Beatrix Potter: How to Be a Naturalist

Beatrix Potter illustration

Beatrix Potter illustration

In a departure from custom, today’s post focuses on journal writing.  Beatrix Potter may best be known as the author and illustrator of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and other classics, but she was also a world-class naturalist who kept a fascinating journal. My colleague Kate Chandler, who teaches many of our college’s “ecoliterature” courses (as well as a very popular course on “Writing about Nature”), became interested in Potter several years ago and regularly gives talks to the Beatrix Potter Society.  Below is an excerpt that she gave this past summer in Cumbria, England.  The topic of the conference was “Beatrix Potter and the Natural World.

Kate tells me to pay attention to the flora and fauna in the background of Potter’s children’s illustrations, which are depicted with scientific accuracy .  As Kate points out in her talk, Potter was unusual for a naturalist in that she was able to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to her research.  We should not be surprised at the high quality of her journals given that she carried a copy of Virgil with her on her nature expeditions and expressed equal enthusiasm for geology and Shakespeare.

By Kate Chandler, St. Mary’s College of Maryland English Dept.

Packing List

March ‘89

Miniature, grandmother P.
2 Pr. Flannel drs.
White petticoat
Cape to re-band, bag to mend
To alter brown jacket.
To look over papers that of G
New sponge bag (mend)
To see about old dresses
Something for Miss M.
Scrap book to buy
To buy box
Timothy box, mend
Dentist – Spirit Bottles
2 birds’ skeletons
Paint Stoat’s eyes
Dress scraps

(from Beatrix Potter’s Journal, 209)

As we can see from her packing list, Beatrix Potter carried along with her not only the paraphernalia of appropriate Victorian female pursuits—knitting and Virgil.  She also took her bird skeletons. What this signals is that Beatrix Potter went nowhere without her sharp intellect, her efforts to develop keen observational skills, and her deep, expanding interest in natural history.

Study of natural history was common in the governess-taught nurseries of Victorian households, but for Beatrix among others, it went beyond that: it was a pleasurable and educational pastime for people in an era that experienced rapid industrialization as well as the disturbing instability occurring in agricultural regions.

For many with the leisure to do so, recording habits and habitats of the animals and birds in his home parish had become a passion, for some because of nostalgia for rural settings, for others because of rapid growth and increasing popularity of the new sciences.

Environmental Studies students are showing great interest in developing the expertise that even the most amateur of 19th-century naturalists accrued. Where do they gain that? Most acknowledge that going out-of-doors is the place to start, but they are often unsure about what they are looking for once there.

My means of teaching how to be a naturalist is to turn to Beatrix Potter. Her methods do not differ from those of thousands of others who have explored the natural world systematically, but what Beatrix brings into my conversations and classes that is distinctive is her wit, wisdom, bluntness, intelligence, intensity, and, most unique of all, her engaging voice.

From this point on, I wish to share Beatrix Potter’s distinctive voice using selections from her journal. I first employed Beatrix’s paintings and sketches to talk with students interested in learning natural history, but last year I re-read her journal looking specifically for what I could glean about being a naturalist from what Beatrix wrote. I discovered a goldmine, which is even more amazing given that her journal is not a daybook or a nature journal or an outdoor diary. Her journal ranges from daily life to art exhibitions to politicians of the day. She did not intend for it to be a field notebook, yet one cannot go many pages without encountering her forays in the realm of natural history.

Here, then, in her words, gathered from her journal, is how to be a naturalist, by Beatrix Potter.

I would begin with being adventurous—mainly Beatrix’s adventurous nature. For someone confined by Victorian strictures of not only behavior but activities, it is no wonder that Beatrix relished escaping. What I find surprising is how plucky she was, even after she reached adulthood. Here she is at 27 years old.

Torquay 1893, Tuesday, March 14th. — . . . I was so disgusted with my drive that I privately incited papa to going into Kent’s Hole next morning by way of a reviver. We slunk out after breakfast, Miss Smallfield who was not an early bird was seen to throw open a window on the third floor, but we got away through the bushes.

