I did not read a whole lot of picture books as a child. I started reading very early, and I skipped quickly from picture books to what we did not yet call “chapter books”, where the words fill the page and the pictures are relegated to chapter headings or margins or endpieces.
Anatole, mouse, Parisian, cheese criticI read a few series of picture books, however, that were and are significant to me. One was Anatole the Mouse, which was written by Eve Titus, who also wrote Basil of Baker Street, which was adapted by Disney as The Great Mouse Detective. (And if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you should see it. It is delightful!) Anatole is a Parisian mouse who wears a little smock, beret, and kerchief and works as a cheese taster. I read several of Anatole’s adventures but never owned any. I did own the other important picture book series of my childhood: Eloise.
Eloise, created by Kay Thompson, drawn by Hilary KnightHow do I describe Eloise for those who do not know her? She is, you might say, the polar opposite of the better known Madeline. If Madeline lives her life neatly in two straight lines and always fits back into the structured life of the orphanage after her adventures, Eloise is the quintessential round peg who slips out of your fingers when you try to put her into the square hole and runs away giggling. Eloise lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her Nanny, her dog Weenie, and her turtle Skipperdee and talks to her mother, who’s always visiting someplace glamorous, on the phone. She pours pitchers of water down the hotel mail chutes. She writes on the walls. She acts out elaborate space operas with her pets and her dolls.
Eloise was and is my heroine. “I am Eloise. I am six,” she proclaims on the first pages of her first book. “I am a city child. I live at the Plaza.” I have never lived anywhere like the Plaza, but like Eloise, I am a city child. I grew up in a white, blue-collar, middle-class neighborhood of rowhouses, churches, a small shopping district, a branch library, an elementary school where my grandfather studied as a boy. There were trees around the school grounds and in the residential blocks. Two elderly sisters lived behind us who grew tomatoes in their backyard. Morning glory vines threatened every fence in the alley. I used to bring home their small squarish black seeds and plant them in little pots of dirt, hoping to grow some in our own yard that was bordered by a thick stone wall. Every spring I walked around the neighborhood and collected rocks and other things of interest. I grew up in the era of the stay-at-home mom and the free range child who could walk barefoot and unharmed over asphalt, cobblestones, broken glass.
When I discovered neopaganism as a teenager and again as a young adult, I got interested in Nature. I tried to pay attention to Nature and practice Nature spirituality. Somehow this never led to my hiking in parks or going camping or aspiring to a little green house off the grid somewhere. It led to my trying to identify the trees, bushes, and flowers I saw growing around me. It led to my watching the weather patterns that brought storms across the city from the northwest. I couldn’t see many constellations in the city, but I could identify Orion. I had more success learning to identify the birds who inhabit the city than I did with the trees; city trees and neighbors’ flowers aren’t necessarily local natives.
What I have learned, and continue to observe as I go more deeply into a polytheism that comes out of the urban cultures of Greece and Egypt and Rome, is that Nature is not out there somewhere. I don’t have to go to a remote campground or even a nearby state park to see Nature. I am in Nature, right here, right now, sitting at my table in my little apartment with tulip magnolias and bay magnolias thriving in the yard next door, almost touching my windows. Cities are a natural creation of human beings, and nature is in the city. The Jones Falls River runs through and under the city into the harbor, tamed but not defeated. The Inner Harbor was once the natural basin that drew European settlers here. The city contains a thriving ecosystem of trees, birds, fungus, insects, rats, cats, dogs, and humans. If a human being drops food on the ground, someone else will come along and eat it; I once saw half a dozen house sparrows try to airlift a nearly-intact slice of pizza.
Even though they are larger and have more sophisticated technology, I don’t think 21st century cities are any more impervious to Nature, really, than the cities of the Mediterranean around the start of the Common Era. We are as dependent on agriculture, which takes place outside the city, and as vulnerable to natural disaster as they were. I’d like to see more people in pagan culture thinking about how to make our cities more livable, more attuned to human and non-human nature, instead of just planning to head for the hills when the oil runs out.