You might think that Beatrix Potter was a lonely child. Perhaps you would be right. True, she lived in a large city: London, England. True, the only child she had to play with was her brother, Bertram, and he was usually away at boarding school. Beatrix had no school friends, because she didn't go to school; instead, a governess taught her at home. There were no other children her parents would let her play with in their London neighborhood.
But Beatrix was not as lonely as you might think. She had the friendship she felt for all the animals and plants she met on her rambles through the countryside. Beatrix's family took long vacations in Scotland and the Lake District of England. She brought the countryside back to London by taming wild rabbits as pets. She kept country mice in a cage, and also lizards, snakes, and even a pet bat! In the countryside, Beatrix loved to spend hours out of doors. She drew detailed pictures of the plants and the animals she found. She wanted to know everything about the natural world. She planned to be a scientist when she grew up.
But Beatrix was young more than a hundred years ago. It wasn't considered proper for a middle-class girl to have a job, particularly as a scientist. Beatrix's parents were very concerned that she grow up to be a proper young lady. No one encouraged her to draw animals and plants, but Beatrix kept studying her friends in the natural world on her own. The drawings and paintings she made were greatly respected by scientists who wanted to learn more about animals and plants and appreciated a close and careful look at nature. Beatrix was especially interested in mushrooms and mosses. By observing these plants, she discovered that the lichen that grows on rocks and trees is actually a combination of a moss and a fungus.
Her scientific sketches of nature, even though they helped make discoveries, were not the same as having a real job as a scientist. But when Beatrix was grown up, her loving attention to the natural world earned her a different success than she had ever imagined. In 1893, Beatrix sat down to write a letter to five-year-old Noel, who had been sick in bed for a long time. She started her letter, "I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names are Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter." Have you ever heard of these little rabbits? Well, Beatrix Potter made them up, based on rabbits she had watched closely, and on her imagination. She drew Noel a picture of the four young rabbits and their mother. So began the tale of Peter Rabbit, which you may know, and children have been enjoying for more than a hundred years.
Beatrix wrote and illustrated twenty-two more books, all about the animals that had been her friends in the English countryside: hedgehogs, frogs, ducks, house mice and field mice, and squirrels. She knew them very well from spending time among them and observing their ways.
Beatrix earned enough money from her books to buy a farm in the English Lake District, a place she had always loved. She raised sheep on her farm. Over time she bought more country land, to keep it as a natural home for animals and plants and not used for factories and houses. When Beatrix Potter died in 1943, she gave four thousand acres to the National Trust, an English organization that protects and preserves beautiful, natural lands. If you travel to England today, you can visit Beatrix Potter's farmhouse. You can walk in the countryside, just as she did so many years ago when she was a young child. Yet you need only to open one of her books to meet the animals and plants she loved. By observing, loving, and drawing her friends, she preserved her connection with the world of nature for children like all of you, and all of us, to share.