Friday, October 22, 2010

Once upon a time…

… there was a little Chipmunk, and his name was Chester, He lived in a sand bank, underneath the root of a very big pine tree.

Sorry. All autumn I have been watching a chipmunk that lives in this cozy house under the root of a pine tree. As the weather cools, he has been closing up his door with wood chips, although on a warm afternoon he will push through the chips and take the air. It's inevitable that one thinks of the first illustration in Beatrix Potter's first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Wikipedia says that 45 million copies have been sold in 36 languages, making it one of the most successful books of all time. Potter published the book at her own expense after it was rejected by half-a-dozen commercial publishers -- a circumstance that should be of some encouragement to writers who have had a manuscript rejected.

Writing and illustrating children's books was not Potter's first passion. Her early enthusiasm was natural history, and in particular the study of fungi. If she had been born even a half-century later, we might know her as a mycologist, an expert on mushrooms. She haunted the woods seeking new specimens, which she represented in beautiful and scientifically accurate drawings and water colors.

Potter was the first person in Britain, and one of the first in the world, to recognize that lichens are composed of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. Her microscopic study of lichens led her to the conclusion that the two organisms lived in a mutually advantageous relationship: symbiosis. The alga took care of photosynthesis, converting sunlight to useful nourishment; the fungus gave the alga a safe haven, stored water, and drew minerals necessary for photosynthesis from the anchoring rock or tree trunk.

In the October 1972 issue of Natural History Magazine, Naomi Gilpatrick said Potter "would have liked to discuss her growing portfolio of fungus and lichen drawings with some of the scientists at the Botanic Gardens. She had questions to ask -- small, moot points that weren't touched upon in any of the books she had consulted . . . Her own observations, made not only in her third-floor study but also on frequent holidays to seacoast towns with her father, a leisure-class photographer, had brought her to the forefront of what was known about lichens and fungi."

But getting anyone in the exclusively male scientific community to listen to her proved difficult. Her appearances at the Royal Botanic Gardens were met with snubs by the staff. The scientists at the Museum of Natural History at South Kensington gave her short shrift. At best, someone might make passing comment on her bonnet.

"They do not seem to be half-sharp," she wrote of the scientists in her coded diary.

Admittedly, Potter was not aggressive in her courtship of the experts; she could be painfully retiring on her visits to their gardens and museums, and saved her hurt feelings for her diary. Still, there is a clear sense that it was her gender that barred her way to a full hearing.

At last, through the helpful influence of her uncle, a chemist, she managed to have a scientific paper presented at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London: "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae," by Helen B. Potter. Of course, she was not allowed to read it herself; only men were allowed to attend the meetings.

This was in 1897, and Potter was growing increasing weary of her role as ignored supplicant in the house of male science. She turned her artistic talents and careful observations of nature to the production of books for children, and the rest is history.

(The bulk of this post is a reprise from five years ago.)