The Enchanted Forest’s Edge
by Brandon Lewis
CHAPTER 1, In which we find ourselves stuck and unstuck.
Once upon a time in pandemic-America, a boy and his dad invent a game called stuck.
It’s easy to play: the grown-up plops a leg down, says, “You’re STUCK,” then gives the kid a small but fair chance of escape. If you are the kid, you’ve probably already lost and may be screaming in pretend agony. You then simply reply, “I’m STUCK.” And when wiggling out, you will be let free, pretend it was easy, and want to play until your grown up gives up.
In place of more rambunctious games that require a change of setting, you can play stuck anywhere and don’t have to have any skills other than a body you can flop around, that and a small degree of mercy. And so it came to be the game of the season for two-year-old Rowan and me, your narrator, as my long-Covid symptoms—fatigue, racing heart, dizziness, feverishness, and more fatigue—made clear that they would not simply vanish like the fog, but would linger with an unfamiliar sadness in the house.
In-between games of stuck and the drinking of dada-baba—a sad and sweet ill dad drink of water infused with watermelon/lime/grape/pink lemonade electrolyte tabs, that is—Winnie-the-Pooh was another time we could spend exerting no strength, so Poo was never too far away.
And there is Pooh-bear, deep in the Hundred-Acre Woods of the original 1977 animated Disney film, the canonical version, assuring us that doing nothing often leads to the very best something.
When Poo is stuck in Rabbit’s front door, fattened by pots and pots of honey, there is only one thing to do: wait. And once he has thinned enough to slip out, even then he hasn’t learned a lesson, but continues simply to follow his appetite, which doubles as his intuition.
Who ever said children’s stories must actually teach something?
Most teachers, most camp counselors, most parents—that’s who. But watching Pooh with Rowan involved no moral of the story, no soft-pedaling of the old, well this-is-the-real-world, kid. You are allowed to stay in the enchanted forest for a while without have to show something productive for it.
Pooh is never sick, never worried about his honey addictions, and unbothered by the fact that he is a bear of very little brain. The whole lot of them—Tigger, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo—live in a forest free of all pesky humans but for one concerned boy. These beautiful idiots run around doing nothing—a Seinfeld episode that meets the forest, a child, and a troubled writer yearning for a bit of peace.
You can feel the levity as up he goes, floating away with his little red balloon…
CHAPTER 2, In which we get a small glimpse of the forest as it truly is.
We spread ourselves out under the July shade of a giant oak. To celebrate our victory, having trekked to the top of the forest, our boots caked in chalky clay, we deserved the annual chocolate bar which I have carried in my jacket pocket. We spread ourselves out in the long grass thick with acorns and broken twigs tickling our backs. This grassy bit is the most comfortable spot—the rim of the forest just below is full of prickly gorse and purplish heather, 8-foot-tall bracken and endless nettles, thistle and white foxglove. We surveyed the branches above, swaying their little English oak-leaf hands, in search for a limb small enough to climb. We decided they are all too high, and that’s okay. I broke four squares of chocolate for each of us and get lost in its bitter-sweetness and the smell of grass until a horse trots up the trail. We lifted out heads to watch the chestnut mare stop, whinny, and thud the earth with a truss of golden turds.
The high weald.
Here is the center of an ancient forest, one of the last remaining forest expanses in Britain, protected by more than the lore of a stuffed bear, but that too. The chalky soil formed 130 million years ago, and oak trees once stretched from the sea to London. The spot has many names: the Ashdown Forest, the wealden heath, up on the moor, the stretch between the North and South Chalk-Downs, between London and the sea, the old royal hunting grounds, the old iron smelting sites, the Hundred-acre Wood, the enchanted forest in which I used to run.
I was strong those summers, and by running in that forest I made my wife’s ancestral place part of me. I would dash down a wooden path without counting time or miles, ducking under vining mistletoe and leaping here and their over streams and mud, brambles, fences, and fallen beech trees. There haven’t been bears for hundreds of years, but I would encounter badgers, deer, and massive kestrels gliding above. A knotty burl in an oak would be my landmark, notching the boundary to run past for the following day when I would plot a more ambitious return. Maybe I would reach where the trail bends. That was me alone.
Disney World, luckily, makes no attempt to replicate Pooh Bridge, where Christopher Robin dropped sticks with his father. But you can buy a ticket to Travel through Hundred-Acre Wood in an oversized Hunny Pot. And only in Florida can you pay large fees to Get lost in the pages of A.A. Milne’s classic tales.
