Kathryn Aalto to lead listeners through ‘The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh’

Many of us have fond memories of a “silly old bear” who lives in a treehouse in the Hundred Acre Wood, along with several friends, all looked after by a young boy named Christopher Robin. The stories of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner” capture the essence of a joyful childhood—engagement with nature, freedom to imagine, and learning through adventures and friendships such things as compassion, trust, and loyalty. Perhaps most importantly, childhood gives permission to do nothing, which, as Christopher Robin explains to Pooh, “means just going along, listening to all the things that you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Kathryn Aalto. (Courtesy photo)

Kathryn Aalto, writer, garden designer, and landscape historian, explores these ideas—and so much more—in her delightful book, “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A walk through the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood.” Aalto, who has lived in England for the past 11 years, will be in Harvard Monday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. in Volunteers Hall to talk about her book. The program is sponsored by the Garden Club and the library trustees, and is, in part, a tribute to the land protection work of the Harvard Conservation Trust. Aalto, an avid conservationist, was related to the late Erhart Muller, a founding member and benefactor of the trust (see "The Muller Conservation Collaborative" below). She said she used to love coming to Harvard to visit and is looking forward to her time here again.

Aalto’s book is many-layered and written in different tones, sometimes nostalgic, other times intimate as when she invites readers to get our “boots and backpack” and follow her down a trail in Ashdown Forest, the ancient woods in Sussex, England, that inspired many of the Pooh stories. Always, it is clear that she is passionate about her subjects. The book’s dedication page captures this. It is E.H. Shepard’s warm and whimsical illustration of Pooh and Piglet, looking fondly at one another as they walk down a leaf-strewn path together. The text reads: “To the walkers of the world who know the beauty is in the journey.” The frontispiece shows Pooh and Piglet, holding hands, looking up in awe at the huge Scots pine tree towering above them. Throughout the book are passages from the Pooh books with their original illustrations and beautiful photos of Ashdown Forest as it is today.

Running throughout the book is the implicit idea that those of us who, as children, independently explored a Hundred Acre Wood in our backyards or whose parents took us for walks in nature have rich memories to draw upon that often inform our values and perceptions of the world. Aalto explicitly expresses a fear that many of us share: “In recent years, there has been a concern that the very nature of childhood has changed. People have begun questioning if there has already been a ‘last generation’ to play outside.” Aalto shows us that “Milne’s books offer a reminder about the importance of freedom in nature.”

The first section of Aalto’s book describes A. A. (Alan Alexander) Milne’s life, that of his illustrator E.H. (Ernest Howard) Shepard, and their incredible collaboration. Milne’s own childhood was shaped largely by his father, whom he adored, and his advice to Milne and his two older brothers: “Keep out of doors as much as you can, and see all you can of nature: she has the most wonderful exhibition, always open and free.” From the gardens of his family’s home in Hampstead to the ancient wooded park of nearby Hampstead Heath, Milne would store memories of his own childhood adventures, most of them with his slightly older brother, Ken. Aalto draws on many sources to give the reader a full picture of Milne as a person and as a writer.

While Milne was exploring nature, E.H. Shepard was immersed in trips to art shows and lessons in violin. Both parents were loving and supportive, but it was his mother who “made sure he always had a notebook and pencil with him.” When Shepard was 11, his adored mother died; although she had been bedridden for months, her death was unexpected. “Shepard said that he felt his childhood ended then” and it would be years before he felt happiness again, writes Aalto. She observes that from his own sufferings as a child, his “empathy was deepened and his illustrated depictions of emotions were sharpened.”

Poohsticks Bridge in Ashdown Forest. (Courtesy photo)

Aalto says of the two men’s collaboration in the 1920s: “The tales of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are classics not merely because of Milne’s charming storytelling or Shepard’s delicate illustrations. The books are products of a pitch-perfect interplay between artist and writer, their particular talents and sensitivities, and their own experiences of childhood.” The two men worked closely with one another, Milne telling Shepard how he envisioned the stories, and Shepard drawing from his own emotions and from real places, particularly Ashdown Forest, which he knew had inspired many of the stories.

Cotchford Farm

In the next part of the book, “Origins of the Stories,” Aalto says she has packed some “provisions” for us and invites us to put on waterproof clothes and boots and “to start at the place where many of the stories originated”—Cotchford Farm, a 1550 farm to which Milne and his wife and young son, Christopher Robin, moved in 1925. It was from the farm’s huge trees, the meadow, and the river, and Christopher Robin’s adventures with them, that Milne took inspiration for many of the stories. Milne’s wife, Daphne, played with Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals, using different voices for the animals, most of whom appear in the books.

