Harmony Hill, the garden of Beatrice Bowles, is a secluded enclave in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Here Beatrice nurtures her garden and also plants the seeds of nature appreciation in young children. An acclaimed storyteller, Beatrice shares with children nature's wisdom across cultures through books, audiobooks, and performances. The lessons in her stories are valuable for naturalists of all ages.
You have supported our work to preserve, share, and celebrate gardens in countless ways since Frank Cabot founded the Garden Conservancy in 1989; thank you! How did your interest in gardens begin?
When I married and moved back to my childhood home on Russian Hill, ivy had smothered the garden. War was declared. Now, 50 years later, with help from experts, most lately from Silvina Blasen, fragrant woodland plants—rhododendron, clematis, abutilon, daphne, quince, and heliotrope, as well as trees: maples, ginkgo, Chimonanthus praecox, and more—ramble up the steep hillside, which is shaded by a mighty cork oak. Walls of Ace of Hearts camellias add drama to the long climb up to a view of the San Francisco Bay.
You’ve opened your garden in San Francisco, CA, to the public during Open Days and for Fellows on garden-study tours. For our Fellows who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, tell us about your garden.
If you enjoy fragrance, perennials, and the Art & Crafts aesthetic, this multi-level garden, named Harmony Hill by my father, welcomes you to a woodland with a history, which I describe in “A Child’s Inheritance,” the first essay in Rosemary Verey’s book, Secret Gardens as Reveled by their Owners (Ebury Press, 1992). Lurline Roth Coonan, of the Filoli family, brought Rosemary here for tea.
You’re an acclaimed author, performer, and weaver of stories for children and everyone young at heart. What inspired you to become a storyteller?
In my family of book lovers, beautiful fairy-tale books offered me bliss in childhood. They gave me joy, a love of nature and faith in justice, too. Later, my own children loved hearing and reading the same stories. With my BA in English from Vassar and an MFA in writing for children, I became a storyteller in schools and botanical gardens and began recording stories as well. On my first recording project, Joseph Campbell served as my advisor. Now, with my five audio storybooks with music by composer Sara MacLean, I am a Voting Member of the Grammys Recording Academy. My own illustrated storybook, Grandmother Spider’s Web of Wonders (2020), links tales from around the world to three questions that all cultures ask.
Ted P. Kipping’s flower photographs brighten the pages.
As you say, your stories “connect children to nature’s deep joys and eternal wisdom.” What lessons do you hope they impart on our youngest generation of nature lovers?
Fairy tales, folktales, and myths delight children while connecting them to enduring values across cultural lines. Reverence for nature, for hard work, and for kindness are keys to long-term survival in every tradition. Since children thrive in the presence of nature, programs like Green Schoolyards America's K-12 curriculum and the school garden movement worldwide are creating new generations of garden lovers to join us in our cause.
Your stories illustrate the connection between cultures and creatures, and your in-progress book, Ring of Riddles, a young-adult eco-occult thriller, features a young girl fighting for the health of our planet. How can we continue these conversations about our interconnectedness with nature and each other with the young people in our lives?
What storytelling does best, I believe, is to teach without preaching. I gather traditional stories from diverse cultures around a common theme in nature, such as seasons or storms or gardens. My first audio storybook, Heaven is a Garden in the Heart, tells five stories of magical gardens, four above ground and one, surprisingly, below. For young children, stories about tiny creatures, especially spiders and butterflies, always delight. By bringing nature to life and revealing deep connections between species and cultures, stories can spin webs of wonder wide enough, I hope, to enlighten and unite us all.
Throughout the challenges of the past year, many are emphasizing the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have you been looking to nature for solace during this time?
I thank my Irish immigrant grandfather for passing on this garden, an island of serenity in an odd, scary time. Since I Zoom stories to classrooms, I spend my days here happily, writing, rehearsing stories, networking with green educators, and taking breaks to tend the garden.
In 1989, writer Joan Hockaday introduced Frank Cabot to the garden, which he called "numinous." When Frank spoke of the Garden Conservancy, I joined then and there. Especially now, I find solace, inspiration, and joy in belonging to our great green endeavor.
Learn more about Beatrice, subscribe to her newsletter, and purchase her books and audiobooks at beatricebowles.com.
Photos from top to bottom, left to right: Beatrice Bowles by Nancy Dionne; cork oak; 'Golden flare' rose; 'Ace of hearts' camellias along the climb up to a view of the San Francisco Bay; Japanese maple.