which is about a little bee girl and her adventures….fun, but proving to be a daunting task! Wish me luck! bertie

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