Natural women

A common thread runs through the lives of Beatrix Potter, Rachel Carson and their biographer, Linda Lear of Bethesda

February 06, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

It's tempting to imagine Peter Rabbit peering out from beneath a hedge in Linda Lear's bewitching English-style garden.

Lear recently published a biography of Beatrix Potter, the British author who created such beloved characters as Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin in her illustrated children's books.

It's true that a river glimpsed from Lear's home in Bethesda is the Potomac, and not a tributary meandering through the Scottish border country, which provided inspiration for many of Potter's classic stories. But Potter's animal heroes are easy to picture amid Lear's lushly wooded acres and terraced beds.

That flash of white - is it, perhaps Peter vanishing into an underground warren? Or could it be Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, Potter's laundress hedgehog, washing a tiny pocket-handkerchief in a pool of rainwater, and then scampering away over a miniature railroad trestle?

Though it was released just last month, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature already is in its fourth printing, having been mentioned warmly in such august publications as The New Yorker magazine. And those book sales were racked up even before the major U.S. release of Miss Potter. The film, starring Renee Zellweger as the title character, is scheduled to roll out next month to hundreds of markets nationwide.

Spend eight years writing a biography, as the 66-year-old Lear has done, eight years poring over a diary written in code and voluminous correspondence about topics as varied as fungi, toy manufacturing and sheep breeding, and subject and author can begin to converge in weird ways.

"My life and Beatrix Potter's life have some points of correspondence," Lear admits. "I suppose that's why I identify with her."

Lear's similarities to her subjects become even more striking upon learning she wrote an award-winning biography of the environmentalist Rachel Carson. All three women - Lear, Potter and Carson - share a passion for the natural world. (Lear is a longtime professor of environmental history.)

All three have mixed artistic leanings with a scientist's curiosity.

Carson, author of the groundbreaking Silent Spring, was an exceptional prose stylist, and Potter was a brilliant amateur botanist who made an important discovery about how lichen reproduce.

And all three are world-class observers. The Beatrix Potter book alone contains 106 pages of footnotes and citations.

Judy Taylor, chairwoman of the Beatrix Potter Society, is impressed with how much Lear was able to absorb about an era so different from her own.

"It must have been very hard for her, as an American, to write about someone who lived in Victorian times," says Taylor, the author of a previous Potter biography, Beatrix Potter, Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. "It must have been difficult for Linda to get her around how the English class system worked in those days. But she did it beautifully."

Lear is short and effervescent, with shoulder-length blond hair. She has an unpretentious way of leaning in close to her visitors when she talks and touching them lightly on the shoulder or arm to make a point. It's as if every woman she meets potentially is her new, best girlfriend.

She and her husband, John Nickum, live in a home they built eight years ago and share with their four dogs: three Norfolk terriers and a West Highland terrier, whose favorite activity is barking at Peter Rabbit - or, at least, some of his kin.

Botanical prints adorn the walls of the couple's light-filled home. Lear's study contains a loveseat decorated with a Peter Rabbit pillow, while figurines of Potter's characters rest on her bookshelves.

All her life, Lear has responded to natural beauty - and been distressed when that beauty is disturbed or destroyed.

"Whenever my parents drove over the Allegheny River into downtown Pittsburgh from the rural community where I was born, I begged my father not to take the bridge that passed above the stock yards," Lear has written.

"There were animal parts visible in the yard, and debris strewn along the river's edge. The smell of dead animals mixed with the stench of sulfur from the smelting operations farther down river. It always made me sick to my stomach."

So, when she later learned that Rachel Carson also grew up in western Pennsylvania, and, Lear says, "abhorred the same things I did," she felt as though she'd discovered a kindred spirit.

But in the 1950s, when Lear started college, the environment wasn't considered a viable academic subject on par with calculus or the romance languages.

But Lear always had loved history, the way that dusty documents filled with dry data could be a secret passageway taking her into a world that, while long gone, was brimming with life. Over the years, she perfected her research techniques, eventually earning a doctorate from George Washington University in 1974.

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