Sunday, January 11, 2009

Beatrix Potter, Natural History Hero

For Christmas my girlfriend, Cheri, gave me the book “Beatrix Potter, A Life in Nature,” by Linda Lear, and last night I started reading it. I love Beatrix Potter, and pretty much anyone who knows me knows it. Naturally, I'm drawn to her illustrations and children’s stories. Right now I have “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” next to my bed because last week I needed a Beatrix word fix:
Nutkin danced up and down like a sunbeam; but still Old Brown said nothing at all.

Like a sunbeam…” So perfect, so simple. However, the other reason I admire her and think of her as a Natural History Hero is her scientific mind and her efforts at habitat conservation and protection. Years ago, while reading about lichens, I was happy to learn Beatrix Potter was an amateur mycologist with original theories on symbiosis, hybridization and lichens…and even better, she was the person who figured out their secret! When Cheri gave me the book, I quickly checked the book’s index and found pages 72-129 are devoted to her scientific research and theories on lichens and the years she spent meticulously painting the region’s fungi. Last night I couldn’t resist jumping ahead to a few of those pages:
Time has been far kinder to Beatrix’s scientific efforts than her contemporaries were. When she tied up her portfolios of fungi paintings with ribbons many years later, she could not have known that her conclusions about the symbiotic nature of lichens and the hybridization of fungi would later be proved and accepted. Nor could she imagine that her watercolours are considered so accurate that modern mycologists refer to them still to identify fungi. Her ephemeral hope that her drawings might some day illustrate a book by an expert mycologist was realized in 1967 when W.P.K. Findlay, a past president of the British Mycological Society, used fifty-nine of them in his volume for the “Wayside and Woodland” series of natural history. No doubt it would have pleased her, but it was, as she feared it might be, a dull book to all but the experts.”
…and from her journal on November 17, 1896:
I think one of my pleasantest memories of Esthwaite is sitting on Oatmeal Crag on a Sunday afternoon, where there is a sort of table of rock with a dip, with the lane and fields and oak copse like in a trough below my feet, and all the little tiny fungus people singing and bobbing and dancing in the grass and under the leaves all down below, like the whistling that some people cannot hear of stray mice and bats, and I sitting up above and knowing something about them.
I cannot tell what possesses me with the fancy that they laugh and clap their hands, especially the little ones that grow in troops and rings amongst dead leaves in the woods. I suppose it is the fairy rings, the myriads of fairy fungi that start into life in autumn woods.
The New York Times on the Web has Chapter One of Liaisons of Life by Tom Wakeford posted. If you're interested, the chapter is a condensed explanation of her life and her scientific pursuits.

...and on the University of California Museum of Paleontology's site, a nice explanation of what a lichen is:
"Lichens are unusual creatures. A lichen is not a single organism the way most other living things are, but rather it is a combination of two organisms which live together intimately. Most of the lichen is composed of fungal filaments, but living among the filaments are algal cells, usually from a green alga or a cyanobacterium.

In many cases the fungus and the alga which together make the lichen may each be found living in nature without its partner, but many other lichens include a fungus which cannot survive on its own -- it has become dependent on its algal partner for survival. In all cases though, the appearance of the fungus in the lichen is quite different from its morphology as a separately growing individual.

The true identity of lichens as symbiotic associations of two different organisms was first proposed by Beatrix Potter, who is best remembered for her children's books about Peter Rabbit. In addition to her books, she spent time studying and drawing lichens. Her illustrations are still appreciated for their detailed and accurate portrayal of the delicate beauty of these bizarre organisms.


RuthieJ said...

Hi Kelly,
Did you know there's also a movie about Beatrix Potter? It's on my Netflix queue. It's called (oddly enough) "Miss Potter" and stars Renee Zellweger, from 2006. I don't know if you're a Netflix subscriber or not, but maybe you can get it from your public library too.

Rural Rambler said...

Oh my gosh Kelly, I have to go out and get this book! Don't know if you will even see this comment, maybe you have the comment thingie on in settings but I couldn't sleep tonight and I headed here. We have Old Man squirrel and I would love to read this book. You should try the book "Squirrels at My Window. Good read.