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Photo: Jack Alterman
Linda Lear’s books include biographies of Beatrix Potter and Rachel Carson.

In 2015, I wrote here about Linda Lear’s excellent biography of Beatrix Potter, which highlights the scientific side of the beloved children’s book author /illustrator /land preservationist.

More recently, when my husband and I were watching a television special on Rachel Carson (author of The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring), I saw Lear being interviewed and realized she’d written a biography of Carson, too.

So I went to Linda Lear’s web page to learn more about her.

“Whenever my parents drove over the Allegheny River into downtown Pittsburgh from the rural community of Glenshaw where I was born,” Lear reports, “I begged my father not to go over the bridge that crossed the river above the stock yards.

“There were animal parts visible in the yard, and debris strewn along the river’s edge. The smell of dead animals mixed with the stench of sulfur from the smelting operations further down river. We talked about why the city was dirty, the river polluted, and what we could do about it. For generations my family had been involved in the natural world and from them I learned to appreciate and nurture it.

“My grandfather loved books and loved to read to me when I was little. Our favorites were fairy tales, [Grimm brothers] and [Hans Christian Anderson], Lewis Carroll, and any sort of animal fable. We loved Aesop, Br’er Rabbit, Uncle Wiggly, and of course, Peter Rabbit. He introduced me to the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear, and to illustrators such as [Mary Jo] Beswick, Walter Crane, and Beatrix Potter.

“From my grandparents and from my mother, I absorbed the pleasures of gardening, herbaceous and perennial, learning the names of plants, and later of making a garden of my own. I always loved woodland flowers and animals. I became adept at rescuing stray kittens and baby rabbits, and finally got a healthy kitten of my own.

“I was educated at women’s schools until my graduate work at Columbia University. Before finishing my doctorate, I taught American history at independent schools, and fortunately ended up teaching at one in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s — just in time to become an activist.

“I have had a long career in college and university teaching and have written a variety of books and articles. I began to specialize in environmental history just as the field was being defined. Fellowships at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library and at the Smithsonian Institution allowed me to redefine myself as a full-time writer.”

Read her comments on her books here.

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I confess that although I can see why children adore books by certain illustrators, sometimes I don’t like reading the artists’ words.

Richard Scarry, for example, with his delightful animals and five-seater pencil cars, writes text that can get boring pretty fast. And Beatrix Potter, whom I admire for a multitude of reasons, employs very big words and potentially scary themes.

Christian Blauvelt recently covered that angle at the BBC. He begins with Potter’s first line in a storybook.

“ ‘Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.’

“Old Mrs Rabbit’s frightful warning to her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter appears on the opening page of Beatrix Potter’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Aside from featuring perhaps the most dramatic use of a semicolon in children’s literature, it sets the tone for her work from the start: that horrors abound in a world of Darwinian struggle, but that these must be faced calmly.

“Your parents, and perhaps your children, may be devoured by a vengeful property owner, or sold for tobacco; you may have your tail ripped off by an angry owl; an invading rat might tie you up in string and include you as the key ingredient in a pudding. But life goes on – disappointments must be faced and tragedies overcome. …

“Potter’s tales have been consistently popular with adults, as well as children, since The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 when she was 36 years old. This is not just because they feature adorable creatures in harrowing situations; her talking-animal stories also comment on the era’s class politics, gender roles, economics and domestic life.

“Did she examine British society through animals because she spent more time with animals than children, aside from her brother Bertram, when she was young? Because she wanted to rebel against the bourgeois values and morals of her wealthy middle class family – which had made its money in the textile industry – but only dared do so through furry surrogates? Because she could only publish children’s stories since her true passion, science, was a career field closed to women in the late 19th Century? Because she had a German tutor who introduced her to the back-to-nature ethos of the Romantics?” More.

Hmm. Maybe I’m being too anti-intellectual here, but I’d say Beatrix Potter just got a kick out of telling stories like that.

And maybe she was right that small children could handle the scary parts. My three-year-old grand-daughter for example, has always loved Peter Rabbit and could recite the fancy phrases by heart when she was only two. Reciting fancy phrases is great for language development.

Photo of Beatrix Potter’s art: Penguin
Beatrix Potter, an amateur scientist, was meticulous about representing nature accurately, even if the animals did wear clothes. Here Peter Rabbit gorges on Mr. McGregor’s carrots.

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I was not surprised to note in the Beatrix Potter biography I’m reading that although Potter worked hard to get rid of rat infestations in her Hill Top Farm house, she had a soft spot for rats. An artist who could draw all sorts of bugs and wildlife with meticulous care, she kept a pet rat as part of her menagerie and even wrote an indulgent story about Samuel Whiskers.