We afterwards lost our way which was a judgement. Indeed I can imagine no more unlikely or unromantic situation for a cavern. It is in a suburb of Torquay, half way up a tangled bluff, with villas and gardens overhanging the top of a muddy orchard and some filthily dirty cows in the ravine below. I was pretty much exhausted when we found it, but by dint of eating cinnamon and the excitement of going into a cave, recovered. . . .  (315)

Of course, to be a naturalist, you need to get outdoors, to walk, to scramble around, which Beatrix’s journal reveals that she did whenever she had the opportunity, usually during holidays. The following occasion was when she visited her Hutton cousins at Harescombe Grange.

Harescombe Grange, Stroud 1894, June — . . . I went out in the morning with Caroline into the copse at the back of the house, a steep wooded bank. It had been wet overnight and we got dirty to our heart’s content.

I was extremely interested with the badger’s marks and their claw-walks, worn bare and slippery underneath the nettles and brush, but could judge they were made by a large stumpy animal, and the size of their footsteps is quite startling in an English wood.

Caroline said that she had never succeeded in seeing one during the fifteen years that they have lived at Harescombe, yet we saw their tracks in a lane half a mile from the Earths. The latter are curious, struck out by the hind legs like a rabbit’s hole, but a square piled-up bank like the spoil-banks in front of a coalpit. We found some curious snails, and poked about delightfully. . . .  (324-25)

When going out, being properly attired is, to no surprise, essential. Dressing for the weather is key, but additionally, you need comfortable, unrestricted, sporty, indestructible clothing. Beatrix chose a loose blouse, a full skirt, a serviceable belt, a solid wool jacket, sturdy clogs, and, of course, a hat to shade eyes from the sun. The only gear she felt essential was a cane. And lest we think she did not also hold opinions on proper attire, particularly for movement outdoors, here is an entry from August 1894:

Lennel 1894, Wednesday, August 1st. — . . . I herewith record my conviction that we are at the edge of the reign of knickerbockers, a very different matter to the bloomer mania which excited Mr. Punch.

The weak point of that fad, and of the divided skirts, was the endeavour to assert that they ‘didn’t show’, and ought to be worn universally and on all occasions. To wear knickerbockers with more or less overskirt, frankly as a gymnastic costume, for cycling or other more or less masculine amusement is a different matter, and whether desirable or not has a definite reason, and I shall be much surprised if, within a very few years, a lady cannot appear in them without exciting hostile comment.

The only specimen I noticed before leaving town, on a bicycle in the High Street, did not look so queer as might have been expected. On the other hand I heard reported a stout middle-aged lady in green trousers with straps under her boots. Also the pioneers of the movement parade in procession smoking cigars. There is no custom that is not liable to abuse, but if females go in for gymnastics, wherein I include the stiles of this country, they should wear the costume. In my opinion they make all the difference in the world in the comfort of scrambling, but are hot. (331)

Once you are properly attired and ready to head out for a walk or an afternoon by the local stream, to be a true natural historian, you want to be more than an observer.You want to be inquisitive, to pose questions, which Beatrix demonstrated consistently.Notice how she moves back and forth repeatedly from observation to question back to observation and, again, question.

Woodfield, 1883, Thursday, August 2nd. — . . . caught some newts in the afternoon. Didn’t know they grew so big, or that they squeaked, it is as queer as to hear a fish make a noise.

They cannot breathe under water, having no gills except in the tadpole state, but they, like frogs, can remain under the surface for a long time. They sometimes let out the air at the bottom of the water, but generally rise to the top so as to get a fresh supply. The moment they have parted with the old they breathe rapidly through the nostrils like other reptiles, as may be seen by the rapid palpitation of the throat; but there is one thing about the breathing which I never noticed in any other, the newt having put out the used-up air, draws in fresh by quick respirations through its nostril. Then, if in the water, it sinks to the bottom till the new supply is exhausted; but the air when used, instead of returning through the nose, collects in the throat, extending it greatly. Then the newt rising to the surface, lets out the air by opening its mouth wide with a snap.