When we arrive together at Pooh Bridge we break little sticks for a race, and somehow there’s not another child or a tourist in sight. The stream is shallower than you might think. The greenery in this part of the wood is soft enough to lay in, no gorse nearby.
A storm comes the next winter and knocks the bridge out, so we find ourselves a closer stream.
CHAPTER 3, In which we hear some very strange sounds.
Adela sleeps under purple blankets and Rowan in his crib inside the Apple Room, the bedroom where they stored apples during the war years. This house on the forest-edge was safer from Luftwaffe bombs than London, and the apple orchard and vegetable patch provided.
On the bookshelf is a second-edition of Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926, which I retrieve each visit. Gradually the forest’s shadow overtakes the garden, and after a book goodnight, and leaving the window cracked, you can smell the cool forest air and hear a distant baaing.
You get seduced by the forest, lured by the garden and the tea, but when you read Pooh at night and laugh—it’s funnier in the book—you likely find yourself talking an American accent. The bear that Christopher Robin received on his first birthday in 1921 was a “Teddy” bear, an American trend. Go on a tour of Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood home on 22nd St in New York, and if you’re lucky, at the end of the tour they will give you a teddy bear. And you might think: Huh, what I thought was a cuddly bear is the very same creator of the Monroe doctrine.
Where else do the five original dolls of Milne stories reside but on 5th Avenue, nestled behind glass in the lion-guarded New York Public Library. Pooh and Ghostbusters have essentially shared the same time-space-culture continuum for 40 years. Pooh is unmistakably American. How even more American of him that he’s currently banned in China for making the error of—according to Xi Jinping—looking a bit too much like Xi to not be subversive.
Just about any movement away from taking accent seriously is an escape from English social hierarchies, where it is practically second-nature to judge someone’s class by the first few words leaving their mouth. Pooh speaks to us in that fuzziest Zen: You find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it. While Poo’s language is informal and slow as honey, Owl’s British English is pedantic and comically Oxbridge, and when he overlooks the obvious—say, a waterfall ahead—he has even farther to fall as a fool. Owl nevertheless lacks the self-awareness of T.S. Elliot, who runs away from America to a high-minded London, and Milne, who runs away from London for the countryside. The two writers found themselves a bit lost like “Prufrock”:
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
A product of Cambridge, where he ran the journal Granta, A.A. Milne understood that if you were to flee to an enchanted world, you might as well blow up the shibboleths of the old one—war and class for sure, but for good measure, also yourself. Oh, stuff and fluff. Parenthood is also a secret hatch back to childhood and its riotous foolishness.
No blameless father is needed in Pooh’s world, just a balloon here and there. And a narrator.
CHAPTER 4, In which the creatures of other worlds never quite compare.
A child passes through brief, intense allegiances and affinities toward play-creatures, cute and fierce and everything in between. They populate a world with magical voices, while their matted fur smells of bedsheets, runny noses, and sticky hands. The smell of an old penny—that too doesn’t emanate from its copper material, but from the thousand hands that stain it with oils.
Elmo is entirely of-the-world. So of-the-world that Halle Berry, Robert De Niro, Chance the Rapper, and dozens of other stars have paid him homage at Sesame Street. Why he is so beloved, I’m not exactly sure. He’s a very red and giggly baby-monster who wants to grow, teaches lessons, and asks questions of grown-ups. Parents can rest assured that he is not useless. And yet he doesn’t grow or get wiser, but just keeps doing his happy dance. For all the cuteness, his play is helicoptered and segmented into sufficiently educational chunks.
Mickey Mouse is wacky, but has a relentless inferiority complex and can’t help but follow quest after quest; Bugs Bunny is an unscrupulous trickster who smashes things, though he has a great Brooklyn accent; Charlie Brown is more Sartrean than child, caught in a never-ending existential crisis; the Muppets are wild and great fun, but must constantly strive to entertain a crowd, and their world looks much like ours; even Mathilda, one of the great child heroines, is not really free, but must battle a wicked grown-up world. All of them do loads of…something.
When I was seven, my uncle sitting next to me midway on the stairs of our first house. When he asked me what I was doing, I told him nothing. And then he gave me a challenge that blew my mind. But you’re sitting. Now see if you can really do nothing. Now I try to do nothing for ten minutes each morning for mindfulness meditation, though something in me never stops happening.
Pooh, in his enchanted world with no authorities or responsibilities but to other creatures in the forest, comes closest to doing nothing. Even to think, he must pause. Think, think, think.
