“Happy may be all very well, Eeyore, but it doesn’t butter any parsnips.” ~ Rabbit
Everyone should have their own hundred-acre wood like Christopher Robin and his imaginary friends. It would be wonderful to own the woods, but that’s a bit much for all of us to own. At least, you should have a hundred-acre wood that you can easily visit and walk and really get to know.
I have such a wood. It’s a 15-minute walk from my front door. It is actually 157.19 acres. There’s a reservoir on one side that can pass for a lake, a road alongside the edge of a cliff, and a small mountainside park.
It was an acreage gifted to the New Jersey county of Essex (which does sound English) with the stipulation being that it be preserved in its natural state. All that’s changed is a small parking area and some trails that were actually part of a minimal design by the Olmsted Brothers.
I like to walk to the Quarry Point scenic lookout. Spring and fall are good times to watch migratory hawks there. On today’s winter walk, it was quite empty of people. No bears or other creatures except in the imagination.
I was browsing at a bookstore during the week and I came across Return to the Hundred Acre Wood in the Pooh section. I didn’t recognize that title as part of the Pooh books. That’s because it was written by David Benedictus as the first official post-Milne Pooh book written with the full backing of A. A. Milne’s estate.
Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore (and one new character, Lottie the Otter) return to Christopher Robin’s wood.
It has nice illustrations by Mark Burgess who also worked on new versions of another famous bear named Paddington.
It has been more than 80 years since Christopher Robin said goodbye to Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood and now he returns from boarding school.
It is similar to the originals but not the same thing. It has ten stories, like the originals, but I don’t think I like this older Christopher. Would A.A. Milne have wanted them to ever grow any older?
A.A. Milne was born in 1882. He graduated from Cambridge, became Assistant Editor at Punch, a classic British humor magazine, got married, enlisted when World War I began, started writing and had his first play produced in London in 1917 and was considered a witty and fashionable London playwright.
In 1920, his son, Christopher Robin Milne was born and when Christopher was three, while they were on holiday Milne began work on a collection of verses for children which was published as When We Were Very Young in 1924. The characters were based on his son’s stuffed animals (except for Owl and Rabbit) and the bear was called Edward.
I saw that this past week (January 18) was the birthday of A.A. Milne, most famously the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. The Pooh books have been favorites of mine since childhood and have had a revival in my life since the appearance of grandchildren.
Milne was a complicated person famous for simply-written stories. His own life was more complex. Like many famous men I have admired, he was, unfortunately, a poor father.
He was born in London in 1882. H.G. Wells was once his schoolteacher. Alan Alexander Milne went to Trinity College on a mathematics scholarship, but he preferred the less practical path of writing. At that stage, he was writing light verses and plays.
He considered himself a lifelong pacifist. But he enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and worked in the Royal Corps of Signals in WWI.
He was also solidly an atheist. He said that “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycles, and golf courses.”
He wrote for the British humor magazine Punch. He played cricket on a team with Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan).
Pooh wasn’t his first publication. He had written several plays – Mr. Pim Passes By and Toad of Toad Hall.
While on holiday with his son, Christopher Robin, he started to write some verses about Christopher’s stuffed animals. The main character was a teddy bear his son called “Edward the Bear.”
The verses grew into stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood, which was his version of the Ashdawn Forest where they went on holidays. Winnie-the-Pooh was first featured in a Christmas story, “The Wrong Side of Bees,” published in the London Evening News in December of 1925. Fans of Pooh will recognize which chapter in the book that story became.
In six years, Winnie-the-Pooh was a million-dollar business.
Milne wasn’t happy that the “bear of very little brain” overshadowed any other writing he did, particularly if he tried to be more serious. Doyle and Barrie could identify with that writer’s trap.
Christopher Robin was also not a fan of Pooh as he grew older. He blamed the characters for making his father famous and distant from him. It took most of his life to reconcile his relationship with the character and fame. He never really reconciled with his parents. (More on that here.)
Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) are now considered classics of children’s literature though still read by adults. (Though Amazon lists 13 Pooh books.)
