Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Natural World Of Winnie-the-Pooh

Nowhere, Just Out Playing

A serendipitous meeting of two thoughtful literary texts occured this week for me. Such was the case when I attended a book reading at Village Books, our wonderful local independent bookstore. Then, days after, I listened to an eloquent poetry reading by my lovely friend, Linda Conroy. They both touched my inner child.

The author at Village Books was Kathryn Aalto and I listened with some interest as she spoke about her New York Times bestseller hardcover, The Natural World Of Winnie-the Pooh. Aalto has master’s degrees in garden history and creative nonfiction with a particular interest in literary landscapes. Much of the book is devoted to the flora and fauna of Ashdown forest and the Hundred Acre Wood—the pristine natural setting of the most popular children’s book in history. I was about to escape out the back of the presentation when Ms. Aalto said, “In closing, I’d like to read a bit from my introduction.” What she recited spellbound me…

Since Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner were published in 1926 and 1928, they have taken on greater meaning. We value the books for simple expressions of empathy, friendship, and kindness. The stories are classics as they express enduring values and open our hearts and minds to help us live well. But as I read about Milne and walked around England with my children, I saw how they tell another story: the degree to which the nature of childhood has changed in the ninety years since Milne wrote the stories. There is less freedom to let children roam and explore their natural and urban environments. There are more digital distractions for our children that keep them indoors and immobile, and heightened parental fears that do so as well.
At a time when there is so much talk about nature-deficit disorder, rising childhood obesity levels, reduced school recess, and overprotected childhoods, these stories and illustrations remind us of the joy in letting our children explore the natural world and the importance of imaginative play away from the eyes of parents. The real and imagined places of the Hundred Acre Woods are tender touchstones for the precious time of childhood. Milne’s books remind us that aimless wandering and doing Nothing is actually a very big Something for little ones.”

Poohsticks Bridge

Milne was a writer who showed his keen sense of wit through word play and silly plot twists. He was also a loving father to Christopher Robin, just as his father had been to him and his two brothers. Milne’s dad was a teacher—as was his mother. They provided a warm, affectionate, and stimulating home life—intuitive and gentle—understanding what was needed for the boys to thrive. Plus, Milne’s dad was funny! And their parents gave the boys a most wonderful gift: the freedom to meander with plenty of time to conjure up imaginative play.

Hi honey bee...

Kathryn Aalto asks the reader: 

Who can say where anybody’s thoughtful spot really is? For Pooh, it was in a stream somewhere and nowhere in particular in Ashdown Forest.” 

She concludes, “Find a stream where there are rocks worn smooth by water, sit down, listen to the water flow, and there! You have your own Thought Spot.” 

These simple yet profound words by Aalto capture the essence of Milne’s delicious way with words. All noticers, listeners, thinkers, writers, and gentle souls can relate. My own Thoughtful Spots throughout my life, and those my daughter and I shared, in nature—almost always near water—speak to a universal truth... life is most enjoyed by letting go of both the past and the future, and rather, living in the most precious time of all—the here and now. That ‘secret’ is what young children do so very well. And a few lucky adults are able to retain that enlightenment.

There is a lot of life in every moment if you slow your pace, look, and listen!

Milne, as Aalto points out so well,  used images of water in much of his most poetic descriptions—much of it compassionate of the transition from childhood to adult.

  •         He watched the river slipping away beneath him—he then suddenly knew everything that there was to be known

  •         The stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly

  •      All the little streams higher up in the Forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late

  •          Little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done

Clearly, Milne understands children with a delicate sensitivity of not just childhood—but of life itself.  He wrote of “long thoughtful shadows” in enchanted places. This expresses the free-range outdoor play that transcends boredom, spinning quickly into inventiveness—when sticks become boats and woods convert to castles.

It may be time for a little bit of something...

I asked my friend Linda, to read some of her poetry at a variety show I had organized. She has a transcendent British voice that supplements the images within her poetry. Upon hearing this poem, I directly thought of it as an exquisite match to Kathryn Aalto’s book, The Natural World Of Winnie-the Pooh. Enjoy:

Child’s Play  

Child’s play might seem aimless, misconstrued
but note the young one’s wandering mind,  
connections made and understood
stored away for future good while
moving on to other things, swinging
on the garden gate, a ramble through
the further field, a word with rooster
on the hen house roof, then squat to watch
the snail in the grass, then wander home
and mother asks where have you been.
Nowhere, just out playing and I’ve met                    
a moth named Wing, a bud called Bloom

Linda Conroy

To living in the present,

Papa Green Bean