A garden filled with creature comforts

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICENovember 14, 2013 

Gardeners brought up on the mishaps of Peter Rabbit can now curl up with “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales,” by Marta McDowell, out this month from Timber Press ($24.95).

McDowell, 55, who gardens in Chatham, N.J., and holds a certificate in landscape design from the New York Botanical Garden, likes to explore the horticultural habits of beloved writers. Her 2005 book, “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens,” weaves the poet’s bluebells and cherry trees with her verse and life story.

This work brings Potter, as much as her garden, to life, as an energetic, sturdy soul with an uncanny understanding of animals. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q: Had you loved Beatrix Potter’s books when you were little?

A: No, I feel like a bit of a fraud. I’d never read Beatrix Potter as a child. My mother gave me a shiny Golden Book called “Little Peter Cottontail” by Thornton W. Burgess. I was familiar with Bugs Bunny because I watched Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings.

Q: When did you make your connection?

A: It was random, really. My husband and I took my parents on a trip to London and Scotland in 1997, and my mother wanted to see the Wordsworth sites in the Lake District, and we had an extra afternoon, so we threw in a visit to Hill Top farm, Beatrix Potter’s home in England. It was a magical place. It was high summer and the roses were all blooming, and it was fragrant and sunny. I have no memory of Wordsworth.

Q: What were the gardens like?

A: A very long entry garden goes up to her cottage, on an incline. There are roses climbing on a long trellis and gooseberries. There’s a walled vegetable garden, with a warm wall to espalier fruit trees. It was very Arts and Crafts.

I liked her garden because it reminded me of mine: a little messy. She loved her plants and talked about them a lot in her letters, but she would say: “My garden is really overgrown, I haven’t been able to get out there … the gentians have been crowded out.”

Q: You paint a very Victorian picture of young Beatrix and her younger brother, Bertram, with wealthy parents in South Kensington, a string of governesses keeping them in line and a nursery full of critters. They seemed like little Darwinian scientists.

A: Yes, she and Bertram had quite a menagerie. And there wasn’t the same sort of feeling at the time that you shouldn’t bring a wild animal in. She tamed a little mouse. And it is true that once the animals passed, she and her brother would boil them and rearticulate the skeletons.

Q: Her early drawings, especially of her rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, are incredibly good. So are her paintings of flowers and ferns and mushrooms. By her 20s, she was sprouting spores, and her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, tried to get her paper on mushrooms published by the Linnean Society. They turned it down, but Potter just breezed on to something else.

A: Yes, she was just sort of trying things. At one point she was going to do illustrations for a scientific journal. Then she wrote a letter with pictures to the son of her last governess, Annie Carter, who suggested she turn it into a book, which became “The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor’s Garden.”

Q: While it was tragic that Potter’s first fiance died of leukemia, that’s what led her to throw herself into writing and illustrating, building her garden and even raising prizewinning sheep. It’s like all those self-help books that tell women to follow their own star and maybe then they’ll meet their true love. Enter her local solicitor, William Heelis. She was 47, Willie was 41.

A: I think they had a blast. It was a really wonderful relationship. It was something she waited for, to have an intimate. After she died, Willie would say, “I wish the head were here,” as if she were the head of the household.

Q: I had no idea Potter was such a preservationist.

A: Yes, her early friendship with the Rev. Hardwicke Rawnsley and his wife, Edith, got her interested in the preservation of the landscape of the lakes. Rawnsley became a co-founder of the National Trust, and when Beatrix died in 1943, she left over 4,000 acres to the National Trust.

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