Elsewhere I have written that Pooh’s world is philosophically a good personification of wu wei and pu. I’m sure Milne had no idea about this or intended it. Wu wei is a Taoist concept of “effortless doing” your work and life.
The homophone of pu is also Taoist and the Chinese word that means “unworked wood” or “simple.” Philosophically, this is a metaphor for the natural state of humanity. This “beginner’s mind” is open to, but unburdened by, experience.
I read that Posingford Bridge, otherwise known as Poohsticks Bridge, was up for sale. Located in Ashdown Forest in England, it was a place where author A.A. Milne and his son, the real-life Christopher Robin, would go to play a game they called Pooh Sticks. It is the simplest of games. You put a stick in the water upstream, then go to the other side and watch it comew3 out from under the bridge and sail away. The game appears in the Winnie the Pooh stories.
I played Pooh Sticks with my sons on the bridge at our local library, and we read all the Pooh books. I still had my own childhood copies of the Milne books and some newer simplified versions for younger readers.
Pooh’s birthday just passed on August 21st. It is also the real Christopher Robin’s birthday. What a nice coincidence. The stories about Christopher Robin and his toys (His toy Edward Bear became Winnie the Pooh in the books) that became his father’s stories seem like such a nice series of tales. I made up stories about Peter Rabbit and his friends and family for my oldest son at bedtime. For my younger son, the stories were about Curious George. The stories closely paralleled my sons’ lives day to day., and I’m sure I was partially inspired to do this by what I imagined had happened in the Milne household between father and son.
But the real-life Christopher Robin and his father didn’t have as loving a relationship as Pooh and Christopher. Alan Alexander Milne was not Pooh or Piglet. Definitely not Tigger. Maybe a little bit Eeyore. He wasn’t warm and snuggly and was often absent from their home. His mother dressed him in “girlish” clothes and kept his hair very long – both styles that didn’t help him in his earliest school days.
Christopher Robin also had a love-hate relationship with his fictional version. That was true when the books became famous and he was maturing and it continued into adulthood.
Christopher wrote a memoir, The Enchanted Places, and in that book he writes, “At home I still liked him, indeed felt at times quite proud that I shared his name and was able to bask in some of his glory. At school, however, I began to dislike him, and I found myself disliking him more and more the older I got.”
Theirs is not a very happy story and though he did come to terms with his relationships with his father and the character, it didn’t happen until after his father’s death.
The fourth and final Pooh title is The House at Pooh Corner, published in 1928 when Christopher was 8 years old. The entire series of books was a bestseller worldwide by then. The more popular the books, the more Christopher disliked them. He was teased at school and it was no better when he was put into boarding school at age 9.
He saw his father on school breaks, but when he went on to Cambridge University and served in World War II, their relationship was distanced physically and emotionally. After the war, he finished his degree and in his mid-twenties didn’t know quite what to do with his life.
Christopher married at age 27 his first cousin, Lesley. His parents did not approve. The couple moved to Dartmouth and opened The Harbour Bookshop together.
Though he occasionally visited his father when the elder Milne became ill, after his father died in 1956, Christopher never returned to Cotchford Farm. The farm near the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex was a place the family went on holidays from London. It is the real-life Hundred Acre Woods of the books and that’s where Pooh’s walnut tree home and the bridge were located.
His mother sold the farm and his father’s personal possessions, and Christopher wanted no part of his father’s things or royalties from the books. Sadly, after Alan’s death, his mother, Daphne Milne, had almost no contact with her only child and did not see him at all during the last 15 years of her life. She refused to see him on her deathbed.
A few months after his father’s death, Christopher and Lesley had a daughter Clare. She was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy but lived into her mid-50s.
Christopher Milne gave the original stuffed animals that inspired the Pooh characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, and Kanga – to the book series editor, who in turn donated them to the New York Public Library. Christopher did not like the commercialization of the Pooh books and characters. The toys went back and forth from the U.S. to England a number of times. The collection was professionally cleaned and preserved in 2015 and returned to the Children’s Room at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library on Bryant Park.
Christopher Milne died in April 1996 at age 75. He had lived with myasthenia gravis for some years.
