Kathryn Aalto remembers flying over Devon when she first moved to England. It was 2007, she was looking out the window of the prop plane at the English countryside’s patchwork of hedgerows, and she didn’t love what she saw.
“It was so foreign,” Aalto recalls. “It looked really closed in and claustrophobic and almost saccharine – it was Teletubby land!”
Aalto had left 20 acres of meadows, woods and salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest to move to England. She didn’t yet understand the manicured British landscape, and she wondered how she would raise her children there. Almost out of grief, she started walking. Soon she discovered that Britain was overlaid with public footpaths, allowing remarkable access to the island nation. She still speaks wistfully of her 20 acres in the United States, sure, but she’s also come to think of all of Great Britain as her family’s backyard.
“I could walk out my door in Exeter all the way out to the Hebrides in Scotland, just using public footpaths,” she says.
Aalto, after all, is a landscape designer and historian, and her new book focuses on one of England’s most storied natural areas, the Hundred Acre Wood of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. Aalto’s “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” takes a close look at Ashdown Forest, the direct inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood. This is where Milne’s son, the real-life Christopher Robin, wandered with stuffed animals named Pooh, Roo and Piglet.
The book is an easy, casual read, though Aalto covers a lot of ground, from biographical detail on Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard to details on Hundred Acre Wood landmarks like the real Poohsticks Bridge or the streambed where Pooh discovered the North Pole (which he promptly picks up and takes with him). As fascinated as she is with historical detail or the language of the landscape, she consciously kept “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” light and approachable.
“I felt a responsibility to get it right,” Aalto says.
Her research took her to the village of Hartfield, directly north of Ashdown Forest, and to Cotchford Farm, where the Milne family lived (interestingly, Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones later lived in the same house). She traversed Ashdown Forest itself, a protected heathland that looks much as it did when Christopher Robin played there. “Everyone knows the Hundred Acre Wood, it’s a thing,” Aalto says. “You can walk through the landscape and go, ‘Oh my God, this is where it happened!’”
The history of Ashdown Forest – which isn’t wholly forest, to be clear – goes back at least as far as the Romans, who stripped the naturally occurring woodland away to get at the iron beneath. In 1099, William the Conqueror gave Ashdown to his brother as a hunting ground, and anyone caught hunting deer there without royal permission faced painful, even lethal penalties. Commoners stripped the area of bracken – a large, coarse fern – and harvested firewood, while members of the nobility own rights to the topsoil to this day. The entire landscape is manmade, and the heathlands that constitute more than 50 percent of Ashdown grew out of human overuse.
“The heathland is very stark. It’s a beautiful, windswept place,” Aalto says. “If nobody did anything, it would revert to woodland.”
For her fascination with Ashdown, Aalto doesn’t necessarily want parents to read her book to children – if anything, she says, they should be reading the original Milne. Going into excess detail with children about the actual locations behind the Pooh stories could impinge on their imaginations, which she doesn’t want. The Hundred Acre Wood may have been directly inspired by this place, but Aalto doesn’t even let that limit her own imagination: Her sprawling land on the Pacific coast was her family’s “Hundred Acre Wood.” Later, it was the walk-friendly English countryside.
“People want that classic childhood,” Aalto says. “A classic childhood for people is letting their children play outdoors and wander, and we see that in Christopher Robin playing and wandering around.” Milne had this childhood, too, and the Pooh books are based upon both father and son’s experiences on foot, in the woods, deep in imaginative play.
“The original books are field guides to the free-range child,” Aalto says. “I suppose my book can be a field guide to the literary landscape.”
Reach Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet the author
Kathryn Aalto, author of “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest That Inspired Hundred Acre Wood” (Timber Press, 2015), will be speaking at these Triangle events:
▪ 2 p.m. Oct 23, McIntyre’s Books, Fearrington Village, Pittsboro. fearrington.com/village-shops/mcintyres-books/
▪ 4 p.m. Oct 25, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill. flyleafbooks.com
▪ 7 p.m. Oct 27, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh. quailridgebooks.com