Nature Books for Kids
Art of the Wild
Fungi and Fantasy
Victorian England sneered at Beatrix Potter the naturalist,
but immortalized her gifts as a children’s book writer. A biographer details a life beyond Peter Rabbit.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
By Linda Lear
St. Martin’s Press, 608 pages, $30
In 1964 the prestigious Linnean Society of London, one of Great Britain’s leading organizations for the promotion of natural history, made an astonishing confession. Its executive secretary issued an official apology to a long-deceased amateur mycologist named Helen B. Potter, admitting that during the 1890s its members had treated her “scurvily.”
Shortly after this long-ago spate of ill treatment, the victim abandoned fungi for fantasy and achieved international adulation under her pen name, Beatrix Potter. Her books for children began to appear in 1901 with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, privately printed. They continued through The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published by Frederick Warne, and more than two dozen other titles that helped to fashion Potter’s public image in the replica of her furry and downy little fictional subjects. But her achievements in biology, land preservation, and sheep farming have long been overshadowed by her legacy as a children’s book writer.
Now she has acquired the ideal chronicler of her many-sided life in Linda Lear, whose new book is Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. Lear, author of the definitive biography of Rachel Carson, again combines prodigious research with admirable organizational skills. If her prose doesn’t float like a butterfly, it hums along efficiently like a bee and finally produces, through engrossing and sometimes almost numbing detail, this deft portrait of a vibrant woman in a turbulent era.
Maturing in a well-to-do family, the young Potter was burdened by all the restrictions then placed on women by class and religion. What little freedom she found came during summer vacations, when her father rented a series of country homes for the family. On those expansive estates she was free to roam the woods and fields, constantly in touch with plants and animals.
“Such enthusiasms were typical of the Victorian craze for natural history, which, beginning earlier in the century, affected everyone from aristocrat to artisan,” Lear writes. “Like many of her contemporaries, Beatrix was drawn to natural history as a way to relieve the boredom that beset affluent Victorians, and for the measure of personal freedom it brought.”
But Potter was atypical for the sort of genius she displayed in observing and illustrating what she came upon in nature. And she drew everything. She even began keeping rabbits, hedgehogs, and other small animals, the better to observe them.
Several friends advised Potter to specialize in her collecting. “I beg to state I intend to pick up everything I find which is not too heavy,” she replied. However, through the encouragement of an elderly countryman she met one summer, she began to focus on fungi. By the early 1890s she was furiously collecting, observing, and painting those plant-like organisms that even the “experts” knew little about. As Lear points out, Potter never considered science and art to be mutually exclusive. She “recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.”
Such intense observation enabled her to make discoveries about the form and natural history of fungi that had escaped most scientists of the day. She soon realized that some of the identifications in the scientific collections in London were incorrect, and became the first observer in Great Britain, professional or amateur, to argue for the symbiotic nature of lichens. But her theories were brushed off, and a paper Potter wrote for the Linnean Society on the germination of spores in one group of fungi was lost. Of a professional mycologist she had gently sparred with, she commented, “I opine that he has passed several stages of development into a fungus himself.”
Eventually, Potter got the message: Amateurs, especially women amateurs, weren’t welcome at the bastions of scientific research. But for some years she had written “picture letters” to the children of family members and friends, describing her adventures with plants and animals. One, charmingly illustrated, was about her pet rabbit, Peter. Friends who saw her letters urged her to turn them into children’s books, and that side of her career quickly enshrined her as a legendary figure.
Potter’s books also gave her financial independence. She bought Top Hill Farm in the Lake District of northern England, later married, and settled down into the life of a country-woman. Her great concerns became land preservation, which closely tied her to the British National Trust, and the perpetuation of the way of life symbolized by sheep farming in her region. What sustained her was her passion for place. She craved timeless, enduring landscapes, into which she had set her equally enduring fictional creatures. Nature, as Lear writes, “as revealed in the Lake District, and etched in her mind’s eye, was the closest to everlasting as she could come.”
