Wonder for the Outdoors

The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, by Kathryn Aalto image: Timber Press
The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, by Kathryn Aalto
image: Timber Press

Book Review of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto

Although I have read Winnie-the-Pooh and grew up watching the Disney movies, a book on the forest that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh seemed a stretch for design application, even with children’s outdoors environments. But it isn’t. Winnie-the-Pooh’s 100 Acre Forest was based on the real Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Preservationists have kept it much the same as it was when A.A. Milne wrote the stories so it can be visited today. Kathryn Aalto’s approach to her subject is nuanced and thorough. It provides a perfect case study for children spending time in nature.

Divided into three parts, the book starts with a short biography of A.A. Milne and the illustrator E.H. Shepard as well as the creation of the story. The youngest and most precocious of three sons, Milne could identify words before age three. With two parents who were teachers and the nature around Hampstead in the late 1800s, he thrived. His father told the children, “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.” [2] It is hard to imagine the breadth of the territory that he explored with his nine-year-old brother as they wandered through the British countryside. The text includes Milne’s essay on their three-day walking tour through the country and villages. This narrative fits well with Louise Chawla’s research that most people who care about the environment had either an adult modeling a love of nature or spent extensive time in nature as a child. [1] Milne had both.

Poohsticks Bridge image: Ken Kennedy via Flickr
Poohsticks Bridge
image: Ken Kennedy via Flickr

One other phrase that appears several times is the word ‘sensitive’ to describe Milne and Shepard. A quote from a newspaper at that time says of Milne: “Like nearly all men of great humorous gifts, he is exceedingly sensitive and intuitive.” [2] Shepard’s illustrations are also noted as warm and empathetic. In many ways, it is the collaboration of the art and the written word that elevates the children’s classic to greatness. It puts in mind the traits of a highly sensitive person as described by Dr. E. N. Aron. [3]

The second part of the book explores Ashdown Forest and the autobiographies written by Milne and Christopher Robin, his son. Several places in the stories are linked to places that can be visited today, while others are archetypes inspired by the forest in a more general sense. Here the depth of Aalto’s research shines. She shares excerpts from both autobiographies with extended quotes and original illustrations from stories in Winnie-the-Pooh or The House at Pooh Corner. Combined with thoughtful photography from her visits to Ashdown Forest, a satisfyingly whole picture emerges of the classic’s creation.

Clump of pines in Ashdown Forest image: Graham via Flickr
Clump of pines in Ashdown Forest
image: Graham via Flickr

The final section looks at the backdrop and legacy of the stories. The history of this part of England is interesting in itself. More an open heathland than a densely wooded forest, the land is heavily maintained to retain its current state. The maintenance happened for centuries with the rights of the “common man” to harvest wood, sustain livestock, and so forth. Today it is kept more intentionally by volunteers for the value to culture and wildlife. This conservation approach is a major reason that we can experience Ashdown Forest much the same as Milne did in the 1920s. Aalto covers the geology, plants, and birds with the subtle details of one familiar with the forest.

On page 234, there is an endearing photograph of a young tawny owl. Later in the book, she describes how she had found three of these owls sitting on an oak and that two had flown off right away. But, she captured the last one with her camera. Her close study of the site is likely a major factor behind the book’s insight. She credits some of her thoroughness to the fact that United Kingdom provides a legal right to walk through property, unlike the United States. Ultimately, her work underscores the intrinsic value of nature to childhood and the creative spirit.

Open space in Ashdown Forest image: Peter Westwood via Flickr
Open space in Ashdown Forest
image: Peter Westwood via Flickr


[1] Tai, Lolly, Mary Taylor Haque, Gina K. McLellan, and Erin Jordan Knight. Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping School Yards, Gardens and Playgrounds. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2006: 16.

[2] Aalto, Kathyrn. The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk through the Forest That Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2015: 41.

[3] Sofie, Boterberg, and Warreyn Petra. “Making sense of it all: The impact of sensory processing sensitivity on daily functioning of children.” Personality and Individual Differences, no. 92 (2016): 80-86: 80.

Lisa Horne, ASLA, is a project director at RVi in Dallas, Texas, and past co-chair of the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environment Professional Practice Network. She may be reached at lhorne (at) rviplanning.com.

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