I saw a reference on this windy March day to the “blustery day” from A.A. Milne’s Pooh books and it had an illustration of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Tigger getting blown into the air in a clearly delightful way.
That got me thinking back to a book I “reviewed” back in 2011 called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Motherback in 2011 when it was getting a lot of attention lately. I picked up the book at the library because I had seen it on the cover of Time magazine. I never did finish reading it.
But perhaps the titles do tell us something of the way she raised her children and the way she was raised. The book and author are rather proudly “politically incorrect” (by American standards) about the “Chinese way” of raising children.
It had gotten a lot of criticism, especially from the Western parents that it criticizes. A Wall Street Journal piece titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” got more than a million reads and thousands of comments and when the author was on the usually lightweight Today show, host Meredith Vieira was clearly on the critical side.
You can find excerpts from the book online if you’re curious. One example that rubs many parents the wrong way is that she turned a simple piano piece into forced practice for her 7-year-old daughter that ran “right through dinner into the night,” with no bathroom or breaks for food or drinks until she learned it. Does it bother you that she would call her daughter Sophia “garbage” for being disrespectful? (Chua’s father did it to her all the time.) She threw back a handmade birthday card at her daughter saying, “I deserve better than this.”
Chua has said that “To be perfectly honest, I know that a lot of Asian parents are secretly shocked and horrified by many aspects of Western parenting.” She is baffled by our willingness to let our kids waste hours on games, television, Facebook, and other things. And she can point to research that supports some of her ideas, such as that American parents do too much insulating of their children from the discomfort and distress of everyday life.
I taught in the K-12 world for 25 years in a wealthy school district that had a large Asian population. About a third of my students were Chinese and Korean and I certainly came face to face with their parents. Chua writes that these parents “assume strength, not fragility, and as a result, they behave very differently.” That was true of the parents I met in conferences that were always about grades.
One father told me that he believed that all children could be “A” students – it was just a question of how much time and work was needed. “My daughter might only need to study two hours for an A. My son might need 10 hours.”
I believed that not everyone could be a top student or a great musician or athlete. I think realizing that is also a part of growing up. Despite my childhood dreams, I was not to be the shortstop on the NY Yankees no matter how many hours I practiced. I don’t think even a Chinese mother could have made me an NBA forward or a Nobel prize-winning mathematician or even have gotten me to score an “A” in calculus.
If protected kids don’t have to deal with difficult tasks on their own, will they be unable to develop what psychologists call “mastery experiences?”
Does the dreaded “drill and kill” repetition style of learning also kill creativity?
“… if you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic. Your brain will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it. Once this happens, the brain has made mental space for higher-order operations: for interpreting literary works, say, and not simply decoding their words; for exploring the emotional content of a piece of music, and not just playing the notes. Brain scans of experimental subjects who are asked to execute a sequence of movements, for example, show that as the sequence is repeated, the parts of the brain associated with motor skills become less active, allowing brain activity to shift to the areas associated with higher-level thinking and reflection.”
Sounds like the drill work is a good thing, right?
As a teacher and as a parent, I can see some valid points in her approach. There are definitely some children who need very strict boundaries, rules, and consequences, at least at some times.
Still, I am glad that I didn’t have a Tiger Mom. I’m glad that I was encouraged to explore things and go out and play for hours and hours and try new things and give up on them so that I could try other things. I’m happy with the way I turned out.
In Milne’s Pooh books, you have models of different ways of approaching life. Tigger is on the crazy, anything for fun extreme, but there is also wise Owl
I raised my sons the same basic way, though probably with more psychology and ambition included than my own parents. But I was definitely more of a Tigger Dad. I wanted to bounce around, watch movies, try, fail and then try again and try new things as much as they did. And I am very happy with the men they became.
It intrigued me in my adult life to discover that A.A. Milne was a pretty lousy father. His son Christopher, who owned Edward Bear and is the model for the fictional Christopher Robin, came to hate his father. He found his father’s fame a kind of torture. There was a bitter rift between the two men that never healed and has been documented in books and films. take a look at Christopher Robin and Goodbye Christopher Robin. Ann Thwaite’s A. A. Milne biography was the inspiration for the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.