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By Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 306 pages, $23.95
From wedding bouquets to Easter arrangements to funeral wreaths, flowers have long been symbols of emotion. But while a red rose might convey the message “I love you” clearly enough, what may not be so obvious is where that particular bloom came from, and how it made the trip. In Flower Confidential, Amy Stewart helps solve the mystery by taking readers on an extensive tour of the flower industry. On her intercontinental travels from California to Ecuador and from Florida to Holland, she meets growers, merchants, and scientists, all who seek the most popular, robust—indeed, perfect—flower for their needs. Although Stewart offers ample praise for some aspects of the flower trade—“Visiting a flower farm is kind of like visiting a chocolate factory . . . the product itself is magical, transcendent, and utterly distracting”—she also reveals the irony of the industry: To succeed in a business where the commodity is naturally ephemeral, sometimes it takes unnatural means. During a visit to Sun Valley, the largest cut-flower producer in the United States, Stewart describes a row of tulip shoots as “more yellow than green . . . like something that was not meant to be” and observes that the cooler the flowers are growing in has “the air of a morgue: chilled, clinical, and impersonal.” And while readers might cringe, as Stewart does, at the thought of a dyed flower or a bloom dipped in fungicide, they’ll be heartened to learn of current U.S. efforts to produce certified, eco-friendly flowers. But regardless of the reaction it provokes, Flower Confidential will make it difficult to look at that red rose the same way again.—Julie Leibach
The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home
By Melissa Holbrook Pierson
W. W. Norton & Company, 206 pages. $14.95
Modern-day development, with its sprawling subdivisions and strip malls, often obliterates vast natural landscapes. But the damage that this encroachment wreaks on the internal landscapes of memory and emotion is too often left unexplored. Melissa Holbrook Pierson confronts the personal face of environmental and cultural degradation in The Place You Love Is Gone. And she pulls no punches in characterizing the rapacious march of human “progress,” calling it “just another word for larceny.” Pierson’s lament stems from her own experience. After revisiting two homes of her past—the Akron, Ohio, of her childhood and the Hoboken, New Jersey, of her rough-and-tumble twenties—Pierson recounts the painful transformation of her quaint birthplace into another cookie-cutter suburb filled with big-box stores and fast-food joints. She remembers her childhood in Ohio as “the time forty years ago when there was still some wide-open space into which to insert some dreaming, and still some darkness at night over it.” Today the night sky is lit by pulsating neon. Pierson similarly bemoans the gentrification that transformed the gritty streets of Hoboken in the 1980s. Focusing on her current home in upstate New York, she’s haunted by the tragic story of New York City’s 19th-century wipeout of several Catskills towns (and their land) when the city took ownership and built a reservoir system to provide drinking water for its growing population. In this deeply passionate book, Pierson predicts that heartbreak over lost landscapes is inevitable. “All the birthplaces will be changed and thus gone. The weeping will form a deluge,” she writes. “Has there been in recent memory a single subdivision stopped by even a river of tears?”—Bob Grant
A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise
Edited by Bonnie Tsui
Sierra Club Books, 311 pages, $19.95
To cope with his first heartbreak, Tim Neville moved into a tent in his parent’s yard and let nature bring him back to life. At age 17, Nathanael Johnson realized “it’s a rare thing to be truly tested,” and spent the summer pushing his limits as a whitewater-rafting guide. In A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise, former Travel and Leisure editor Bonnie Tsui calls on 20 writers younger than 30 years old to recall how nature and the wilderness shaped their emerging identities. Whether you’re just coming of age or nearing retirement, the personal tales in this book are inspiring without being cloying. Nature is celebrated for its therapeutic value. Essayist Tim Heffernan sums it up nicely: “We go into [wilderness] to escape precisely what we are: social creatures bound to grand systems that we must engage with or be ruined by.” A Leaky Tent might well inspire you to strap on a backpack, hit the road, and do some soul-searching of your own.—Erin Scottberg
Art of the Wild
The more than 150 habitat dioramas at New York’s American Museum of Natural History frequently leave visitors asking, “Is it real?” In Windows on Nature (Abrams, 180 pages, $40), Stephen Christopher Quinn details the complicated process —from collecting the specimens in faraway lands to painting the meticulously detailed backgrounds—by which these glimpses of nature came to be. Originally created to educate and entertain while helping to conserve a slice of wilderness, each diorama “connects the visitor to the dynamics of the natural world,” writes Quinn, who is currently the senior project manager for exhibitions at the museum. Near-death elephant encounters, underwater oil painting, and genial practical joking are all a part of the colorful histories of the
exhibits that make some refer to the museum as the “Louvre of diorama art.”—Erin Scottberg
Windows on Nature offers a never-before-seen look at the AMNH dioramas. Click here to go Behind the Glass.