Rats turn out to be good for other things, too: for example, saving people from land mines.

Michael Sullivan writes at National Public Radio (NPR), “It’s 5:45 in the morning, and in a training field outside Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s demining rats are already hard at work. Their noses are close to the wet grass, darting from side to side, as they try to detect explosives buried just beneath the ground.

“Each rat is responsible for clearing a 200-square-meter (239-square-yard) patch of land. Their Cambodian supervisor, Hulsok Heng, says they’re good at it.

“T ‘hey are very good,’ he says. ‘You see this 200 square meters? They clear in only 30 minutes or 35 minutes. If you compare that to a deminer, maybe two days or three days. The deminer will pick up all the fragmentation, the metal in the ground, but the rat picks up only the smell of TNT.’ …

“These are not kitchen rats, but African giant pouched rats, also known as Gambian pouched rats, about 2 feet long from head to tail. Their eyesight is terrible. But their sense of smell is extraordinary. The rats can detect the presence of TNT in amounts starting at 29 grams (about 1 ounce).

“A Belgian nonprofit called Apopo began harnessing the rodents’ olfactory prowess 15 years ago. (The group also trains rats to detect tuberculosis). The organization set up a breeding program and training center in Tanzania and began deploying rats to post-conflict countries, first to Mozambique and Angola. Apopo’s Cambodia program began in April, in partnership with the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

” ‘The idea was very strange,’ says operations coordinator Theap Bunthourn. ‘Cambodian people kill rats, don’t like rats. But they’re cost-efficient, they’re easy to transport, they’re easy to train, and they don’t set off the mines because they’re too light.’ ”

Gosh, they detect TB, too? Who knew?

Read more at NPR, here.

Photo: Michael Sullivan for NPR
Victoria, a 2-year-old rat, sniffs for TNT, sticking her nose high in the air to indicate she’s found some. She is able to detect the presence of TNT at a distance of approximately half a yard.

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I spent my first couple decades vacationing on Fire Island, a barrier beach off New York’s Long Island. Once you get islands in your system, you never want to get them out.

Nowadays I frequent an island that is part of a state that calls itself an island, too: Rhode Island. Here are some pictures from my latest visit.

The photos are mostly self-explanatory, but I would like to draw your attention to the carrot. The young man in the photo pulled that carrot out of the ground for a neighbor, who gave it to him. His mother washed it, and he ate most of it in one sitting.

And he didn’t even feel like he had overdone the eating the way Peter Rabbit did. No need for a dose of chamomile tea.

2115-Galilee-for-fishing

082315-sheltered-harbor

082215-vase-on-deck

082315-one-big-carrot

2215-fuzzy-fruit

082215-blackberries

082315-about-sharks

082315-lobster-boat

082315-sold-to-pirates

082315-Southeast-Light

082215-sunset-RI

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There was more to Beatrix Potter than Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. Her meticulous drawings of flora and fauna made serious contributions to the science of the day.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings shares Potter’s mushroom drawings and more.

“At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life. …

“Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library) — [is] by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear’s prose itself a supreme work of art.

“A formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender. …

“By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. … Lear writes:

Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but 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 their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.

More here.

Art: Beatrix Potter
Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library)

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Photo: clickalps.com

Go to Bored Panda to see adorable mouse photographs collected by Skirmantė that could come straight from Beatrix Potter. Two Bad Mice, anyone?

Wikipedia’s entry on the children’s book author and naturalist says, “Born into a wealthy Unitarian family, Potter, along with her younger brother Walter Bertram (1872–1918), grew up with few friends outside her large extended family. Her parents were artistic, interested in nature and enjoyed the countryside. As children, Beatrix and Bertram had numerous small animals as pets which they observed closely and drew endlessly. …

“Beatrix was educated by three able governesses, the last of whom was Annie Moore (née Carter), just three years older than Beatrix … She and Beatrix remained friends throughout their lives and Annie’s eight children were the recipients of many of Potter’s delightful picture letters. It was Annie who later suggested that these letters might make good children’s books.

“In their school room Beatrix and Bertram kept a variety of small pets, mice, rabbits, a hedgehog and some bats, along with collections of butterflies and other insects which they drew and studied. Beatrix was devoted to the care of her small animals, often taking them with her on long holidays.”

I visited her home in the Lake District with my husband, and I read a biography of her. Like many girls of her time and social stature, she was a lonely child. But her creative genius filled her world with fully realized imaginary companions. And she seems to have had a satisfying adulthood preserving land in the Lake District and pursuing her natural history interests.

[Asakiyume: Thanks for putting the lead on Facebook.]

Photo: Miroslav Hlavko

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