Friday, December 1, 2017

Natural Born Artists

In November, I rode in a car to the top of one of nature's wonders, Arizona's 9,200-foot high Mount Lemmon, only to encounter, of all people, the singer-songwriter Sting (dining with his wife in a mountaintop restaurant) and to discover the mountain is named for a nature artist.

In 1861, Sara Lemmon (née Plummer) was teaching art in New York City when she volunteered as a nurse in the Union Army. But she caught pneumonia while serving and was ordered to journey west for the air. Sara did so, and opened a stationery shop in Santa Barbara, California, turning it into a hangout for local artists and intellectuals. She also began to paint botanical subjects around town, and founded a natural history society.

Through the society, Sara met and fell in love with a professional botanist, John Lemmon. He also had fragile health, thanks to wartime imprisonment at Andersonville, and when the couple married in 1880, Sara suggested they honeymoon so as "to make a grand botanical raid into Arizona, and try to touch the heart of the Santa Catalina's."

Together, on horseback, the nature-lovers rode to the top of the tallest peak in the chain, he cataloging and she painting plants the whole way. At the summit, at the urging of their guide, they named the mountain for Sara. Her artwork later won awards at national expositions, and a number of plants (as well as the mountain) bear her name today. Sara would also serve four years as the official artist for the California State Board of Forestry, and lecture about conservation at scientific conferences and the Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

In April, I visited Cumbria in England, where I met a famous shepherd and also discovered the wondrous world of another nature artist, Beatrix Potter, better known as the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Born in London, Beatrix grew up enjoying a posh life as a painter of plants and animals (her wealthy parents enrolled her in art lessons from age eight). At 20, she was earning commissions on her illustrations for greeting cards, and even produced an illustrated scientific paper about mushrooms that was presented to The Linnean Society.

At 35, Beatrix self-published Peter Rabbit. It was immediately picked up by a trade publisher and became an overnight best-seller. With the money earned, she bought a farm in Cumbria and became a lady farmer, supporting herself by raising sheep, while writing 27 more of her "little books" and investing the proceeds in local real estate. 

Beatrix's love of nature led her late in life to help found the UK's National Trust, and she devoted her time and money to the preservation of Cumbria's farmland and farming methods. In her will, she left the Trust 14 farms and 4,000 acres, still under protection today.
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