Today is the birthday of Beatrix Potter, whose beautifully illustrated stories of small animals found in gardens and woods made her one of the best-selling children’s authors of all time. She is, of course, most famously known for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her very first book, but this is just one of the many books she authored, all drawing from her imagination and experiences as a child.
It’s hard to say if Beatrix’s childhood was unusual. Born during the Victorian Age when well-to-do families (such as hers) always had a governess who raised the children in separate quarters away from their parents, her young years were spent largely alone. But time alone is not necessarily lonely if we have our imagination to keep us company.
Beatrix’s governess was a young woman from the Scottish Highlands who believed in witches and fairies. Alone together for six years (before her brother was born), they shared their own apartments on the third floor of the family house in London, leaving only for walks in the park, to say goodnight to her parents, or on special occasions. Think of it: her primary influence as a young child was a woman who told tales of magic and wonder.
When her brother was born, he joined them in the third-floor nursery and together the two children acquired a menagerie of small animals including frogs, lizards, newts, salamanders, a snake, a tortoise, and a dormouse. She continued to spend all her time in the third-floor apartments until she was well into her teen years, with her younger brother and governess as her sole companions.
But in the summer, when Beatrix was between the ages of five and fifteen, the family vacationed in Perthshire, Scotland with family and friends and Beatrix was set loose to enjoy the magic of the outdoors. Here, the children played in the woods and along the wide beaches by the river while the adults fished for salmon and hunted deer.
Scotland was a treasure trove for her young imagination: a wild and enchanting place in a big wide world so vastly different from her London home. In Scotland, the stories of her governess, Aesop’s Fables, and all the fairy tales came to life. In this landscape, Beatrix found her greatest inspiration for her own stories.
In her thirty’s, Beatrix self-published her first book based on a story and illustrations she had created for her former governess’s children. She went on to publish 23 books in all, the profit from which made her quite wealthy.
When she was 37, she purchased a working farm in the English Lake District. As time went on, she purchased more farms, all with the intent to keep the land from being developed. When she passed in 1943, she left over 4,000 acres of land, including fourteen farms and many herds of cattle and sheep, to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Today that land is still preserved and home to an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population of Herdwick sheep.
With so much of her childhood spent in her imagination and in camaraderie with animals, as well as the most special times of her youth spent in nature, it is not surprising she chose to spend her adult life in the Lake District, purchasing working farms, raising sheep, and preserving land. The sensory experiences of her childhood had been imprinted on her and would forever feel like home.
The solitary circumstances of Potter’s childhood proved to be fertile ground for connecting with nature and creating magical relationships with animals. Her senses were nurtured and heightened by exploring uninhabited spaces and befriending small creatures. The energy of these places and beings ignited her imagination and became the fuel for her work, art, and passions throughout her long life.
Our senses are our first connection to home and they are never so acute as they are in childhood. Taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch are all brand new and vivid. Each sense is super-charged. As the years go on, we tend to favor one or two senses more than others. As children, however, we use all our senses to learn something new and to understand the world around us.
A child senses a place. As children, our extrasensory perception is as strong as our other senses, telling us things not found in the other senses alone. Children experience their environment on a gut level and cannot easily articulate this knowing, yet this knowing becomes imprinted deep within our cells.
Memories of scents, sounds, and tastes return us to our childhoods and evoke a strong emotional bond. As a child, attachment to home begins with the senses. As adults, when our senses are triggered by the same—or similar—stimuli of our childhood, our attachment to that place is reinforced.
Imagination, even if it is not as strong or vivid as Beatrix Potter’s, can be the glue that binds us to our childhood home. Never is our ability to create mental images and scenarios stronger than it is in childhood. This imagination is a result of wonder and innocence, an innocence that is only available to us as children. As our childhood innocence is lost, so too is our wonder of the simplest things. John O’Donohue writes:
Childhood is an absolute treasure house of imagination. It is the forest of first encounters to which we can never again return. . . . Never again do we experience so directly and powerfully the surprise and the fresh tang of novelty. The forest of childhood is also the territory where our dreams, imagination, and images were first seeded. So much happened to us there under the canopy of innocence. It was only later that we could notice that the shadows were present too. The memory of childhood is so rich that it takes a lifetime to unpack. Again and again, we remember certain scenes, not always the most dramatic, and gradually come to a kind of self-understanding.O’Donohue, John. Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong. New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999. Page 33
Over and over again we can be transported back to childhood, reminded of something we thought was forgotten or which has never left our memory only to understand it anew. And with each memory, we come to understand ourselves better, as if looking outside of ourselves at another. When we embrace those memories as reflections of ourselves and integrate them into our adult understanding, we are often able to find our way home.
Today, may you celebrate the spark of Beatrix Potter that still lives inside you: the child you once were and the child you may not have been for as long as you would have liked. This child is still there, filled with imagination who delights with wonder and giggles with joy at the smallest of things. May that child be with you today. See with those eyes. Listen to that voice.
And if a bunny crosses your path, talk to it. Who knows? It just might be Peter.