Who wouldn’t have loved to stroll through the Hundred Acre Wood, where the world’s most beloved bear Winnie-the-Pooh ambled with his friends, away from frowning adults, doling out valuable life lessons for his readers young and old? Much to our envy, American writer and landscape designer Kathryn Aalto did that, in a way. And much to our delight, she wrote a book about it — “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh”. Little wonder it caught the imagination of readers, and made it to the “New York Times” bestsellers list.
For fans of Pooh Bear, this has been a special year. This lovable bear, created by A.A. Milne and made even more endearing in E.H. Shepard’s illustrations, turned 90 on October 14. And as Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday this year, it was time for Pooh Bear and his friends to visit the Buckingham Palace (courtesy an illustrated audio book, “Winnie-the-Pooh and the Royal Birthday”). And with “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh”, we can now virtually visit the woods that inspired Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood. Yes, that wilderness exists, albeit known as Ashdown Forest.
Aalto takes readers on a walk through this forest while acquainting them with the lives of Milne and Shepard. The book is well researched and supported by beautiful photographs of the places that evoke nostalgia. She juxtaposes the past and present and draws references from “Winnie-the-Pooh” stories, reminding readers of the childhood left behind. There’s also a pictorial guide on the flora and fauna of the forest.
Easy to read and engaging, “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” stirs in the reader a yearning to visit Ashdown Forest someday.
For Aalto, the inspiration to write the book occurred on her long walks in England. Like Milne, she is drawn to nature. Her first book was “Nature and Human Intervention”. Aalto is presently an adjunct faculty member of the English department at Exeter College, Devon, and teaches writing courses on creative non-fiction and American Literature of Nature, both in the UK and the US.
Aalto spoke to Weekend Review about her exploration of Ashdown Forest, life in England and how the journey of writing has changed her. Excerpts:
What made you choose Ashdown Forest?
I had imagined that raising my three children (Stellan, then 3, Tess was 6 and August was 9) in England, a place that looked so claustrophobic, would be difficult. But on Day Two of moving here, I discovered a book about public footpaths. Before the jet lag wore off, we had ambled through 20 miles of English countryside. I was hooked.
The book started with two simple questions: Is there a Hundred Acre Wood? Can we walk there?
Tell us about Ashdown Forest.
One of the most striking things is how pristine and non-commercial it is. It really feels like walking through the pages of an E.H. Shepard illustration.
Ashdown Forest is the real setting of the Hundred Acre Wood. It is a 2,600 hectare wildlife haven about an hour south of London. Attracting rare birds and home to rare flora and fauna, this is now one of the largest continuous heathlands in southeast England.
The children were thrilled to see the real landscape they had imagined in their minds. They enjoyed the views atop Gills Lap, the real name of Galleon’s Lap in the book, playing Poohsticks and exploring the Enchanted Place. This literary landscape is well-preserved because of the many conservation and protection measures.
It was many years after moving here that I wrote the book.
You state in your book that walking in England has a different feel. How is that?
Walking is a national pastime here. England has an intricate network of ancient public footpaths that were created as people walked from hamlet to village, village to town, farm to farm, cemetery to city. We also have a Legal Right to Roam here.
In the US, there are great national parks with hiking paths. But the US has so much space and is a car culture. In smaller England, we don’t need a car to drive to these public footpaths. They are everywhere and it is much easier to amble here.
Can you share some fond memories of your treks?
We walked across the middle of England on the 300-kilometre Coast to Coast Path. It is tradition to collect a small stone on the beach of the Irish Sea, carry it in your pocket as you walk and toss it into the North Sea when you arrive. We enjoyed allowing the kids to wander ahead of us like 21st century Christopher Robins.
Our second day in the Lake District, (the rainiest part of England) drenched us and we hopped over swollen streams, fell into bogs and had to pull out our emergency shelter.
What were the stumbling blocks in writing this book?
The book was two and a half years in the making. This included the initial writing, research and revising the book proposal. The actual writing task took about 10 months.
The initial challenges were getting permission from the Estate of E.H. Shepard to use images and the Estate of A.A. Milne to use words. The project hinged on that. Those came through and so the book has a beautiful sense of nostalgia to it.
What places of Ashdown Forest will you recommend to a first-time visitor?
