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CARPE LIBRUM: Landscaping with Marta McDowell and Beatrix Potter

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The Going Green Magazine Book Club just picked their list of books to read for 2018, including “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales.”

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect titles, old and new—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

beatrix“Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales”
By Marta McDowell
Timber Press, Inc., 2013, pgs. 340

The Going Green Magazine Book Club just picked their list of books to read for 2018. At the top is a book that looked absolutely irresistible: “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales.” Marta McDowell is the remarkable mind behind the book. She also published a similar book about Emily Dickinson’s garden and the White House garden. Her most recent release is “The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes” that Inspired “The Little House” books. McDowell’s ability to bring the magic of gardening to life on the page is stunning.

Obviously, I took a copy of “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life” home to read with Jock and the dogs. Like many people, I loved Potter’s work as a child, especially the French and Spanish language editions my Aunt Betty got for me. I retain a nostalgic love of the simple, clean illustrations. As an adult I rediscovered Potter mostly through my friend Beth’s evangelism of Potter as a standard bearer for land preservation, which is one of Beth’s passions. McDowell manages to blend all these aspects into a book, which is also a how-to guide and visually stunning trip through England and Scotland.

One-third is a biography focusing on the gardens and natural areas that were so important to Potter from her first home’s garden to houses she lived in as an adult—including the 120 acre farm she and her husband managed through World War I.

The second third of the book is a year of Potter’s gardening life. From joys of the first blooms of spring to haying, it is both a loving look at the natural year and realistic representation of the serious work involved in making all of it possible.

Part three is a travel guide to the gardens that Potter loved and cultivated during her lifetime, followed by detailed tables of the plants with which she worked. McDowell does an amazing job bringing to life the person responsible for some of the most famous children’s stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She also decodes their pieces for modern audiences: Victorians probably would have recognized Mr. McGregor and his wife lived in a tenant’s cottage and were hired help on the estate. But modern readers wouldn’t necessarily pick up on those clues.

She reproduces the letters Potter wrote to her friends’ children with the prototypes that became characters in her books, complete with sketches; and of course, the famous story of the first draft of Peter Rabbit in one such letter. The illustrations of Potter’s stories dot the pages of each locale, with McDowell pointing out which home each scene takes place in: Hill Top, Castel Cottage, etc. It makes the third portion of the book even more exciting, both for actual trip planning and armchair travel.

Let’s just take a moment and think about how important armchair travel can be. Keeping imaginations active might be one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. By reading about Beatrix Potter’s gardens and work, I really deepen and develop my own dreams and plans for my garden—in addition to understanding more fully what the relationship between location and the writer’s work can be. Would I love to go visit in person? Absolutely. But for now I can learn from afar.

From a gardening perspective, there is a lot we share—even more that is different. The gardening advice and July 15th as a weather predictor for hay is not quite applicable across the Atlantic and balmy American South. But it serves to illuminate the world she lived and worked in alongside her characters. McDowell talks at great length about Potter’s early love of fungi, going so far as to write a scientific paper on the topic. She received little encouragement or acknowdgement for her scientific endeavors. Though her early love of growing things and nurturing animlas is well documented.

McDowell includes a wonderful picture of her holding her pet dormouse. The illustrations of her books are so instantly recognizeable in style, to see examples of her drawing and painting from childhood throughout her life is really surprising. She loved watercolor landscapes and reproduced a lot of nature studies of botanicals and animals with incredible clarity—especially her early work is surprising for one so young.

More than anything I cannot read McDowell’s without developing a profound respect for a woman who went her own way at a time when she wasn’t expected to. Her struggles with home renovations, landscape design, contractors, and weeds resonate so strongly with me. Whereas her cousin hires a landscape designer to develop a perfectly manicured show garden and never gets her hands dirty, Potter is covered in mud, planting vegetables in the spot others expected her put a lawn tennis court.

Rarely does a gardening book blend such a rich love of nature, literature, home, and the magic of growing so beautifully. If you have a gardener in your life, this is the perfect holiday gift.

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