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Q&A with Kathryn Aalto!

Kathryn Aalto author of The Natural World of Winnie the Pooh recently made the New York Times Best Selling list and will be visiting Gilbert White & The Oates Collections on the 25th May to give a talk at the Gilbert White Field Studies Centre.

The natural World of Winnie the Pooh

Join Kathryn for a visually-rich journey into one of the most iconic settings in children’s literature: the Hundred Acre Wood, in East Sussex, known as Ashdown Forest. This is where A. A. Milne lived and set the tender adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh and his band of friends. Learn about Milne’s extraordinary childhood in the natural world and how he and illustrator E. H. Shepard became the Lennon-McCartney of children’s literature. Discover the real places that inspired the stories as well as the rare flora and fauna of the forest. Leave with a new understanding of how the Winnie-the-Pooh books are now, more than ever, field guides for the free range child, a hymn to those days of doing nothing — yet learning everything.

Kathryn Aalto is an American writer, designer, historian and lecturer living in Exeter, England. For the past twenty-five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. She is also the author of Nature and Human Intervention (2011). She lectures on literary landscapes and garden topics around the world.

Q: What inspired you to write The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh?
A: The book actually began nearly ten years ago when I moved to England with my husband and three children for his new job as a university professor. As I flew over the quilted Devon landscape of ancient hedgerows and green hills, it looked to me like Teletubby Land. I’m from the American West and worry set in. How in the world, I thought, would I raise my kids in a land that was so foreign and claustrophobic — the opposite of the vast open spaces I was used to. We’d just left our own Hundred Acre Wood, a beautiful farm of meadows, woods and salmon-spawning stream in the Pacific Northwest. I was heartsick and jetlagged. In that first week stumbling into English life, I came across a book on walking in England, and before the jetlag wore off, we had clocked in around 20 miles on public footpaths. These were a revelation, and still are: we have a legal right to roam and this ancient network of footpaths tap into something I find important about traversing the landscape. At the same time, I was also reading classic children’s literature aloud to my children to ground them in the big trans-Atlantic move. Amongst the books was A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories. One thing led to another and The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh originated from two simple questions: Is there a Hundred Acre Wood and can we walk there?

Q: This fall marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first Winnie-the-Pooh book. Why do you think it is one of the most beloved of children’s books?
A: Classic books have timeless themes. The best books gain new cultural meaning and broaden in relevance as time goes by. You could say that A. A. Milne and his illustrator E. H. Shepard were also the Lennon-McCartney of their time: their collaboration in words and illustrations were pitch-perfect and summed up the soul of childhood. The tender adventures of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and their friends captured the classic innocence, wonder, and freedom of childhood. They also capture that time of magical thinking in our lives, when we believe our stuffed animals are real. We never forget those fleeting times of life.

Q: How much did the Winnie-the-Pooh books draw on real people and places?
A. Christopher Robin was Daphne and A.A. Milne’s only child. Many of the stories in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are inspired by Christopher Robin Milne’s explorations in the natural world around his home. The Hundred Acre Wood is the fictional name for the real Ashdown Forest and the Five Hundred Acre Wood, where he played in woods, streams, and heathlands. Landscapes are living and breathing, so rivers meander, trees fall down, fires pass through but Ashdown Forest still feels like walking through E. H. Shepard illustrations. Places you can still visit include Poohsticks Bridge, The Enchanted Place, Roo’s Sandy Pit, the North Pole, Galleon’s Lap and more. The majestic beeches where Christopher Robin played in the 1920s inspired Owl’s House, but blew down in a ferocious windstorm in the 1940s. Cotchford Farm, their home, is still there and beautifully preserved, and that’s where A. A. Milne watched his son play in an ancient walnut tree. That particular tree inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. The stream nearby inspired other stories as well.
Q: What did you discover in your own wanderings in Ashdown Forest?
Ashdown Forest is a fascinating ancient place with a rich cultural history that shapes the landscape we see today. From Mesolithic hunters to Anglo-Saxon drovers, from coppice workers to Roman iron manufacturing, and from kings and commoners to today’s conservators, the landscape has been used by man. It is what you call a “plagioclimax” landscape. This means it is man-made and man-maintained. If forest rangers didn’t bring in nibblers (Hebridean sheep, Exmoor ponies, Galloway cows) and cut down trees, it would revert to woodland. Because it is now a coveted heathland attracting rare flora and fauna, it is highly protected. It’s a real gem in the crown of nature in southern England.

Q: Why do you think exploring the natural world is important?
There is great value in play, especially outdoor play as it ignites the senses. These days there is concern amongst parents and educators about children’s lack of time in real landscapes and the rise of time in digital landscapes (iPads, video games, smart phones, computers). From Washington, D. C. to Los Angeles, I have heard this concern in my talks around the country. It’s one of the reasons, I think, my book is resonating. Once people learn about A. A. Milne’s childhood, and the same he gave to his son Christopher Robin, the more they realize how times have changed. Milne would not recognize modern childhood. Nature is the ultimate sensory experience: psychological and physical health improves for children when they spend time outside on a regular basis. You can see how schools are working now to offset nature-deficit disorder with the creation of school gardens, forest schools, green schoolyards, naturalized playgrounds. It’s important for schools and parents to give children opportunities for imaginative play outdoors. Designing and planting a garden, going for evening walks, monitoring use of digital media — these are as important as saying, “Eat your broccoli!”

Q: What other children’s books inspired you as a child (or now as an adult)?
I adore Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and my teenagers still enjoy me reading it aloud. Heavy in nostalgia with the pastoral England as the setting, the tales of the anthropomorphised animals Mole, Toad, Badger and Rat are so endearing. I’m particularly fond of the atmospheric realism of the edition illustrated by Inga Moore. As a child, I was also inspired by classics my mother gave me to read, and those she read aloud, such as Brer Rabbit, Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web. One of the great joys of parenting has been reading aloud and suggesting titles, new and old, for my kids to read as they grow up.
Q: Did you have a special place to explore as a child?
One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is wearing a summer dress my grandmother made and looking for ladybugs as tall native grass brushed against my legs. I vividly remember those middle childhood years on Lemon Avenue in the San Joaquin Valley. I grew up mid-way between Yosemite National Park and San Francisco. As a girl, I was surrounded by peach, walnut and almond orchards (though curiously, no lemons). My father was a high school agriculture teacher and designed gardens on the side. The big vegetable gardens he planted every year were fascinating little worlds: tomatoes cascaded over cages taller than me, and I’d observe eggplant, corn and peppers grow from seed to bursting with colourful purple, yellow and red produce in the hot California sun. My siblings, friends and I played follow-the-leader around beehives, played in the mud of irrigated orchards, climbed cherry trees and rode bikes up and down Lemon Avenue.

The natural World of Winnie the Pooh