The University Record, April 15, 1997

Beatrix Potter inspires Elling to work for the environment

By Anita Chik
News and Information Services

Elizabeth Elling's passion for Beatrix Potter has filled her house with cups, tea pots, plates, toys, miniature book characters and books. It has also filled her life with a sense of purpose. Inspired by Potter's works, she switched her career as a journalist at the Ann Arbor News and Maryville-Alcoa (Tenn.) Daily Times to become coordinator of visitor programs at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

On May 1, Elling will appear dressed as Beatrix Potter for the Women's National Farm and Garden Club in Rochester Hills. She will talk about gardens, nature and herbs and how plants relate to Potter's works.

"I can't be Beatrix Potter, but I want to imitate something that she wore so I can tell others about her work," Elling says.

She plans to imitate the wedding dress Potter wore when she was married at the age of 47. Her outfit will include a white lacy blouse, a green cotton dress and Danish clogs that Potter often wore.

Elling discovered Beatrix Potter about 17 years ago when she helped her daughter, Kristin, find books for a book report. She started reading Potter's stories and fell in love with them. In 1990, after she attended the Beatrix Potter Conference in England, her interest and knowledge about the well-known children's writer grew. That trip became the turning point of her life.

Elling enrolled in the graduate program at the School of Natural Resources and Environment partly because of the love of nature she shares with Potter. After she receieved her master's degree, she worked full time for the Nichols Arboretum as a development officer. Since then, she has devoted most of her time and efforts promoting children's education and designing brochures for the Botanical Gardens.

"Beatrix Potter is part of my search for goals in my life," she says. "Beatrix Potter is an inspiration to my work at the Gardens. I can't be a children's writer, but I can take my love for nature and do something about environmental education." She explains that Potter's love of nature motivated her to design outreach programs such as nature drawing classes for kids.

Potter, an environmental activist and nature artist, bought lands to save the farm houses in the Lake District in England. Artwork in all of her children's books mimic the actual vegetable gardens, landscapes and houses around her hometown of Near Sawrey, northwest of London.

During the trip to the northern part of England, Elling visited Potter's homes to learn more about her childhood. Her admiration of Potter's attitudes in not talking down to children and in conserving lands, trees and animals inspired her to spread Potter's environmental beliefs.

"I have learned a lot about myself by studying her. I think everybody needs a role model, and she happens to be my mentor," Elling said. "Potter thinks about children in her books and how to reach out to them. I definitely follow her beliefs."

In order to share her interest and teach more people about Potter, Elling threw neighborhood parties each year at Christmas. She would usually watch The Tailor of Gloucester with the neighborhood children.

"Like every Potter story, The Tailor of Gloucester projects a fantasy and has a strong moral stand," Elling says. "This story about the mice making clothes for the tailor is like a miracle that children love to hear."

Elling notes that Potter was a talented nature artist and one who could write stories that are "timeless and universal." Elling hopes her public talks about Potter's works, life and achievements, will help both children and adults gain a better insight of Potter's values and personality.

"Beatrix Potter impacts my life a lot," Elling said. "She's a remarkable woman, a great artist and a conservationist."