April 21, 2020

The Trees of the Hundred Acre Wood

Forget about Coronavirus for a few minutes: read this blog and take a pleasant stroll through a forest of the imagination! Two relatively recent events sent me tumbling back to the childhood of my son, as well as to my own: the 2017 movie Goodbye Christopher Robin and a summer 2018 exhibit at the High Museum of Art, Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic. The showing was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum of London which holds the largest collection of art from the Winnie the Pooh series. We raised our son on Pooh Bear Cartoons ad-nauseum and read the books to him again and again. Some of my earliest memories of childhood are of staring at the pictures on those pages while the stories were read to me, and dreaming of my own adventures with Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Kanga, and Roo in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Never has there been a more perfect blend of story line with art than that of the partnership between the author, A.A. Milne, and the illustrator, E.H. Shepard. Just as we wrestle with our present times and their challenges, Milne and Shepard were both survivors and products of a darker time of our history, The First World War. Milne was an officer, was injured in the Battle of Somme, and afterward wrote propaganda articles for British Intelligence. Shepard was an illustrator prior to the war, enlisted in 1914 in his mid-thirties, and wound up on the front lines, also in the Battle of Somme, sketching the combat zones, also for British Intelligence. The two were introduced, not in the military, but by a mutual acquaintance at Punch, a humor magazine, for which both men worked.

The Hundred Acre Wood of Winnie the Pooh fame is actually modeled from Ashdown Forest, a 6,500-acre tract formerly used for deer hunting about 40 miles southwest of London. An open heathland, it is shadowed by Scots Pine and joining 2 Woods, one of which was the Five Hundred Acre Wood from which the storied place got its name. It was here that Milne was inspired by his young son Christopher Robin’s roaming adventures through the woods with his stuffed animal toys. It was here, too, that the illustrator Shepard drew the immortalized trees of the stories. As was noted in the High Museum exhibit, trees were “very important to Shepard”, who used them to give scale to both the characters and the places. The Scots Pines are represented in the “three Pine trees” in one of Shepard’s sketches. Often the trees take on an unreal enormity when set against the characters in the story. It’s no wonder: the illustrator often drew the trees and forest settings first and then placed the characters among them. The diminutive size of Piglet looking out the window of his home at the flooded woods while Owl perches on one of its branches makes the ancient Beech tree in the picture seem larger than life. Their hunt for a Woozle has Piglet and Pooh following tracks through a thicket of Larch trees. This is not a tree name we hear very much around here: Larch trees are common to more northerly latitudes. The nearest one I have ever seen is in extreme northeastern Tennessee. Larch trees are a conifer, related to the Pine, with several notable differences, the most important being that they shed their needles in the fall. The trees were described by name in the text of the stories. Eeyore stands in the shade of an Alder tree, the leaves sketched to suggest they are rustling in the breeze, as Pooh sits on a rock with his face to the sun.

Not only were specifically named types of trees essential to the adventures of Christopher Robin and Pooh, certain trees were important places in the Hundred Acre Wood. Piglet’s house in the Beech tree is a landmark on the map. Owl’s house, too, is shown in a tree: it is one of Christopher Robin’s favorites, as it seemed to have its “elbow on the ground” allowing the boy to walk along the branch. It also becomes an important part of the story when it falls, displacing the wise bird. Pooh’s favorite tree is likely the “Bee Tree” which he “climbed and climbed” in pursuit of his most favorite commodity – honey.

The photograph of the young Christopher Robin with his stuffed bear finding a playhouse in the cavity of a tree is brought to imaginary life by Shepard in an inspired drawing. Although climbing trees is an underlying theme in a visit with owl or in the pursuit of honey, it also becomes a statement of limitations when Tigger attempts to climb one. In a humorous expression of the moment that Tigger realizes that perhaps he really can’t climb trees, the sketch shows the energetic cat in free fall with Christopher Robin, Pooh, Eeyore, and Piglet ready to catch him in an outstretched blanket.

For myself, this has been a short trip down memory lane, and a fun tribute to the timeless tales of A.A. Milne and the illustrations of E.H. Shepard. I hope that for you it has been a bit of a diversion from the concerns overshadowing the present time. I am grateful to the Atlanta High Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, the Hollywood producers of Goodbye Christopher Robin, Disney, and of course the author and illustrator. Perhaps this will leave you with some warm memories of the Hundred Acre Wood, and perhaps a greater appreciation of your own.

April 21, 2020