The Harvard Pooh

A perfectly accurate sign would, of course, say "Mr. Sanders"...

Nestled into a corner behind one of the largest academic buildings on the university campus, there stands a single tree. And in that tree, there is a house.

And in that house, there is a Pooh.

Yes, Winnie the Pooh has discreetly set up residence here in Cambridge, and although I’m sure the property taxes must be killing him, I have to say that I’m very glad that he is here.

I can’t say when I first noticed the little door carved into the side of the tree, complete with a tiny shingled overhang to keep off the rain. I do know that when I saw it for the first time, I actually stopped walking and blinked my eyes a few times to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on me. It’s not every day that you have a Pooh sighting, you know.

In any case, I’ve long wondered how that house got there and how it has been kept up. From time to time, I have seen amused tourists snapping photos of the tiny dwelling, but I have never seen anyone “maintaining the premises,” as it were. Yet somehow, upkeep is performed, and small seasonal indicators occasionally appear. At Christmas, a small wreath hangs on the door. On Halloween, a diminutive jack-o’-lantern sits near the front stoop.

Then, yesterday, on my way to class, I was stopped in my tracks for a second time. Someone was at Pooh’s door.

It was a little girl of six—or at least that’s what I’d guess her age to be. She knelt down in the dirt at the foot of the tree, arranging flowers there and carrying on her own quiet conversation with the still quieter bear inside. As I watched from nearby, she stood up, blew a kiss, and whispered, “See you tomorrow, Pooh.” Then she skipped away.

What a beautiful thing is that, my friends! To step into a moment of the childhood magic that we had all but forgotten, to witness the innocent belief of a little child, for whom Winnie the Pooh is not only real but lives next door—that is truly a stirring reminder for us all.

There, in the shadow of the Science Center—the building in which we pray to Science and exalt the name of Proven Fact, in which nothing may be True unless it is also Rational and Demonstrable—there knelt a little girl who knew better. If all the professors and preceptors and lab technicians in the building came rushing out to explain to that little girl that what she believed was only a fairy tale, she may be frightened, but she would not give their science more credit than her belief.

And she is not the only one.

In my excitement at finally discovering the young groundskeeper of Pooh’s house in Cambridge, I failed to realize that she could not possibly be the only one. She certainly didn’t build the house, which is actually very finely crafted, and she was too young to have been coming for all the years I’ve seen it there.

It turns out, in fact, that Pooh’s house is much older than I ever thought. A little research this morning confirmed that Harvard’s House at Pooh Corner has been there in some form for at least twenty years, and possibly longer still.

In 2007, when the university was conducting major construction nearby, the house was temporarily removed so that the tree could be protected from equipment. Shortly after the barriers came down, the door and overhang had reappeared, complete with the little stone path.

In January of 1997, according to the Harvard University Gazette, a distraught Extension School student reported that the door to Pooh’s house had been destroyed beyond repair and sought help in fashioning a new one. A carpenter working nearby responded to her request and installed the new door within days. In the meantime, the secret faithful had deposited small trinkets at the foot of the tree, waiting for Pooh’s return.

One anonymous commenter reported seeing the door as early as 1990, when s/he was a freshman at the college.

And, although this may only be tangentially related, residents of Adams House (also at the college) have long included a black tie reading of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh at its annual Winter Feast. Perhaps it was a resident of Adams House who hung the first door all those years ago.

If you look very closely at recent photos of the door, such as the one above, you can see older, rusted hinges at the base of the tree, just to the right of the current door. There are also holes where screws were formerly inserted in days gone by. It seems clear that Pooh has lived at Harvard for many years indeed.

To my mind, this door represents the persistence of belief in the face of doubt—or, alternatively, the childlike suspension of disbelief in the midst of an adult world.

I know Milne’s story was written for children, I know that Pooh never existed until pen was put to paper, and I certainly know that he does not really exist.

So how can it make me feel better to know that the famous “bear of little brain” has taken up residence here?

I ask because, for some reason, it does make me feel better. It makes me happy to know that at least one clever person in this world of erudition and learning has not forgotten that all of this world’s knowledge matters little to a child of six. It refreshes me to recall a time when I was that child—essentially, the very child apostrophized in Milne’s own Now We Are Six (which, you may recall, is the logical follow-up to an earlier publication, When We Were Very Young):

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

Yes, coming upon that six-year-old near the end of my harried, mind-numbing day at the law school, I had to ask myself if perhaps Milne was right—if, perhaps, that little girl saying goodnight to the Pooh of Harvard knows more about life than us all.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Harvard Pooh

  1. Julia

    I had no idea Pooh’s house went so far back!

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