It occurs to me as we celebrate Earth Day today that Betsy Ray celebrated nature every day. There were concerns about the environment even in the early 1900s (see Sr. Year Essay Contest topic below), and Betsy had a genuine appreciation and love for the outdoors. First there was the pure joy she took in just being outside. No matter how many layers of clothing she had to put on in the winter, playing in the snow with Tacy was worth it. And as soon as the weather gets warmer, she and Tacy take their dinners outside (barefoot, natch) to eat on their special bench while Betsy spins her tales. These first Betsy-Tacy picnics would be repeated for years and years and The Big Hill itself is practically a character in the series.
While Betsy’s outdoor adventures might seem completely natural (no pun intended) to her fans now, Maud Hart Lovelace clearly chose to make nature a big part of these books. Betsy was a bookish type who longed to be a writer. She could just as easily have stayed inside her cozy parlor or room, reading and writing. Not only is this not the case, one could say that her evolution as a writer happens in the outdoors. She first begins writing while up in the tree in her yard, and she stores her papers and pencils there. Later, she reads and writes along the shores of Murmuring Lake, and floating in a boat on Babcock’s Bay.
When Betsy, like any young lady, starts to feel the lure of adolescent pursuits – boys, the moving picture show and Heinz’s Ice Cream Parlor -- she and The Crowd still probably spend as much time outside as in, hanging out on the Sibley's side lawn, riding behind (or on!) Dandy or in an auto in the open air, tramping through the snow to skate on those weak ankles, battered cocoa tin always by her side.
Some of the most entertaining stories in the series take place in nature – let us not forget the dreaded herbariums! The all-nighter that she, Tacy and Tib pull to construct the herbariums that they were supposed to have worked on for the entire year is one of my favorite moments in Betsy was a Junior. I never had to make a herbarium when I was in school and whenever I read this chapter I get a little jealous. And I found it hilarious when they went back outside in the morning to gather more plants, only to realize that flowers don’t open before the sun comes up. Kicking themselves later for not taking the project seriously, Betsy says, “I should have been interested, at least. I’m crazy enough about flowers!”
Nature even plays matchmaker in the novels as it helps to bring Betsy and Joe together. Though “held apart by that curious hostility, which, for a time, had stood between them,” Joe still defends her "rosy" apple blossoms to Mr. Gaston. When Betsy retreats to the pastoral setting of the Beidwinkle's farm, she and Joe make up from their senior year quarrel. And Betsy finally wins that year’s Essay Contest when the theme is the “Conservation of Our Natural Resources!” (Of course she may have had an unfair advantage as Joe confesses, “how can I think about ‘Conservation of Our Natural Resources” when it’s so much more interesting thinking about Betsy?”)
Yes, Betsy would have loved Earth Day, she lived a life that revelled in the great outdoors -- from her childhood and adolescence, and into early adulthood with the picnics she took in Europe on to the wonderful honeymoon that she and Joe spent in the country. So today, put everyone's dinner on a plate and carry them outdoors, to your deck, your backyard, your swing set or your neighborhood bench and enjoy a Betsy-Tacy Earth Day Dinner.
P.S: Just after finishing this essay, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Andrea Shaw, the Executor of Maud Hart Lovelace’s estate. She told me that Maud was quite the recycler, and would type newer drafts of the novels on the back of pages she’d already typed on. While this creates a bit of a nightmare for the person organizing her papers, it certainly supports the theory of Maud as an environmentalist!