Beech, oak, briar. Heath, gorse, moor. Mistral, sorbier, arbousier. These are the words that illustrated the landscapes of my childhood imagination. They fell like seeds from the pens of authors like Kenneth Graham, A. A. Milne and Marcel Pagnol, finding fertile ground in my young mind. Oh I was devoted to my mossy terraces with their altars of sculpted lichens, shadowed by leaning black spruce trees, but the hedgerows and woods in my mind had an altogether different feel. Perhaps it was the human touch, past or present, evident in abandoned fields, stone steps or coppices. A stark contrast to my wilds, which stretched forever. North to the tundra and the arctic ocean, south across Great Slave Lake, west and east further than I could imagine. Lakes and trees and muskeg. Perhaps the backdrop of my physical explorations in the northern boreal enhanced the fantastic nature of these beautiful temperate words, allowed them to give rise to glades and vistas that have no place in the world out there.
What I would give to find out! To tread the riverbank where Ratty moored his little boat, blue without and white within, or peer into the brambles that hide the wildwood, and that most wise of creatures: Badger. If I could go to Europe, this would be my pilgrimage, armed with a knapsack of books on a quest of literary archaeology. My partner would accompany me, seeking similarly to make manifest forests hitherto known only by letters on the page, and the corresponding imagery of the mind. Her childhood forays were of surf and gum trees and acacias. Laughing kookaburras and sprays of brightly coloured proteas in warm rain. As strange to the haunts of Mole and Rat as my Shield country. We would read favourite passages aloud as the other lay back on the soft grass, trailing fingers in the River, looking lazily for signs of Otter, remnants of a picnic scattered about a wicker luncheon basket. As night draws in we might hear the willow-wren – how we would recognize it I do not know, but I’m quite sure that we would upon hearing it.
And then, once the feeling of the riverbank was written indelibly into all our attendant senses, we would visit the Hundred Acre Wood. A day of discovering if a thistle patch feels as gloomy as Eeyore would have us believe, of climbing chestnut trees like the one in which Owl made his home, learning the feel of the bark, the way light plays through the leaves. Perhaps we would play Pooh sticks on the bridge, and I would know what a fir cone feels like. Then on to France! We would scramble up and over the rocky outcrops where Pagnol’s young narrator learned that the woody wild clematis vines were hollow and could be smoked like cigars. We’d watch a storm gather slowly over le Taoumé, waiting for the cry of an épervier (sparrowhawk) to come across the wind. Silent and motionless in the smell of thyme and rosemary, we would wait for rising partridge with sights that capture only an image, not a life.
Would we find these magical places? And if they exist, and we did, would they not be changed? I am sure of it. Instead of looking for any one River, or Wood, or Collines, we would learn landscapes and assemblages of trees and plants and animals that inspired the authors of our childhood fantasies. Any tall oak may be the one where Pooh went in search of honey, any bramble might cover the entrance to Badger’s secret tunnel, any lavender-covered hill could be the site of Pagnol’s excursions. And so the trees that forest our imaginations would take form before us, lending new dimensions to the stories we know and love, as we pass them on to other young ready minds. Perhaps they will inspire us to write our own.