Readers and critics have gone much deeper than just viewing the Pooh books as children’s literature. Too deep, perhaps.
But is Christopher Robin a schizophrenic, and his “friends” are simply manifestations of his moods?
Tigger does seem to suffer from ADHD and a case of “risk-taking behaviors” causing him to be very impulsive and willing to try just about anything.
Piglet has an acute case of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and self-esteem issues.
Kanga is British but like many American moms is perpetually over-protective of her little Roo.
The voice of reason and intelligence, Owl, seems unable to spell out words, and his misspelled words hint of dyslexia.
I always liked Eeyore but he is the most obviously in need of therapy for his depressive disorder and “chronic dysthymia.”
Poor Rabbit has some OCD and an odd sense of his importance that doesn’t often match that of his friends.
Just before he died, the real Christopher reported that he had at least come to terms with his love-hate relationship with Winnie-the-Pooh, if not his father. He said that “Believe it or not, I can look at those four books without flinching. I’m quite fond of them really.”
The Pooh books of A.A. Milne had their influence on me when I was slipping into being a teenager. They were not books of my childhood. A girl friend who I wanted to be a girlfriend was a big fan of Pooh and so I started reading them. My relationship with Milne has lasted a lot longer than my relationship with that girl.
I always thought there was something wise in the words of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, and their friends. The Tao of Pooh was published after I had stopped being a student in classrooms, but it would have been on my bookshelf in those days. When it was published (1982), I was married, teaching, and a few years from having my own children. I had rediscovered Pooh because the books were also a favorite of my wife-to-be. It was also a time that I was rediscovering Buddhism which I had started to study in college. This book about Pooh’s “philosophy” by Benjamin Hoff is an introduction to the Eastern belief system of Taoism intended for Westerners.
The book does use the Milne characters’ words but more so it allegorically uses the characters to illustrate the basic principles of Taoism.
Tao (or Dao) is a Chinese word meaning the “way” or “path” and sometimes more loosely “doctrine.”
I like the story (hopefully true) that Hoff wrote the book at night and on weekends while working as a tree pruner in the Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden in Washington Park. Pruning and weeding my garden are two of my favorite practical meditations.
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A.A. Milne
The character of Winnie-the-Pooh is a good personification of wu wei. Don’t confuse this Taoist concept of “effortless doing” with laziness. Imagine if you could do your work “effortlessly.”
Pooh also illustrates for us pu. This Chinese word means “unworked wood” or “simple” and was an early Taoist (or Daoist) metaphor for the natural state of humanity. Pooh is an exemplar of this concept of being open to, but unburdened by, experience.
Owl and Rabbit are characters that are quite the opposite. They over-complicate and over-think situations and problems.
Eeyore (who I fully identified with for a long time) is a pessimist. always complaining and fully burdened.
Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?” Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.” – Pooh” ― A.A. Milne
The Te of Piglet is the 1992 companion book to The Tao of Pooh. It was also a bestseller. In this book, Piglet acts as our model of living Te.
The Chinese concept of Te, which means “power” though often interpreted as “virtue,” is particularly suited to Piglet in the Taoist concept of “virtue of the small.” This second volume is really an elaboration on the first book’s introduction to Taoism, so they should be read together.
Piglet has power, though small, because he has a great heart or, in Taoist terms, Tz’u.
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” – A.A. Milne
The Hundred Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories is based on the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Milne’s country home was just north of Ashdown Forest. That Wood is one that young Christopher Robin Milne would explore.
I am still wandering in my own One Hundred and Fifty-Seven Acre Wood on a regular basis. I can be found there practicing (rather badly) Qigong and Tai Chi and trying to identify plants, playing Pooh Sticks in a creek and picking up plastic bottles and trash so that I leave the Wood cleaner than when I entered.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” – A.A. Milne
I have learned that Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is “not a name for a thing” but the underlying natural order of the Universe. That order is perhaps impossible to describe as it is peskily non-conceptual. But it must exist.
Laozi also said that the Tao is “eternally nameless” in a world filled with named things that are manifestations of the Tao. The universe is a confusing place to wander.
“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.” – A.A. Milne