It may seem out of place to write about Beatrix Potter at a boys’ school; we associate her with the nursery or the Childrens’ Section at the library. While we would be fortunate if we knew her there, it would be unfortunate if her influence and our knowledge of her extended no further. She and her work are worth knowing, especially at a school such as The Heights, because they impart a love of nature and the proper relationship of man to the world around him that we would do well to cultivate.
Born into an upper class family in West Brompton, England, a suburb of London, in 1866, Beatrix Potter showed an early promise for drawing and painting, aided by a love of nature. She was sheltered and shy, but kept (sometimes without the knowledge of her parents) a menagerie of animals that any Heights boy would envy – mice, rabbits, hedgehogs, and bats (among other animals), as well as a large collection of butterflies, insects, flora and fauna. She was fascinated by them and studied, sketched, and painted them endlessly. The Potters spent their summers in the country with relatives or at rented houses and this broadened Beatrix’s knowledge and love of nature, both technically and artistically. She became not only an accomplished artist but also an expert in natural history, especially in mycology (the study of fungi; mushrooms and such). From her study, she produced superb and technically accurate drawings and paintings of microscopic fungi still used in textbooks. She also developed her own theory of their reproduction which challenged the then-current view in the scientific world (and which has since been found to be more accurate than the prevalent theories). When she painted, she knew what she was portraying.
In the early 1890s, she published Christmas cards featuring her illustrations. From this, she was commissioned to illustrate volumes of nature poetry. To the children of friends and former governesses, she wrote illustrated letters of the animals she saw in her travels throughout England. She was persuaded to put these in book form and that is how the Peter Rabbit stories came about. From the royalties, she bought a farm in the Lake District, an area which she had always loved and which became a passion with her. Her estate grew over the years, and she farmed it herself becoming a respected member of the community. At her death in 1943, she left most of her land to the National Trust to preserve much of what has become the Lake District National Park.
Small is Beautiful: Potter’s Attention to Detail
But what about those stories? Why were they so popular and why have they endured? First, they are beautiful; the talent and expertise are beyond question. Her animals – whether rabbits, geese, toads or foxes – are real. Even when dressed as country squires or middle-class Victorian matrons, the proportions, the gestures, the furriness of the fur, even the glint or dullness of the eyes leave no doubt that the character could run, skip, or hop right out of the book. You can almost see the rabbit wrinkling its nose or the squirrel twitching its tail. Yet they are never “cute.” That fox would bite you and that goose would give you what for if you crossed her. The flowers, the leaves, the trees, the mushrooms, and lily pads, too, are so solid or soft, fresh or weary, wet or dry that you can feel them and smell them. A child seeing and reading those books – or an adult if he lets himself – can “enter into” and become fascinated by nature in a wonderful way. A mushroom will never be “just a mushroom” again.
Her artwork also captures that numinous quality in nature that affects us all in our better moments. You are in a world at once familiar and enchanting. Part of this lies in their scale. Take, for example, the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin: at one point, the squirrels float on rafts to Owl Island in the middle of a lake to gather nuts. The island is probably not more than fifty yards away, but because you see it from the squirrels’ perspective, it has a misty, magical quality. It has everything we think of in the word island – remote, yet alluring. What, who is there?
In the same way, the detail and accuracy of the illustrations make them particular. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, you know you are in a specific place and time. This is Farmer MacGregor’s garden; that is Peter Rabbit’s hole; you are on Mr. Jeremy Fisher’s pond. Because they are so individual, you want to know more about them. What lies beyond the edge of the picture? Just past the fence in the garden, just outside the entrance to the hole, or just behind the rushes in the pond? There is attraction and mystery here.
She painted in watercolor and this allowed her to evoke the seasons and weather in an uncanny way as well, whether it be a bright spring morning, a cool, crisp autumn afternoon, or a quiet, dark winter’s night. For this, her many paintings and drawings of her farm and the environs are an added treasure for anyone who cares to look them up. As I write this, I have before me a watercolor painting she did of her farm in the dead of winter. Whites and grays expand the sky and distant mountains as the silhouettes of trees are shown with deft strokes. Long winter shadows and stone walls are highlighted with dark blues and greens. Footprints make their way across a snow-covered yard. It is cold and silent, yet at the same time almost reverent.
