Landscape designer and historian, Kathryn Aalto, has created an “amiable field guide” to the Hundred Acre Wood, where Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet once wandered with Christopher Robin.
She talked to Rowena House about the inspiration she finds in nature and her ambition to honour author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard with her book: The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood.
Q. Walking and a love of nature is a classic combination which has inspired writers and poets for centuries. You’re a keen walker as well as a landscape historian. How would you describe the inspiration you find when you immerse yourself in the natural world?
Without a doubt, the natural world has always been my greatest inspiration. I'm passionate about nature as a landscape designer, historian, writer and teacher of literature of nature and place. I'm inspired by big things and small things – rays of light dancing in grasses, disappearing into mist on a rocky coast, inhaling the scent of orange blossoms from my grandparents' garden, which always takes me back to my childhood. Walking the landscape at a poet's pace inspires me, refreshes me and connects me with the people I'm walking with, too.
Q. Helen Macdonald said when she received the Costa Award this year that her memoir, H is for Hawk, is intended as a "love letter to the English countryside and all that we're losing and have lost". Does nostalgia play a part in your love affair with English landscapes?
My love affair with the English landscape is a torrid one, that’s for sure. It's a mix of nostalgia as well as discovery. As an expat from California now living in Devon, I didn't grow up with an ancient network of footpaths as we have here. They’re a revelation. A couple years ago, my family and I walked the Coast to Coast Path from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. The kids had direct exposure to nature: they navigated guidebooks, read maps and searched the landscape for trails. It was a pivotal experience, like A. A. Milne experienced in the 1880s, one he recaptured with Christopher Robin wandering in the Hundred Acre Wood. But in terms of nostalgia, childhood has changed so much since the first Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926. Since then, there’s been a decline in native English meadows by 90%, and children can no longer wander freely like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did. Milne had tremendous freedom to explore and indulge his imagination. Few children enjoy that today. I’m also nostalgic for childhoods before electronic diversions were so prevalent. With so many footpaths in England, there’s always a place for us to walk and explore.
Q. Who are your favourite authors – fiction or non-fiction – and have they influenced your own writing style?
Lyrical, well-crafted, creative non-fiction is my complete literary passion. Using fictional devices – like drawing out scenes, having a presence in a story and close attention to language – makes factual writing come alive. My favourite authors include Barry Lopez who writes exquisite essays, short stories and books about lesser-known landscapes, animals and people's relationships with the natural world. One of the first practitioners in this genre, John McPhee, taught me about exhaustive research and the importance of asking people the same question in fifty different ways to draw out memories and details when I’m interviewing them. And as you mentioned, Helen Macdonald's magnificent H is for Hawk is a dazzling new voice in British nature writing. Of course, I adore A. A. Milne, too. He was far more than a children's author. He was also a playwright, novelist, poet and early screenwriter. His children's stories were written at the height of his career, and his wit, dialogue and the way he draws characters with an economy of words are masterful.
Q. The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood is a very beautiful book. Which bit of bringing new life to such a classic did you love most - and were there any parts that you lost sleep over?
Thank you. I think our designer at Timber Press has created a beautiful and timeless companion to the originals. What I most loved about the process was research: reading the original Pooh manuscripts at Trinity College, Cambridge, tromping around the landscape with a tripod on my back, taking pictures in all seasons, and studying Shepard's drawings. It was also a lot of fun to get to know the “locals” and to meet some of the last people to remember Milne in person. That said, there were a couple times early on when I had doubts about whether or not I could adequately honour Milne's memory. I hope I did.
Q. So what’s the main driver for a work of non-fiction? Do you create a narrative arc or think more in terms of vignettes and episodes?
The book is divided into three sections: the creation of a classic, the origins of the stories, and a natural history of Ashdown Forest where the Hundred Acre Wood is set. The structure and subject matter dictated my “voice”. It’s an amiable, literary field guide to an iconic landscape. Along the way, I did experience some stage fright when I realised how much people around the world cherish these stories; Winnie-the-Pooh is one of the most beloved children's book in the English language. Could I adequately honour the reputations of Milne and his illustrator E. H. Shepard? Finding my own original and apt narrative in relation to Milne's took some thinking about.
Q. And have you ever thought about writing fiction? If so, what genre and age-range would interest you most?
Q. If you had to set a novel in just one landscape, which would you choose: wild or man-made, clifftops or forest perhaps?
When I am designing landscapes, I draw inspiration from wild places. When I’m in wild places, I draw inspiration for my writing. Probably the most intriguing setting for a novel would be a wild secret garden, a long-abandoned garden on a misty coast where nature has taken over again. Monterey pines bent by the wind, wild sweet peas growing over cliffs, the glint of the sun on an ocean where humpback whales breach and orca swim. That's a bit dark, but I like the tension and mystery of nature reclaiming a cultivated space.
Q. That sounds wonderfully atmospheric! So what advice would you offer to fiction writers who might be considering entering the world of non-fiction nature writing?
The idea has got to be right in timing, it has to be fresh, and doing exhaustive research is important. It's also important to give an idea time: to see if you fall in love with each other and there's equal passion. Nature writing is experiencing a renaissance right now, both in the US and the UK. It is more vital than ever to have engaging storytellers to connect people and places, and fiction writers can transfer these techniques to non-fiction.
The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (Timber Press, 2015) will be launched this October at the New York Public Library.