Editor’s Note: Recent research has suggested that, in recent decades, images of nature and nonhuman animals have become less common in children’s books. But by encouraging children to read classic and new works of literature that inspire the nature connection, parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians can still help make sure that Christopher Robin isn’t the last child in the woods. — Richard Louv
The Hundred Acre Wood is one of the most iconic settings in children’s literature. This is the magical place where Christopher Robin and his famous chums — Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo — have their tender adventures in A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.
These classic stories sweep us up in a wave of nostalgia: Pooh getting stuck in the entrance to Rabbit’s house after eating too much honey. Eeyore losing his tail and Pooh finding Owl has been using it as a bell pull. Piglet and Pooh catching Woozles and Heffalumps, playing Poohsticks, going on a Expotition to find the North Pole. And many more tales of imaginative play in the natural world.
However, few of us know that the Hundred Acre Wood is an actual place in England. It is called Ashdown Forest. Located 30 miles south of London, the 6,400 acres of open heathland and atmospheric woodlands there still look much as E. H. Shepard drew them: trails and streams wind like ribbons through tall bracken, yellow gorse and purple heather where rare flora and fauna take refuge.
The books were a phenomenal success when they were published in 1926 and 1928 and have sold more than twenty million copies. The stories continue to grow in popularity and have taken on even greater meaning in this age of digital landscapes replacing real ones as playgrounds for our children.
In fact, Milne’s iconic stories are far more than a boy wandering the landscape without adults. They were inspired by Milne’s own golden memories of his extraordinary childhood in the natural world. Born in 1882, his childhood was so memorable that two-thirds of his autobiography, It’s Too Late Now, is devoted to recalling his earliest years.
Particularly with his brother Ken, the young Alan Alexander Milne rambled over a range of English landscapes. Their parents gave their three sons a most wonderful gift: a childhood of aimless wandering. Even as babies, Milne said, “We were allowed to go [for] walks by ourselves anywhere, in London or in the country, but we kept to the rules and [Papa] knew he could trust us.” His gentle and intuitive father, also his headmaster, would tell him, “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 always free.” They kept to the rules because they wanted to please their parents.
Expeditions and explorations defined their boyhoods. With long blond hair, the boys looked like twins and were together conspirators, adventurers and collectors. “We were inseparable,” Milne recalled, as they caught toads, collected butterflies and wielded geological hammers on the rural Finchley Road, now a major thoroughfare in London. They collected eggs from hedgerows. At dawn without waking their parents, they drove fiery iron hoops through the sleeping streets of Victorian London.
The boys were fantastic walkers, and Milne’s first published writing (in his school newspaper) was an account of an 18-mile walk he took as an eight year-old near and in Ashdown Forest, the landscape that he would later immortalize.
A young H. G. Wells, the future father of science fiction with The War of the Worlds, was his first science teacher and he arranged for boxes of wildflowers sent to the school for the boys to learn botany. During his boarding school days, his mother Sarah would send the boys care packages of flower bouquets gathered from her garden. In later years, dahlias, especially, gave Milne “a nostalgia almost unbearable.”
Milne wanted to give his son, born in 1920, the same kind of freedom in the natural world that he enjoyed. He and his wife Daphne bought Cotchford Farm on the edge of Ashdown Forest in 1925.
A year later, Winnie-the-Pooh was published. All art is autobiographical and the stories loved by generations are no exception: Milne’s warm memories of childhood, observing his son play with his stuffed animals and walking in the wild Ashdown Forest, the Five Hundred Acre Wood and Posingford Wood were the inspiration for the stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood.
We can look to the natural surroundings and see where the stories had their origins. A key feature at the entrance to Cotchford Farm was an ancient walnut. It was a big tree with a great gash down in its trunk. What might a child think?
For five year-old Christopher Robin, it was irresistible — a magical hideaway. Small, dark and enclosed spaces appeal to children as the world around them can seem very big. Tree hollows and tree houses — where most of the animals live in the Pooh stories — provide retreats away from the watchful eyes of parents and have the same appeal as tents, teepees and forts.
And this is where Christopher Robin Milne, in his autobiography, said Winnie-the-Pooh originated, with a father delighting in his young son’s play. Many stories originated in the gardens at Cotchford Farm as well as the greater landscape where Milne and his family walked. These include Owl’s House, the Heffalump Trap, Rabbit’s House, the Enchanted Place, Eeyore’s House, the Bee Tree and Poohsticks Bridge.
Next time you read Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner to your kids or grandchildren (or to yourself!), feel comforted knowing a wild heathland of golden gorse and purple heathers inspired the stories, along with memories of the author’s extraordinary freedom. Classic works of literature such as these endure because we continue to learn from them over time.
As we approach the 90th Anniversary of the books of Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin’s adventures remind us more than ever that a “classic childhood” involves direct contact with the natural world.
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