Winnie-the-Pooh was based on a real bear — well, a stuffed bear — and Christopher Robin was a real boy, the son of acclaimed English author A.A. Milne. Pooh and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang, who first appeared as characters in 1926, were based on Christopher Robin’s exceptionally vivid, imaginative adventures with his own stuffed animals.
Before he became a Disney property, Pooh was featured in a couple of books by Milne that unexpectedly captured that magical time in childhood, when one’s imagination (almost literally) comes to life.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hundred Acre Wood, where all of this happened, was also a real place.
That’s the subject of “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” (Timber Press, $24.95), a new book by American landscape designer, historian and writer Kathryn Aalto, who lives in Exeter, England. She became fascinated with Pooh and his friends through reading the stories to her children and began to wonder where they came from.
“The story started at Cotchford Farm, with Christopher Robin playing in an old walnut tree,” Aalto says. “He’s got his stuffed animals there. ‘The Enchanted Place’ is a windswept tree clump at the top of the (nearby Ashdown) forest. When you’re in it, it’s really magical, all dappled light swirling around. Trees are planted close together. You’re in this shady spot, with years and years of Scots pine needles piling up, soft and bouncy in a way.”
Aalto thinks that there’s a lot to be learned from this place, and the timeless values imparted by Pooh and friends.
“I think this is the age of helicopter parenting,” she says. “People do it with good intentions, but they’re starting to realize that they’re depriving children of imaginative play.
“I think nature is a wonderful place for children to go, and there’s a real value in doing ‘nothing,’ as Milne (and Pooh) would put it. I think that nature instills wonder. And for young children, let them play in a protected place, and the natural world wakes up to them. Picking up a butterfly and letting it go — that dust is like pixie dust on the back of my fingers. If children care about animals and the places where they grew up, it will translate to compassionate adults who care about the world. I think it’s healthy for children to get dirty, to have unstructured time to dream, really.”
After an idyllic childhood tramping through Victorian London and its outskirts with his brother, Milne decamped to Ashdown Forest, 36 miles south of London, with his own family, determined to give his son the freedom to wander in the woods and dream.
“The human history in the place makes it hugely different,” Aalto explains. “It’s a plagioclimax landscape, which means it was created by humans, and in order to keep it looking like a heathland, it has to be maintained by humans. William the Conqueror landed in Hastings and took control of this area, and set it aside as a royal hunting ground. A pale (border) was put around it, and you couldn’t do anything with it. Then, commoners (people not of nobility or priesthood), farmers, would take bracken as bedding for animals, topsoil, wood for fires — really stripped down the landscape over centuries. Then, this heathland has emerged.”
Only about a third of it is dense forest.
“It’s not like a forest in an American sense,” Aalto says. “It’s a bit of wild, open heathland, and not-really-gigantic trees, Scots pines, that are gangly and punctuate the landscape in clusters. There are eight tree clumps in the forest that were deliberately planted.
“In September, it’s this purple heather, this beautiful sweeping heathland. I’ve been stung in the bum by gorse (a spiny, yellow-flowered shrub), just like Pooh. It’s stingy and sharp.”
Aalto marvels that it hasn’t been turned into a theme park. The nearby town, Hartfield, East Sussex, hosts only one Pooh-themed gift shop. Aside from running into a grown man in a Tigger onesie on the trail, she found next to no indicators of its fictional heritage. Even the stone Milne memorials are semi-hidden in the forest.
“There’s one sign that says ‘Path to Pooh Bridge,’” Aalto says. “This landscape is home to some of the rarest animals in Europe — nightjars, Dartford Warblers. It’s the largest continuous heathland in England. It’s a really important ecosystem. People are fascinated by it. It’s not preserved because it’s Winnie-the-Pooh country, it’s because it’s a rare heathland. You wouldn’t know when you’re there that it’s Winnie-the-Pooh country.”
Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.
Winnie was real
The 90th anniversary of the first Pooh book’s publication has inspired another book, “Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear,” illustrated by Sophie Blackall and written by Lindsay Mattick, which this week won the Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association for best illustrated children’s book. The book tells the story of Winnie, a real bear rescued by Capt. Harry Colebourn en route to the battlefields of World War I. Later taken by Colebourn to the London Zoo, Winnie was befriended by a boy named Christopher Robin, who then named his stuffed bear Winnie the Pooh. The rest is literary history.
Other bears we love
It’s tough to find a more loveable bear than Winnie-the-Pooh. But he’s not the only bear we love to spend time with. Some worth mentioning:
The Berenstain Bears: Since their 1962 debut in “The Big Honey Hunt,” the family of Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister and Honey have appeared in more than 300 children’s books, written by Stan and Jan Berenstain (and later by their son, Mike). The family of bears live “in a big treehouse down a sunny dirt road,” and storylines often revolve around simple ideas — from going for a ride on the train to the golden rule.
Smokey Bear: What American child doesn’t know that “only you can prevent forest fires”? Created in 1944, Smokey’s first poster depicted him — in his trademark ranger’s hat — pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The USDA Forest Service wildfire prevention mission is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in the country’s history. Smokey’s likeness is even protected by U.S. Federal Law.
Yogi Bear: The mischievous bear, who is always trying to escape from Jellystone Park or land himself a pic-a-nic basket (with the help of his lovable pal Boo Boo), came on the scene in 1958 as one of three segments on Hanna-Barbera’s “Huckleberry Hound Show.”
Baby Bear: The cute “Sesame Street” character, who pronounces his R’s as W’s, was first seen in 1990, but didn’t get named as Baby Bear until the following year. Later, he was given parents and a younger sister, Curly.
Fozzie Bear: The orange-brown Muppet, infamously known as a terrible stand-up comic, was performed by puppeteer Frank Oz on “The Muppet Show” (1976-81). While his material is vaudeville terrible, his 100 percent effort makes him undeniably loveable. He has appeared in nearly every Muppet film and TV show, including the animated “Muppet Babies” (1984-91).
Paddington Bear: The famed British bear is the creation of writer Michael Bond. In 1956, Bond noticed a lone teddy bear on a shelf in a London store near Paddington Station. It took him just over a week to write “A Bear Called Paddington,” which was published in 1958, with illustrations by Peggy Fortnum. Paddington is kindhearted and very proper, but always seems to get himself in to trouble. His 1970s British TV series was a neat mix of 2-D and 3-D stop-motion animation. A 2015 film grossed $259 million worldwide.
Snuggle: The mascot for a fabric softener, the extremely cuddly (and we assume soft) Snuggle was created in 1983 by the Unilever company as a way to pitch its product in women’s magazines. Snuggle was first voiced by Corinne Orr, the woman who voiced Trixie and all other female voices in the English-dubbed version of the 1970s “Speed Racer” cartoon.
Baloo: The bear who protects Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” written in 1894, was re-created as a singing, dancing, fun-loving character in Disney’s 1967 version. He was voiced by Phil Harris. The character has appeared in a sequel, several animated shorts and a live-action film. Bill Murray is set to vioce the character in a 2016 live-action movie.