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Beatrix Potter, Conservationist

The author of Peter Rabbit was a complex woman whose quest for autonomy helped save a crucial part of the English countryside

Keith Thomson

The High Country

The success of her books gave her confidence; the income from their sale gave her some independence. That same year that Warne died, she made her first purchase of land: Hill Top Farm, in the village of Near Sawrey overlooking Esthwaite Water. It was a place she had seen many times during the summers. Despite her landowner status, she didn't live on the property; still she was not free from her parents. For nearly a decade, the best access she could manage was to persuade her father and mother to rent nearby houses during the summers so that she could make the daily hike to her beloved farm. Nonetheless, she bought up adjacent properties, putting together a series of parcels that protected the watersheds, ancient woodlands and the open fells where the sheep grazed. It was not until her father died in 1914 that she moved her mother to the Lake District and was finally free to make her home at Castle Farm, near Hill Top. There is a certain justice here: She had been brought up to manage a household, and finally she did. And, the year before, aged 47, she had married. Her husband, William Heelis, was a Lake Country lawyer who helped with her purchases and shared her deep love of the land. For 30 years, they lived happily in the hill country, and the children's books progressively assumed less importance in her life.

Country living was not at all easy. The winters were snowy with deep cold; the summers often brought drought or a flood. All the difficulties that beset hill farming, which made so many farmers willing to sell out to "Mrs. Heelis," were visited on her. One problem concerned the sheep. The authentic Lakes breed was, and is, the Herdwick Sheep, a cold-hardy animal adapted to graze the harsh uplands. Typically, each farmer has a small piece of his own lowland pasture for overwintering. The rest of the year, his flock grazes on a portion (a "heaf") of the communal, open-range fells, which are inaccessible except on foot. Each year, new Herdwick lambs learn from their mothers the territories to which they will return the following year. "Heafed" lambs then stay on their territories without supervision—a useful trait unique to the breed. However, Herdwicks produce a coarse wool useful only for carpets. Crossing them with other breeds would have produced finer wool, but the less-hardy offspring would neither fend for themselves nor graze the fells evenly. Bracken fern would take over the grassland, for example. Preserving the tradition of hill farming, based on the Herdwick sheep, required constant attention to breeding and land management. But without this effort, a way of life and an entire landscape would have been lost.

Through all this, the timid girl from London (simply portrayed by Renee Zellweger in the recent movie Miss Potter) became transformed: first into the writer and artist familiar to all, and then into a doughty 50-year-old who tramped the hills and won prizes for her livestock at agricultural fairs. It is as if she had become a character in one of her own books. She took an important role in local affairs, fiercely resisting the attempts of industrialists to develop the region. She also campaigned successfully to bring in a representative of the Queen's District Nurses Association, a charitable organization that brought medical care to rural areas. But her compassion had limits. Having grown up with every privilege that money could buy, she refused to improve her properties with gas lighting or even indoor bathrooms. And, somewhat surprisingly, she always opposed the notion of women's suffrage.

She had become an astute businesswoman, and the incompetence of her publisher Frederick Warne (run by the brothers of her dead fiancé) was a constant trial. She found it difficult to get earnings statements or royalty payments promptly. Her ideas for dolls and ceramics based on her characters—marketing notions that were ahead of her time—were never properly followed up. Then, in 1917, Harold Warne, the managing partner, was arrested for fraud. With survival of the company in jeopardy, Potter stepped in to sort things out and, importantly, to preserve her income.

Beatrix Potter was a very basic sort of conservationist. Even though the Lake District includes many regions of ancient woodland transformed by sheep grazing, she was not concerned with restoring the landscape to its primeval state. She wanted to preserve a particular quality of the environment and its associated way of life as she had first encountered them—a unique, rather inefficient rural economy rather than a set of natural habitats. At her death, the total estate of farms was valued at 211,000 pounds (between $14 million and $35 million today). Beatrix Potter's land is now a central part of the National Trust's contribution to the Lake District National Park, which, at 885 square miles, is England's largest and most popular scenic reserve. Ironically, her fame now swells the tourism that threatens to overwhelm the land she worked to save.

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