The other great children’s story that is on the one hand free of a world in which grow-ups try too hard to teach something, while on the other hand not just about smacking people over the head and laughing, must be Where the Wild Things Are. As a child, Maurice Sendak knew bed-bound illnesses and the loss of family to the holocaust. From that Brooklyn childhood sprang an imagination that could direct children to their own wildness, fears, and unprocessed fury, and leaving them to what critic Michiko Kakutani has pinpointed as their “pluck.”
Why do so many children’s stories, from the Grimm Tales to most of what you find today, try to scare kids into a particular moral framework? One reason is simple: parenting is scary and exhausting. We want at least some manners and some fears that will create boundaries.
A block-print in our home proclaims, with a wild-boar romping under it, Wildness is Necessary.
But don’t even think about leaving my wife’s sofa pillows scattered on the floor.
CHAPTER 5, In which a creator carves an enchanted place out of nothing but human frailty.
There are two kinds of happiness: the one that of the moment and the one that is retrospective. A.A Milne and his son appear to have known the first intermittently and faltered badly with the second.
Milne would write 34 plays, seven novels, and five nonfiction books, and still he would be seen as by the literary establishment in London and New York as a sell-out children’s book author. A poet of light verse. Light, light, light.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Having come out of Cambridge, having furiously attacked war at a patriotic time. Despite his pacifism, he joined the fight in the Great War, hoping to cause no harm, and yet someone found himself—after witnessing the terrible Battle of the Somme—scribbling propaganda for the British war effort, unit M17b. The propaganda must have left a sour taste, and later he mocked it in a tone fit for Vietnam War protests a half-century later:
In M17b / Who loves to lie with me / About atrocities / And Hun Corpse Factories.
London, abuzz after the war, may have riled his PTSD. But the truth we get of Milne in biographical sketches and in Disney’s film Christopher Robin (2017) is a delusional fiction with a happy ending. The urge to find the suffering artist who is remembered ever-after as a balm to children the world over, and it is our irrepressible romantic tendency. Maybe the terrible pain we ascribe to him as he leaves London for the countryside is actually boredom, or adventure.
Blue. That was Milne’s true mood and true name, even to his son. And his son Christopher Robin was in truth Billy Moon. What flickers of happiness were played on the grass, the bridge, the chalky trails, versus what played out only on the pages of the book? The art and the artist mingle, mining here and there pieces of their loves, wringing out their muses. As Billy Moon grown into C.R. Milne tells it, his father “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.” That sounds damning, my gut tells me that Billy Moon, for all he did have, grew up to be a rather whinny man. A bit of Rabbit and Eeyore combined.
Blue is said to have shuddered at the sound of buzzing bees. But we know the honey that came from those fearsome bees, transmuted through story. That is how we comfort ourselves.
What will Rowan remember in the garden beside the forest—the prickly ouchies to his feet and the dew as he ran over the lawn? The buttery jam that oozes from a cream tea at Pooh Corner in Hartfield? Or my fear: that I was too weak to play more trains, more ball?
Let me not become so broken I am Eeyore, let me not complain of no gaiety, no song and dance, no “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”.
But don’t worry about me, Pooh. Go and enjoy yourself.
CHAPTER 6, In which we wonder why a jackdaw is never made into stuffed animal.
You don’t cuddle a jackdaw.
Coal-black and weighing between a crow and a raven, the jackdaw is the bold MacGyver of the garden. I drink more tea and watch one with mixed feelings as he clambers high on the roof and down the chimney, down to its jackdaw nest of a thousand twigs. Instead of losing myself in the birds, I watch them as ingenious workers, as ancient communicators, as those who can live off the little that I cannot. Cute creatures like the polar bear and the kangaroo get to play with children and beg us to save the Earth, while the jackdaws and moles, the beetles and ants are never given a chance. Like bears, jackdaws can identify individual humans. But Christopher Robin likes Pooh best, and we do too.
Out there in the fields beyond the roses and horse-chestnut trees, an English pilot shot down in the field where we used to have horses and now it’s gone to ragweed and thistle. Somewhere out there too, the old gardener is buried, out where he said he was happiest. There’s even a legend that he stashed his saving in the field, away from his wife. We don’t know where to begin looking, so it is just a story.
Another view: staring at the field from the study’s leaded windows, rain pouring down. Hundreds of books owned by my wife’s grandfather line it as an entombing library. Juvenal, Seneca, Homer—all the Greek and Latin he studied at Oxford while Tolkien was there collects dust and makes me sneezy. Each summer I take a dusty British novel to read, and at the same time read an American one, looking back on myself. And sitting at his old desk I can’t feel that I’m somehow a fraud with no Ivy-degree, no capacity for Greek. Just a cheese-loving midwestern American romancing a life of less physical pain, a less fraught whiteness, a garden magically waiting.