Now the thing which puzzles me is that land-newts, frogs and toads and salamanders, though they breathe the air in at their noses in the same way (taking in a good deal and then stopping to use it), do not get fresh air through the mouth, or collect it in the throat, but through the nose. Indeed, I think sometimes they breathe and discharge the air alternatively  like an ordinary animal, otherwise they would burst from breathing in too much.  Another thing is, how can frogs stop underwater so long as they sometimes do, over half an hour?  The big newts seem to have to rise oftener than the small ones.  (50-1)

There are many more examples that we could glean from Beatrix Potter’s journal demonstrating how to be an effective naturalist, but I would like to close including a few final attitudes and habits that Beatrix practiced.These, too, can guide us toward learning better from and about the natural world.

Know your home:

Sawrey 1896, Thursday July 23rd. — Drove along the Graythwaite road through oak coppices, a blind-road, the least pleasing in the neighbourhood. The wood scattered with poor specimens of the poisonous Agaricus phalloides, and not without a suspicion of adders. It is too dry for much funguses. . . . (426)

Pay attention at all times and in all places:

Sawrey 1896, Sunday, September 6th. — Went to the Friends’ Meeting at Colthouse. I liked it very much. It is a pretty little place, peaceful and sunny, very old-fashioned inside, with a gigantic old key to the door.

I thought it so pleasant in the stillness to listen to a robin singing in the copperbeech outside the porch. I doubt if his sentiments were religious. (431)

Be daring:

Bush Hall 1884, Tuesday, September 16th. — Bertram went back to school September 16th. leaving me the responsibility of a precious bat.  It is a charming little creature, quite tame and apparently happy as long as it has sufficient flies and raw meat.  I fancy bats are things most people are pleasingly ignorant about.  I had no idea they were so active on their legs, they are in fact provided with four legs and two wings as well, and their tail is very useful in trapping flies. . . . (106)


Windermere 1895, Monday, September 9th. — . . . After scrambling lunch, went up to the little larch-wood, deliciously cool, and a gentle sound of the stream below. It is a wonderful valley. I do not understand how a mass of ice sufficient to groove out the whole valley should condescend to leave knobs? The work of a later or reduced glacier? How far up the sides, or if the whole height, do they occur?. . . (400)

Retain curiosity:

Lennel 1894, Friday, July 27th. — Discovery of bugs in back premises, an event which overshadoweth all things else, but I believe I went for a drive up the Duns road. (330)

Trust what you know:

Portsmouth 1884, Monday, November 10th. — . . . In the High Street was a charming bird-shop where they had a most incredible number of dormice in two cages. I don’t believe they were dormice, too large by three or four sizes. . . . (112)

Maintain a sense of humor:

Torquay 1893, Tuesday, March 14th. — . . . I sniffed my bedroom on arrival, and for a few hours felt a certain grim satisfaction when my forebodings were maintained, but it is possible to have too much Natural History in a bed. . . . (315)

Somewhat ironically—in this age of specialization—we are beginning to recognize the value of general knowledge, in this case, the general understanding that natural history provides.My students and I go outdoors now seeking a fuller sense of our “context” and keeping our senses alert for what there is to discover at our feet.Beatrix Potter continued learning about the earth and its inhabitants even after her primary pursuits shifted, and even that determination provides a model for others.Envision her walking the hills of Near Sawrey or surveying her sheep.One final entry from Beatrix’s journal demonstrates her unflagging desire to learn, particularly to learn about nature:

Lennel 1894, Sunday, July 29th. — . . . It suddenly occurred to me that I was twenty-eight, not twenty-nine yesterday. A good deal of geology and Shakespeare might be stuffed into the extra year. . . . (330)

All quotations are from The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881-1897, Transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder, Frederick Warne, revised edition, new foreword by Judy Taylor, 1989


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