Alan Alexander Milne already was a successful writer and dramatist when he decided to write a couple of children’s books for and about his young son, Christopher Robin.
Few people today are familiar with his play “The Fourth Wall” or the novel “The Red House Mystery,” but generations of children and their parents have grown up in the safe embrace of a bumbling stuffed bear named Winnie-the-Pooh.
Quite why this character and his clownish chums have endured for almost a century is open to debate — Disney’s later adaptations and merchandizing no doubt are a significant reason — but the winning formula was there from the beginning. Milne’s first collection, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” was published in 1926; his second, “The House at Pooh Corner,” two years later. His illustrator was E.H. Shepard. Millions of copies have been sold since, in at least 50 languages.
When her children were younger, Kathryn Aalto read them the stories and couldn’t help think that the tales were “like a Seinfeld episode, mostly a lot about nothing,” she said. But a 5-year-old can detect that Pooh is so obviously dimwitted that he or she must be cleverer. This may be Milne’s genius, or part of it, but the lasting appeal of these stories is that they exist in an absurdly authentic world, not just of characters and relationships, but the fanciful landscape that gave form to their adventures.
Aalto, a garden designer and historian, set out to explore the creative origins of the Hundred Acre Wood. Pooh’s world, she discovered, is a synthesis of Milne’s own childhood memories — those he observed in his son between the ages of 4 and 8, and the topography of their idyllic patch of southern England. That physical muse, in turn, took three forms: the Milnes’ 16th-century farmhouse and garden; a nearby 6,000-acre preserved heathland named Ashdown Forest; and an adjoining private woodland, the Five Hundred Acre Wood.
Aalto spent a year haunting these precincts before writing the newly published “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh.” If you examine Milne’s life and work in the early 1920s, as Aalto did, it is clear how Winnie-the-Pooh came to life. Christopher Robin had acquired a number of stuffed animals that he and his mother, Daphne Milne, played with inventively. The menagerie included a teddy bear, a donkey, a wee pig and a tiger, which took form as the bumbling Pooh, the melancholic Eeyore, the alternatingly brave and timorous Piglet and the manic Tigger.
Once the family had moved out of London, Milne drew directly from the landscape around Cotchford Farm. An old sycamore tree suggested the place where the fictional Christopher Robin lived; a towering walnut tree the arboreal abode of Pooh himself.
During heavy rains, the stream near the farmhouse turned a meadow into a lake and inspired the story in which Piglet is trapped by rising water. Piglet is rescued by Christopher Robin using his inverted umbrella as a boat.
A bridge over the same stream in Ashdown Forest gave us the game of Poohsticks. Pooh and Piglet dropped twigs on one side to see whose would emerge first on the other. Owl’s house was based on a centuries-old beech tree the Milnes knew well in the Five Hundred Acre Wood. The Enchanted Place in the fictionalized woodland was a cluster of Scots pines.
It should be said that Christopher Milne, who died in 1996, grew up to resent his father’s fictionalization of his childhood (in a total of four books) and wrote that he thought his father was trying to relive his own childhood through his son.
You don’t need a PhD in child psychology to know why the Pooh stories work in the formative mind. All these imagined places — different but connected — provide for young children the idea of actual places that they could escape to, “their own secret hideaways, close to — but far enough away from — the watchful eyes of parents,” Aalto writes.
In an age of hovering elders, structured activities and the distractions of the digital universe, such simple but important experiences are rarer than they were. This is a shame.
“The real and imagined places of the Hundred Acre Wood are tender touchstones for the precious time of childhood,” she writes. “Milne’s books remind us that aimless wandering and doing Nothing is actually a very big Something for little ones.”
Aalto herself recalls a childhood spent in the Central Valley of California, never far from the almond and peach groves where she would play. She moved to England with her family in 2007 and soon discovered the allure of Britain’s nationwide network of public footpaths, and she embarked on the revelatory walking tours through the countryside that Milne himself knew as a boy. Often the trek is also through history. She writes: “A circular ten mile path . . . can feel epic; it is not unusual to find a Bronze Age earth mound near a village with a Norse or Norman name where Roman ruins have been preserved.”
As powerful as the Pooh stories remain, they speak to something of greater value, the importance of landscapes to children, places they return to, places they own, places to stage their own dramas, and places that imprint themselves on the mind. When you go back to those recollections as an adult, Aalto reminds us, it is not a case of reliving your childhood but remembering your childhood.
We think it essential that a
5-year-old learns to read, but perhaps it is as important for a child to learn how to read a landscape. I grew up playing along a woodland ridge that stretched for half a mile along a railway cutting. I came to know every path and hill and most of the trees. I absorbed the disparate character of various areas and the way each elicited a different feeling.
The most engaging landscapes have an aura about them. “There is a layer of memory, emotions and history that takes place in an invisible landscape like strata over a real landscape,” Aalto said in an interview.
We speak today of a world so connected that it has become much smaller than it ever was. This is framed as a human advance. Today’s Christopher Robins may well live until the end of the century, and we can only imagine (or not) how much more the planet will shrink in their lifetimes. You could argue that every childhood still should have a real Hundred Acre Wood, as a playground where the world can grow larger again.