Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh

Timber Press is a wonderful book publisher whose focus is on the natural world; I have purchased many gardening and natural-history books produced by this firm over the years. Last week I was given a copy of their newly released The Natural World of Winnie-the Pooh by Kathryn Aalto as a gift from my boss William McClenethan and from Timber Press. As the host of a popular television garden show Garden Time, William visited Timber Press offices here in Portland to film an upcoming segment. He was given the book to pass along to me. I am under no obligation to write a review, but I love the subject matter so much that I offered wholeheartedly. 

 The author Kathryn Aalto is a landscape designer from California living in Exeter, England, with her family. She has a master's degree in garden history and creative non-fiction. These unique qualifications make her the perfect candidate to embark on the journey to unlock the secrets to the enchanted world so many of us grew up with - the world of Winnie-the-Pooh and his forest friends of the Hundred Acre Wood.

The point of the book is to bring to life the real places that inspired the author, A. A. Milne, to write these stories for his son, Christopher Robin, and to celebrate the natural world.


 The world of the Hundred Acre Wood haunts my very personal vision of nature and what that vision can (and should) be from a child's point of view. I grew up with fantastic notions of this place so beautifully described by A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), desperately wishing I were Christopher Robin's companion on adventures with our best animal friends. It was thus comforting to learn through Aalto's research, writing and photographs that so many of these places are real, as are the people and animal friends of the stories.



The book is divided into three parts. The first is The Creation of a Classic in which Aalto brings to life the world of Winnie-the-Pooh's author A. A. Milne and his collaborator and illustrator E. H. Shepard and the story behind how they came to create this beloved tale.


Here is E. H. Shepard, the artist who brought to life the sweet, sensitive drawings for the books. He visited Milne and his family at Ashdown Forest to draw from life the scenes that so beautifully capture this very special region of England.





Scots pines and snags in Wren's Warren Valley.
The second section is Exploring the Hundred Acre Wood, or rather Ashdown Forest, the real place where A. A. Milne, his wife Daphne, and their real-life son Christopher Robin lived. Aalto visits very real sites that do exist, such as Pooh Sticks Bridge, the sandy pit, and Eeyore's Gloomy Place. The rich history of this place comes to life through Aalto's research and words.





The third section of the book is A Visitor's Guide: The Flora and Fauna of Ashdown Forest. In this section we are introduced to the many species that make up this ecosystem and thus bring the whole thing around to gardening and the natural world.



Ariel view of the idyllic Ashdown Forest region.
Aalto's research and writing style mesh seamlessly with the subject matter. As an adult reading this book I reconnected with the stories on a much deeper level than I realized. The author's (and others') photographs of the area are extensive and appreciated -- they confirm that these places really look like how I imagined they would.


Galleon's Lap, based on the real Gills Lap, in the Hundred Acre Wood.
It is fascinating to learn about the author behind the stories. Milne was a gentle soul very connected to nature. He was allowed to roam free as a child, a privilege many children today are denied. He wanted to give his own son the same experience and thus moved the family from London some 40 miles south to Cotchford Farm, an idyllic Medieval-farm house on the edge of the village of Hartfield. Ashdown Forest is about 6,500 acres or 10 square miles, and encompasses the very real 500 Acre Wood, the inspiration for Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood.



The characters in the books were real stuffed animals, friends to the only child Christopher Robin. Christopher's mother Daphne helped to bring these creatures to life for him and inspired her husband to write these stories. 


The real Enchanted Place, a tree clump of Scots' Pines, near Kanga's sandy pit.
Throughout Aalto's account of this very special natural world, she reminds us how the magic in it all still remains. If you were to visit today, there is very little in the way of advertising to point out the many landmarks connecting this landscape with Milne's imagination. That is to say it is left for the visitor to discover on their own terms and pace; it is unspoiled and we all hope it will remain as such.  I must admit, after reading this book, I would love nothing more than to book a flight to England and spend a month with a backpack and walking shoes getting lost in its magic. Someday.


The Enchanted Place as drawn by E. H. Shepard.


One of the few markers to let you know you are in Pooh country.


Pooh Sticks Bridge as it stands today.


An Eeyore House that sprang up in Ashdown Forest. Apparently this happens frequently.


A Scot's pine tree, an important (planted) tree species in this forest. Although much of the "forest" is heathland, these tree clumps are central to the landscape as a whole as well as providing shelter for Milne's Enchanted Place and perhaps where Pooh discovered some hunny.


Cotchford Farm as it stands today.


A snowy scene in Ashdown Forest.


An ancient path through the wood, surrounded by bluebells.


In this illustration you see a red damselfly, part of the ecosystem that is quite rare these days.


Upper right is a photograph of said dragonfly as well as other winged creatures.


The real Christopher Robin with the real Winnie-the-Pooh somewhere in Ashdown Forest.





What Aalto does so beautifully in this book is to make it all come alive, to make it so very relevant to me, an adult in love with the natural world. It is a thoroughly researched and sensitively written account of a very real place and I encourage anyone with a slight curiosity about the Hundred Acre Wood to delve into it. I especially appreciate the opportunity to rediscover that magic door of my own imagination of childhood, thought to be lost but not forgotten. Aalto gave me the gift of reopening it.

It is not, in the strict sense of the word, a gardening book. It does, however, remind me where my initial love of nature and thus gardening originated -- in stories like this by adults who knew instinctively that children have the ability to connect on deep levels with nature. It also illustrates a variety of flora and fauna that are both common to England and also rare and endangered. In doing so the author is hopefully perpetuating the preservation of this Area of Outstanding Beauty.

That is all from Chickadee Gardens this week. Thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening and reading!


All images are from the book The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, photographs I took of my copy of the book. All are Copyright 2015 by Kathryn Aalto.

8 comments :

  1. Gardeners need to have some books that focus on Nature in other forms, and this looks to be so wonderful! Funny that I only realized earlier this year (when I saw a preview notice of this book) that Christopher Robin's world was a real place. :)

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    1. It is wonderful, and I too just realized that Christopher Robin and all these places are real. Isn't that the coolest?

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  2. Oh my gosh, so awesome. The photo of the real stuffed animals is my favorite part. Who knew?!

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    1. I know! Those stuffed animals are in NY - in the library system, I believe. Sooo cool.

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  3. Like Mindy that photo of the stuffed animals really got to me. Sadly I didn't grow up with Pooh and the gang. I knew of them but didn't read/watch/listen to any stories.

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    1. It's so sweet and brings it home, the photo of the animals. I am sorry you didn't grow up with Pooh, but even so I bet you'd enjoy it now :)

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  4. Thank you for such an effervescent and thorough review!

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    1. Gosh, I'm humbled and thrilled you read it! I'm blushing a little....a fabulous book that enjoyed tremendously. THANK YOU!

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