The views atop the plateau called Gills Lap are marvellous. It’s at the top of the forest and effervescent with fresh breezes that practically carry the scent of crepes from Normandy.
I am also particularly fond of a 250-year-old beech tree on the Tabell-Ghyll walk. It reminds me of the size of the trees that inspired Milne to create Owl’s House. Unfortunately, those trees came down in a wind storm during the Second World War, but I like to imagine that those half-dozen magnificent trees were like this one.
Did the writing journey bring changes in you as a person?
There have been changes on many levels. Artistically, I have loved every stage of the creative process. I always wanted to write a book accompanied by my own photographs. The book is visually rich with those photographs, selected Shepard illustrations and historic ephemera. It was a perfect expression of my interest in landscapes and literature, writing and art.
Personally, I think I was more reflective and grateful for the kind of childhood I had in California where I played in almond and peach orchards, climbed cherry trees and had real freedom to explore and imagine in the natural world. My father taught high school agriculture and designed gardens.
I also think I now better understand what makes a classic piece of children’s literature and how the nature of childhood itself has evolved.
I feel honoured to be able to take people on a journey into a place they know from childhood, but don’t know is a real place that looks much as it did when Milne and his little boy Christopher Robin lived on the edge of the forest.
What are today’s children, cocooned within the digital world of computers and mobile phones, missing?
Children need unscheduled time in the natural world to develop their imaginations, to climb trees and to dream, and to develop an affinity for the natural world surrounding them. Many parents overschedule their children with activities. The Christopher Robins of the 21st century need time in their own Hundred Acre Wood to remember as the settings for their own childhoods.
The men who created Pooh Bear
Alan Alexander Milne, a nature lover since his childhood in Hampstead, owed his love for the outdoors to his father, John Vine Milne.
Milne senior encouraged his three sons — David, Kenneth and Alan — to spend more time outside the home. He believed that “nature has the most wonderful exhibition, always open and always free”. Alan and Kenneth often roamed the neighbouring parks on their own.
Fuelling Milne’s love for the outdoors was his science teacher H.G. Wells, who took the children on field trips to Primrose Hill, the Natural History Museum and the London Zoo for lessons in Botany and Zoology.
Milne started as a freelance writer at “Punch”, going on to became an assistant editor in 1906. By 1910 he earned repute as England’s foremost humorist.
He married Dorothy de Selincourt (daughter of Martin de Selincourt, owner of Swan & Edgar departmental store) and their son, Christopher Robin was born in 1920.
Milne wanted his son to experience the joy of being in the lap of nature. That became a reality after he purchased Cotchford Farm in 1925, their weekend getaway.
Daphne, too, shared Milne’s love for nature. Designing the garden, she found her outlet, her favourite being the rose garden. Milne credits Daphne for his writing of the book. She often played with Robin, surrounded by his stuffed toys, lending voices and personalities to the mute animals.
Writing by the window at Cotchford Farm, Milne lived nostalgically through his son, who ventured into the forest nearby, climbing trees and playing inside their hollow trunks.
E.H. Shepard was born to Henry Dunkin Shepard and Harriet Jessie Lee in 1879. He grew up in St John’s wood where his mother introduced him to painting. Harriet made sure that Shepard always carried a notebook and a pencil with him. He soon became good at drawing the scenes he witnessed, and over time, he developed a remarkable photographic memory.
After his mother’s demise, Shepard found in art a means to remain connected to her dreams. He pursued Art at the Academy School in 1898 on a scholarship and won accolades. He married Florence Eleanor Chaplin (granddaughter of Ebenezer Landsells, founder of “Punch”). They had two children, Graham and Mary. Shepard’s first collaboration with Milne was in 1924 for a collection of verses “When We Were very Young”.
For “Winnie-the-Pooh”, he visited Ashdown Forest, and while their sons, Christopher Robin and Graham, played in the mud, the fathers discussed ideas for the book. Shepard went around the forest sketching the places that figure in the story — Poohsticks Bridge, Bee tree, Enchanted Place.
Shepard worked in ink, pen and black crayons on smooth art board or watercolour paper. Except Winnie-the-Pooh, all the characters were drawn from Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals. Pooh Bear was inspired by Growler, a teddy bear that his son Graham played with.
Shepard and Milne shared a warm professional relationship and mutual appreciation for their work.
Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.