Millions of children for well more than a century know the opening line of this magical story: “Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”
The author, Beatrix Potter, was a gifted, original artist. Her books interwove the wild and human world in a unique way in tales where frogs wore breeches and portly badgers, red sweaters. She didn’t believe in the prevailing norms of her day. At the turn of the 20th century, nature was there to exploit, and non-human animals had no feelings or rights. And sadly, we still struggle to appreciate and protect the natural world today.
There is much more to Beatrix Potter than that, so I decided to get to know her better, beyond the clichés and shop figurines, and make the journey for the better part of a day up from London to her home, Hill Top House, in the Lake District of Cumbria. When I finally arrived at the Windermere train station and boarded the local ferry meant for cars, horses, and cycles, my sullen fatigue vanished.
We crossed a hushed lake like glass, that reflected a clean sky and burnt umber cliffs. This was the world treasure known as the Lake District, where its native son, William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” amongst his daffodils. So, I forgot the lukewarm cups of Yorkshire tea and stale muffins that was my meal so far, the jolts of largely empty trains, the product of Margaret Thatcher’s carving up of British Rail into a privatized patchwork of train lines across England.
I took out my notebook where I had copied a few of my favorite Beatrix lines and read them again before disembarking near her house. “Your mind is a garden; your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.” And this one: “All outward forms of religion are almost useless, and are the causes of endless strife.”
In 1905, she bought Hill Top largely with royalties from her books. She worked tirelessly to maintain the ecology and distinct rural culture by buying farmland to save it from development and preserve the tradition of common sheep grazing. She bequeathed more than 4,000 acres (including Hill Top) to the National Trust, a UK charity that conserves historic places.
She saved the Lake District for the world to revel in to this day.
Her home is a hulking stone structure with miniature, dark rooms — cozy in any weather; but in late spring, its glory was outside in her true place of being and contemplation.
Hers is a quintessential English “cottage garden” buzzing with life, delicate scents, lilacs, beehive, glowing azaleas, roses, stately foxgloves, blowsy, overflowing borders, with a pale wisteria covering the wall by the front door. Sweet peas wind up branches likely from a local wood, tied together to form a rough frame. Cabbages, rhubarb and carrots bump happily into each other across rows. I could see her here. I could see her joy in tending this place.
Our gardens are likely to disappear with our deaths, go to weeds, pulled up, a sanctuary for wildlife and organic growing lost again. How could I ever change that aftermath, when I finally find my true home, my mind garden, my Ithaca?