We come back each summer for the solace, but this time is different. My wife tells me she will find a way to die if I go on talking about my illness and what it is doing to me. I pick blackberries with Adela, and as we eat them, her shirt stains purple, not black, and we laugh. But my thoughts must go somewhere, must then leave the garden and head into the forest, a feral being. Subtle natural disasters of emotion swirl in the atmosphere. Subtle opportunities when no one looks to rebel, or fail, or flee. “Prufrock” moans again:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Adela begs us to move to England so she can perfect her English accent and do cartwheels on the lawn. And yet we wouldn’t ever really be English, would we?
On a chilly night in July we’re tempted to light a fire, but we have forgotten about the jackdaw nest. Built of indiscriminate matter—twigs and feather, human hair and twine, vines and wool—if lit, it could launch a fireball into the night sky.
CHAPTER 7, In which there is no original for to return.
A grandmotherly country. This was my first thought encountering the tea-cups and tiny English doorways that smacked my forehead, the sanctity of gardens and the stuffy restraint. I could see why one might stay in London—the stately, international buzz and storied streets. I could see why one might flee to the countryside—the hedges alive with creatures, the blackberries and farm stands. I could also see why British rockers hugged American culture tight, why the fictional Christopher Robin heard his stuffed animals speak an American accent, and why my wife’s mother, an artist and prodigy, left Oxford for Bond St., New York, a wild-wild-west in the 70s and 80s. Her sidewalk was covered with colorful crack vials, but Americans still thought she—or any Brit, really—sounded just like the Queen.
Brits lost something with Pooh’s slide to America. He is not only accidentally wise, but worse, too warm to be English. And that is what gets the love. More than a hint of high-minded resentment lingers even in reviews of Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a film in which we see how Billy Moon suffers torment for the commercialization of his private childhood joy. The Spectator asks, might Americans see this tale of crippling emotional continence as an adorable specimen of heritage Britishness? Do bears shit in the woods?
Yes, Americans are suckers for the heritage schtick. And yet what hold that story and all the Pooh-verse together is not crippling emotion or even Britishness, but desire to sentimentalize the fragile and fleeting thing of childhood play and connection, and how it gets lost. The enchanted forest is not truly the Ashdown Forest, but somewhere impossible to hold fast to or reproduce.
Sequels appear on the surface to keep a beloved world alive a bit longer, but they stumble as zombies. Or as Maurice Sendek puts it, “A sequel would be the most boring thing imaginable.” They sell, but with each of the ten or so iterations, the old charm is replaced by market forces and generic conventions. That means scores of moralizing, goodie-goodie arcs, Scooby-Doo mystery-solving, robotic computer-generated vibes, and talking directly to the children at home: “It’s a lot more fun when you come along!” Gooey, Velveeta-cheese Americana. YUCK! as Tigger would put it. Tiggers don’t like honey. The best sequel is The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (2011)—the spot-on diction, the trippy digressions, and the singing of Zoey Deschanel hold firm to the original spirit. Everything but rabbit’s Bugs-Bunny-inspired violence.
Children read the same books and watch the same movies again and again. Their urge, I believe, is not just for the familiar story, but also simply to occupy an imaginative space apart from adult norms, reasoning, moralizing, and humorlessness. A space outside of preparation for a life of means-to-ends, productive down-time, and even productive holidays. That space is enough.
I won’t be riding the Hunny Pot at Disney World, but, when I’m lying in bed with Rowan, I really don’t care what form Pooh takes, or the plot. I make sure Rowan doesn’t spill my glass of water in bed, and we repeat phrases like heffalumps are coming, and uh-oh, he’s stuck. I want to be immersed with him for a while when we cannot simply have the garden. And I need rest.
And when we return for perhaps the last time to our edge of the forest, it will await us—that urge to tell ourselves this is it, we’re right in its shadow, the genuine place of magic.
Brandon Lewis lives in NYC, where he teaches at a public high school, learns piano with his daughter, and attempts to recover from long-Covid. He received an MFA in poetry from George Mason, and is currently writing an essay collection on life and thought with long-Covid. His writing can be found in The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review, Barrow Street, American Poetry Review, Salamander, The Iowa Review (forthcoming), and Narrative (forthcoming).