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Author’s journey takes her from Escalon to the Hundred Acre Wood

Eeyore houses spring up in the woods of Ashdown Forest in “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” by Kathryn Aalto, who grew up in Escalon.
Eeyore houses spring up in the woods of Ashdown Forest in “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” by Kathryn Aalto, who grew up in Escalon. Timber Press

Well into Kathryn Aalto’s book “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” is this passage:

“Entrances should entrance. From garden gates to opening lines in a book, openings should take readers and garden visitors into new worlds. They draw us in and take us on new journeys of the mind.”

Coming on Page 94, those words surely send at least some of Aalto’s readers flipping back to her own opening lines, which do not disappoint:

“Reading A.A. Milne’s stories for children is like tasting my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie: the crust, tangy curd, and pile of meringue transport me to frothy, faraway days. In California summers, my large family gathered together in the dappled light of my grandparents’ garden, and there were always lemon meringue pies. Those were carefree and fleeting times, when the most important thing I had to consider was which tree to climb and what direction to wander. The pie and these books are bound in nostalgia for bygone days.”

Her own “The Natural World” also was born, a bit, from feelings of nostalgia for her own youth in Escalon and for the American West childhood her three kids would miss when she and her husband, Rolf, uprooted from rural Seattle for Exeter, England.

Aalto’s career as a landscape designer and historian absolutely was shaped by growing up in the Central Valley, the “breadbasket of the world,” she said in a phone interview from England last week. “Surrounded by people with green thumbs, you’re in this amazing place of peaches and walnuts and almonds,” said Aalto, who has master’s degrees in garden history and creative nonfiction and lectures at Exeter College. “It is a gridded landscape and mass agriculture, I know that, but it’s also a Garden of Eden.”

Her father, Reginald Lewis, taught ag at Escalon and Patterson high schools and would design gardens on the side, Aalto said. He’s also cultivated large gardens of his own. He’s deeply moved by the simple beauty of things like sun shining through grasses, Aalto said. “I’m a bit like my dad, I suppose,” she added, calling gardens “cultural artifacts.”

You don’t really know how much you’re going to miss home until you buy a one-way ticket to 6,000 miles away.

Kathryn Aalto

Aalto, who graduated Escalon High in 1986, met future husband Rolf in the hiking club at UC Berkeley in 1989 and moved to Seattle in 1993 for graduate school. She crossed the Atlantic with him and children August, Tess and Stellan in 2007, and returns to the Valley this week to talk about her book. She’ll first speak at her alma mater Dent Elementary School in Escalon, then at the Modesto Garden Club monthly meeting.

“I’m probably more nervous about speaking to a bunch of second-graders than to adults,” she said.

The club learned of Aalto and her book from her mother, Joan Wallace Tilbury. “She sent an email to our club, and I’m vice president of education, so I started emailing her,” said Cindy Van Vliet-Ott. “She told me she was coming from Europe, and I thought, oh, my goodness, how are we going to afford her?”

But the timing was good for the club’s coffers because Aalto’s international travel expenses are being divided among groups she’ll speak with on her U.S. book tour. Her itinerary includes at least eight engagements in California this month, then at least 15 more around the country through October.

“We’ve read her book and are more than excited to have her come,” Van Vliet-Ott said. “We decided to open it up to the public. I think the church holds 600. We usually have around 300 members attend. Our membership now is 579 – we’re the largest garden club in the U.S.”

Aalto’s garden club presentation will be a “visually rich 45-minute journey into a literary landscape,” Aalto said. She’ll talk about the book – full title “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest That Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood” – how she wrote it, the places in the book, Milne and his books’ illustrator, E.H. Shepard.

“The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh” was published in September 2015 by Timber Press. At 25,000 copies, it was the largest print run in the history of the publisher, which was founded in 1978 and specializes in books on gardening, horticulture and natural history.

Aalto’s work, which went into a reprint three months after its initial publishing, was a New York Times travel-book best-seller, a People magazine best-new-book pick and the subject of a story on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

“It’s a writer’s dream,” she said.

Aalto’s lovely book provides two great pleasures: a visit to the actual wild spots that inform the fictional Pooh world and a chance to slip into our memories of the books themselves.

Mary Quattlebaum, Washington Post reviewer

The seed for her book was planted within days of her family’s arrival in England. “I stumbled across a book in a shop entitled ‘Classic Walks in Britain,’ ” Aalto said in an email. “Before the jet lag wore off, we clocked in 20 miles of walking. I discovered that the English landscape offers a feature I’d never encountered in the United States: public footpaths. I was fascinated, hooked and in love.”

While reading to her children American classics, including works by Mark Twain, as well as Milne’s stories of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood, two simple questions led Aalto to write “The Natural World”: Is there a real Hundred Acre Wood? Can we walk in it?

To the first question, yes – the woods’ real-life counterpart is Ashdown Forest. To the second question, also yes – thanks to the spider-web-like network of public footpaths all over England.

Given the nature of Timber Press, Aalto stayed away from “cutesy” and wrote the book from her landscape design and history perspective. But she knew she also had to make it accessible to a range of readers. “There was no way I was going to write a book on Winnie-the-Pooh for academics – that didn’t make sense,” she said. “I wanted to be chummy with people. … I want people to feel like they’re on a walk with me.”

Asked if “The Natural World” is more for readers who might use it as a companion while visiting the 6,000-acre Ashdown Forest or for those likely to never set eyes on it, Aalto said, “It probably has many entry points.” It’s for people who like gardens, travel and natural history; for Anglophiles; for parents who may use it as a “field guide for the free-range child.”

Moving to England, she initially feared her children would lose the free-range childhood of growing up in the Pacific Northwest. She came to realize they didn’t really have one in the States because Americans do not have the footpaths and legal right to roam as the English do.

“So, really, I didn’t write it for one person; I wrote it for me and for my children.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

Kathryn Aalto

What: Kathryn Aalto presentation on “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh”

Where: Modesto Garden Club monthly meeting, Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1600 Carver Road

When: 10:15 to 11 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, grow and learn; meeting 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Cost is $10 for nonmembers.

Info: Longtime Escalon resident Aalto, a landscape designer and historian and lecturer at Exeter College in England, will give a presentation on her New York Times best-selling book. A Q&A will follow, and she will sign copies of her book. She’ll bring copies, but the book also is available at Barnes & Noble in Modesto.

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