Aalto gives numerous examples of real places on the farm that gave rise to settings for the stories. She describes the old walnut tree that stood at the entrance to Cotchford Farm. It had a large gash in its trunk, and for the 5-year-old Christopher Robin, it offered a safe and magical hideaway. This tree house became the home of Winnie-the-Pooh. When the gardener made a wooden sundial to place in front of the tree house, Christopher Robin became concerned that someone would sneak down and steal it. So he built a camouflaged trap to capture any heffalump that might approach. Unfortunately, he caught the gardener’s wife’s foot. This incident inspired Milne to write the story, “Piglet Meets a Heffalump.” A pet donkey on the farm was probably the source of the books’ Eeyore, and the Gloomy Place where he lived was perhaps the meadow between the farmhouse and the river, where the real donkey lived.

Ashdown Forest

Another source of inspiration for the fictional Hundred Acre Wood was Ashdown Forest, about 2 miles from Cotchford Farm. Aalto invites us to walk, as Milne did so often, through the landscape rich in history and to observe its varied terrain, flora, and fauna. Aalto says that while Pooh and his friends live in trees throughout the forest, “memorable events take place on a high, sandy plateau of gorse and heather” in the forest. It is here that Roo gets kidnapped, Tigger is stuck high up in a tree, and Christopher Robin hosts a special party to celebrate Pooh’s bravery in rescuing Piglet from a flood. Calling it among the “most memorable settings in children’s literature,” Aalto says the Enchanted Place is a real spot in Ashdown Forest—it sits on the highest point of the forest, a shady canopy of Scots pines with soft needles carpeting the ground. “It is here where a boy asks his bear to remember him as he leaves his childhood behind,” writes Aalto.

Aalto’s book is alternately lighthearted and profound but always full of love—love of the memories of childhood, of the stories of Pooh and his friends, of the incredible synergy of Milne and Shepard, and of Ashdown Forest and the people who have preserved it. Her passion makes her a wonderful guide, not just to the real places of the fictional settings, but through the magic of childhood itself, the time to imagine and to explore. She reminds us of places in our own childhoods where we could be in our own world, apart from the realities of parents and “bother.” She inspires us to read or reread Milne’s books and to see the layers we may have missed. To see all the aspects of human nature portrayed in the animals of the forest and how they overcome misfortunes and misunderstandings through compassion, patience, forgiveness, accepting others for who they are, and always offering a helping hand.

The program is free, but the Conservation Trust welcomes donations. David Outman, executive director of the trust, will be on hand for questions.

Books will be available for purchase.

The Muller Conservation Collaborative

Since its inception in 1973, the Harvard Conservation Trust has been proactively engaging landowners, working to purchase and protect Harvard’s irreplaceable open spaces and rural character. With the recent formation of the Muller Conservation Collaborative (MCC), that work has been significantly energized.

Erhart Muller was one of the founders of the trust, and when he died in 2015, he bequeathed $1.5 million to be used solely for land protection in Harvard, provided the funds are matched dollar for dollar in donations from individuals and foundations. It is this provision that captures Muller’s support for the vision of the trust: that it represent a collaborative of town residents committed to preserving land and resources for future generations.

Currently, the trust is on what it hopes is the last leg of a fundraising campaign to purchase John’s Field on Slough Road, so named for its owner and steward, John Grady. The stretch of the 7-acre tract that runs along the east side of the road is wide open, perfect for viewing sunrise, moonrise, and the Boston skyline. Behind the house to the southeast is rich farmland, bordered by stone walls that show its historical use for agriculture. A perennial stream runs through a corner of the field, down the slope, under Mass. Ave., and south through Harvard, creating a vibrant wildlife habitat along its path.

Important as the land is for its beauty, history, and farmland, it is also a vital link in the interconnected trails that the trust has long envisioned to run east from the town center through conservation land woods and fields to the drumlin on the Williams land and farther along on Stow Road. With development on Harvard’s doorstep and ever-increasing traffic, it is heartening to think of this natural greenway remaining unchanged and available for exploring.

Already the trust has used Muller funds to purchase Horse Meadows Knoll and to complete the gift of a conservation restriction on a 5-acre field in Still River owned by longtime resident Ted Maxant.

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