Beatrix Potter, Author and Conservationist, Born (1866)

Beatrix Potter, author of the classic children’s story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was born July 28, 1866.  Although she is famous for her many children’s books, which she both wrote and illustrated, she also became a leading British conservationist of the Lake District landscape.

Beatrix Potter in 1913 (photo by Charles G. Y. King)

            Potter was born and raised in London, the daughter of wealthy and socially traditional parents.  She was educated at home, raised to become a wife, mother and keeper of the household.  But Potter had other plans.  When her family vacationed during summers, first in Scotland and later in the English Lake District, she fell in love with the country.  She and he brother reveled in the rolling hills and dramatic waters of the Lake District and delighted in keeping pets of all kinds, from domestic animals to frogs and insects. 

            She was a keen observer of the animals’ appearance and habits and the landscapes in which they lived.  She wrote stories about them and drew their images in watercolor.  Her creativity was matched by the accuracy of her work.  So realistic were her drawings that she eventually produced scientific illustrations of plants and, especially, of her favorite organisms—fungi.

Scientific illustration of a fungus by Beatrix Potter

            Potter was also an entrepreneur.  She began writing stories and when her original story—The Tale of Peter Rabbit—was turned down by several publishers, she had 250 copies printed herself.  An insightful editor realized the quality of her work—charming, but not overly cute—and published the book in 1902 (since then, more than 5 million copies have been sold, and loved and cherished by children everywhere).  She developed and sold a doll of Peter Rabbit—the first character doll ever produced.  She also licensed and sold pottery, clothing, calendars and other book-related merchandise.  Potter wrote and illustrated 33 books in her lifetime, making her both famous and wealthy.

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

            She used her wealth not for luxury—her country homes never had electricity or indoor plumbing—but to conserve the countryside she loved so much.  The Lake District had always attracted tourism, but after World War I, the attention grew exponentially.  Potter knew that large-scale development of the land would destroy the fragile hillside ecosystems, a quaint combination of natural and cultivated habitats.  So, she began buying farms.  First smaller properties, including her beloved Hill Top Farm (now a museum), then larger properties that would allow a unified landscape to survive and thrive.

            Her entrepreneurial spirit spilled over into her farming.  She learned how to farm, restored the productive capacity of her lands and became an expert breeder of sheep.  Her farms and fortune prospered, even as her ability to write and publish books waned.  She was particularly dedicated to preserving the traditional Herdwick sheep, the breed that was best adapted to the cold environment and varied forage of the Lake District.

Potter helped conserve the stunning countryside of the English Lake District (photo by Peer Lawther)

            She became a close confidant of the founders of the National Trust, the English non-profit organization that owns and manages historic properties and natural areas.  She donated all her property—15 farms totaling 4000 acres—to the National Trust, an estate valued at about $20 million at her death in 1943 ($300 millon today).   Her proviso:  that the properties remain exactly as she left them, down to the furniture and wall covering she left.  Most importantly, that proviso assured that the Lake District landscape would remain the same charming landscape that generations have loved for its natural beauty and cultural significance. 

References:

Beatrix Potter Society.  About Peatrix Potter.  Available at:  https://beatrixpottersociety.org.uk/about-beatrix/.  Accessed July 28, 2017.

Lear, Linda.  2017.  Beatrix Potter:  A Life in Nature.  Available at:  http://www.bpotter.com/Default.aspx. Accessed July 28, 2017.

National Trust.  Beatrix Potter’s early life and books.  Available at:  https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatrix-potter-gallery-and-hawkshead/features/beatrix-potters-early-life-and-books. Accessed July 28, 2017.

Thomson, Keith Stewart.  2007.  Marginalia:  Beatrix Potter, Conservationist.  American Scientist 95(3):210-212.  Available at:  http://www.jstor.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/stable/pdf/27858956.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Aa434bf2c67f89b4a712b13db0f7f46da. Accessed July 28, 2017.

Victoria and Albert Museum.  Biography of Beatrix Potter.  Available at:  http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/biography-beatrix-potter/. Accessed July 28, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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