“Small” is a word that describes much of Beatrix Potter’s work and it is what attracted me to her books as an adult. Her books are typically small; usually about four by five inches. Her subjects are small: rabbits, toads, mice, and ducks. The scenes are simple and small: a patch of garden, a bend in a woodland path; a hole in a wall, a squirrel’s nest, a cottage. There are vistas and landscapes, but these are restrained and serve as contrast. We see no more than we need to. And that is the point. There is grace in this smallness. As G. K. Chesterton said, economy is much more romantic than extravagance.
Bringing Back the Human Scale
We have lost this. As C.S. Lewis said in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, “I number it among my blessings that my father had no car … [t]he deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room.’ The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’ It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.”
How true. In the spring of 2020, at the height of the COVID lockdown, I, like most, was stuck at home. After breakfast, I would go on a walk with our dog around our neighborhood which included a path along a lake. It was when spring was slowly giving way to summer, and I became familiar with the birds, animals, and foliage in our neighborhood in a way I had never done before. I saw at least three types of hawks: Red-shouldered, Red-tailed, and Cooper. I discovered where the cardinals, wrens, bluebirds, and red-wing blackbirds would be. I looked forward to seeing herons standing like statues along the shore and the cormorants perched on the rocks by the island in the lake. I learned to identify the different ducks in the lake – wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and mallards. I even discovered the lodge of the beavers that were felling the trees along the shore. I had my favorite parts of the path; a large meadow behind backyards just beginning to come into bloom with tulips and forsythia; a small cove lined with boulders laced with quartz, a particular bend where a large white oak tree had a branch gently bending over the path in benediction. I found a fascinating and beautiful world in my own neighborhood.
Beatrix Potter embedded a wonder and love for nature in her books. She not only studied and illustrated nature, but lived with it as she worked her own farm. She loved not only nature, but man’s proper relationship to nature. We must be careful with it and respect it, but neither worship it nor try to dominate it. She brought this attitude to her own gardens, crops, and animals and exemplified what I would say is the difference between an environmentalist and a conservationist: an environmentalist wants to save nature from man while a conservationist wants to save nature for man. Because of this she fought the industrialization of the rural districts of England, which saw in nature only profit and pleasure, cut up by railroads, automobiles, and motorboats. She fought this not because she saw man as a threat to nature, but because she saw such a mercenary treatment of nature as threatening the way of life of the people, farms and villages that worked with nature.
This has spiritual aspects as well. In his book Interior Freedom, Fr. Jacque Philippe describes a visit to the Carmel where St. Therese of Lisieux lived. From her autobiography, he expected to find large monastery grounds, but instead encountered a much smaller place. “I realized what a tiny world, in human terms, she inhabited … And she spent such a short time in the convent: ten years! However, and this is the paradox that struck me, when you read Therese’s writings you never get the impression of a life spent in a restricted world, but just the opposite … an impression of breadth, of marvelous expansion.” That is the impression I get from Beatrix Potter’s books: small in the objective sense, but one of marvelous expansion because of her love for what she portrayed. I’m sure she didn’t intend it, but Beatrix Potter’s books can provide a sort of lectio divina of nature with their simple yet exquisite illustrations.
We think of Beatrix Potter’s books as “children’s books.” This is unfortunate. By teaching us to look at and see the beauty of small things —small animals, small plants, small patches of grass or water—they can open us up to wonder. And wonder, said Socrates, is the beginning of wisdom.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell – A brief biography, but a feast of Potter’s paintings and drawings as a way to know her life on her farm and in her garden.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear – Fewer illustrations and photographs, but a well-written and well-documented biography of a remarkable woman.
The Beatrix Potter Society – For information related not only to her children’s work, but her conservation, farming, and natural history pursuits.
How The Heights Approaches Natural History