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Most people remember Beatrix Potter as the author of beloved children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she had a lesser-known, but important career as a mushroom hunter and amateur mycologist!
In the new children’s book, Beatrix Potter, Scientist, author and Kansas City Star parenting columnist Lindsay H. Metcalf explores Potter’s work as an amateur mycologist who presented her research to England’s foremost experts.
While sexism kept Potter’s discoveries out of the scientific canon, the book shows some of her great work.
Beatrix wrote about fungi spores for England’s illustrious Linnean Society in 1897, but a male scientist had to submit the paper on her behalf. Even though the paper never got published, her mycology work lives on in a 450-page journal that she kept throughout the period.
In the book, Metcalf reminds us that fungi and art were always intertwined in Potter’s life:
“Beatrix juggled her passions for art and nature. The day after she found a rare fungus, she wrote the first draft of her most famous story in the form of a picture letter. Five-year-old Noel Moore, the son of her friend, was sick, so she wrote him a story about her bunny Peter Piper.”
A few years later, Potter’s letter-stories would evolve into the book that launched her life-changing career, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She wrote many books after that, and you can spot fungi in these stories:
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903),
The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918)
The Fairy Caravan (1929).
Metcalf stopped by Fantastic Fungi to tell us how parents can instill a similar love for fungi in their children…
Lindsay H. Metcalf: One of the focuses of Beatrix’s research was lichens, and those are common almost everywhere on Earth. They are the green smudges on tree bark that light up neon after a rain. They are the rust-colored spots clinging to concrete or rock. Lichens contain a world of wonderment that kids can access with a little magnification.
This works best after a rain. With a handheld magnifying glass or a phone equipped with a zoom lens, examine the lichens up close. What do they look like to the naked eye? What do they look like when you zoom in? Kids may not know that lichens are fungi combined with either algae (plant) or cynanobacteria (bacteria that undergo photosynthesis). The green coloring in some lichens comes from chlorophyll.
Zooming in on lichens can unlock a world of discovery for kids. Within the tiny folds of the lichens, even smaller creatures such as tardigrades, or water bears, live, even though those won’t be visible without a strong microscope. Lichens provide a hardy miniature ecosystem that most of us take for granted, and science still has a lot to learn about.
Studying changes in lichens can also help researchers monitor climate change and air quality. Maybe the children who study them today will grow up to make important discoveries that will help save the planet.
Metcalf: Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of fungi are beautifully detailed, and several are digitized and displayed online. I am also working with an educator to develop a teaching guide full of fun and educational activities that could be used in the classroom or at home!
One easy activity is making spore prints, if one has access to materials.
Metcalf: Reading her 450-page journal—which she wrote in an invented code between the ages of 15 and 30—was intimate and illuminating, like gossiping about life with a good friend.
Suddenly Beatrix was more than an all-caps name on the front of a book. She was a three-dimensional human who indulged curiosity, stared down setbacks and discrimination, and reveled in her pure enchantment with nature.
Beatrix was working with a man named Charles McIntosh to identify a rare fungi called “old man of the woods” around the same time she created the “picture letter” to a young friend about Peter Rabbit.
The character of Mr. McGregor was likely a mashup of McIntosh’s appearance and the name of her family’s landlord that summer—Atholl McGregor.