The Things We Carry: Revisiting Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea

By: Richard Telford

The ratcheting hum of the 16-millimeter projector gave way to the roar of the dark ocean as Paddle-to-the-Sea, a small, one-foot-long canoe carved by the hands of a Nipigon boy in the far north of Canada, rose and fell among thick gray swells dimly lit by a leaden sky. It was during the mid 1970s, in the closing days of an elementary school year, and several classes, including my own, had been packed into a classroom to watch the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Holling Clancy Holling’s 1942 Caldecott Honor Book Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  It is a film I never forgot, and I have carried many images from it with me in the decades that followed:  the young boy carving his Paddle-to-the-Sea and pouring a line of molten lead for ballast in a groove cut along the hull; the boy’s hands placing Paddle atop a snow-covered hill, waiting for the spring melt to carry him away; Paddle-to-the-Sea floating through a series of beaver ponds while the surrounding landscape ripples with flame during a forest fire; and, finally, Paddle-to-the-Sea floating along the garbage-strewn surface of one of the Great Lakes, sewage being pumped in from great conduits.  Though the film was, for a child, a magical telling of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey to the sea from the deep north woods of Canada, that last image resonated with me as much as the others, though not more.

A film still from the National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
A film still from the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason. Janus Films has released a high-definition digital transfer of the film on DVD in The Criterion Collection.

Despite being largely true to the book’s content and intentions, Bill Mason’s film is far more overt in its conservation messaging than Holling’s book, first published in 1941, when war-time industrialism was ramping up and the insecticidal value of DDT had just been discovered two years earlier. While the book clearly aims to foster an appreciation for the North American watershed, the film exceeds the book’s original bounds, reflecting the precipitous rise in concern over water pollution that would set the stage for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, one year before Holling would die due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.  The eco-politicization of the film, though it is not overly obtrusive and does not detract from the magic of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey, is a logical outcome of the time in which it was produced.  Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had just shocked the public consciousness with the vision of a world in which “only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh,” a landscape over which a “grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed.”

One year later, Stewart Udall, in his seminal 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, warned that “we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.” Udall’s book, and more importantly its message, had garnered enough public clout—no doubt in part due to Carson’s efforts—to prompt President John F. Kennedy to write its Introduction less than a year before he would be assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Thus, Bill Mason’s film emerged in a time of environmental urgency.  He could juxtapose the beauty and magic of the Nipigon boy’s simple act of sending off his Paddle-to-the-Sea against the beauty and complexity of a vast watershed, just as Holling Clancy Holling had done 25 years earlier, but he could likewise frame it with the rising specter of water pollution.  While Holling had written to an American public deeply mired in a global war, in a time when industry reigned, Mason worked in a time when that magnificent and powerful hydrographic system had come to be seen as fragile, threatened, and fleeting.  Thus, his film had the potential both to appeal to children’s natural sense of wonder and, at the same time, to foster conservation-mindedness when it was desperately needed, both in children and adults.

Holling Clancy Holling, through his books and periodical illustrations, was a consummate educator, as was his wife Lucille, who, as an illustrator and writer herself, assisted him on many projects. While Paddle-to-the-Sea is an engaging story of the unlikely travels of the Nipigon boy’s “Paddle Person,” it is likewise rich with information related both to natural history and to modern industry of the 1940s, both of which Holling marvels at and praises.  This information is conveyed not only in the main text of the story, but also in pencil sketches superimposed around the margin of the text.  The book features twenty-seven one-page chapters of text, surrounded by copious pencil illustrations and hand-printed explanations, each facing a full-page watercolor illustration on the opposite page.  Holling teaches geography, for example, through these pencil sketches, showing through a series of drawings that “Lake Superior’s outline makes a wolf’s head” and Lake Huron “makes the outline of a trapper with a pack of furs.”  When Paddle-to-the-Sea passes through a sawmill in Chapter 7, only to be saved from the mill blade by a friendly lumberjack, Holling sketches onto the top margin of the text a complete “Diagram of a Sawmill.”  As Paddle-to-the-Sea makes its way across Lake Erie, Holling incorporates a “Diagram of a Lake Freighter,” breaking down the bulkheads, rudder chain, ballast tanks, and many other elements, facing a watercolor painting of the falls with a minute silhouette of Paddle-to-the-Sea as it tips over edge of the cascading Niagra waters, from which an arcing rainbow rises.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937.  Courtesy of Wikipedia.
An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paddle-to-the-Sea is but one of many works that Holling created, often with the assistance of his wife Lucille, to captivate the minds and stretch the imaginations of children. One interesting endeavor of the Hollings was a series of newspaper comics published in the late 1930s called The World Museum.  These comics featured a series of illustrations with detailed instructions for cutting them out and assembling their component parts into elaborate dioramas, requiring only “scissors, paste, and wrapping paper.”  Topics included the Grand Canyon, an undersea adventure, covered wagons, and a buffalo hunt.  The latter topic, though perhaps challenging our conservation hindsight, must be seen in the context of the times.  Given that The World Museum was being produced in the heart of the Great Depression, the series was truly visionary, making an elaborate educational tool available to nearly any child whose parents could afford a newspaper.  Among Holling’s other book-length natural history works for children are Minn of the Mississippi (1951), a Newbery Honor Book that follows the movement of a snapping turtle from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, and Pagoo (1957), which presents an intricate picture of tide pool life from the vantage point of a hermit crab.

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling's 1951 children's book Minn of the Mississippi, which one the
The cover of Holling Clancy Holling’s 1951 children’s book Minn of the Mississippi, which was later awarded the Newbery Medal.

It would be impressive enough if Holling Clancy Holling only juxtaposed rich and wondrous visual art with a pedagogically deft text that at times is truly magical, but he transcends even this with writing of great beauty. Of the Nipigon country in Paddle-to-the-Sea, Holling writes, “All this time the world was changing.  The air grew warmer, the birch twigs swelled with new buds.  A moose pawed the snow beside a log, uncovering green moss and arbutus like tiny stars.  And then, one morning, the gray clouds drifted from the sky.  The sun burst out warm and bright above the hills, and under its glare the snow blankets drooped on the fir trees.”  In Minn of the Mississippi, Holling renders the cell division leading to the formation of a snapping turtle embryo into a passage that is lyric and magical: “These cells were not piling themselves for no purpose.  They were adding new chains of cells within their secret ocean because the life in them held a memory.  It remembered patterns laid out when the world was young.  And, as though the Life had been given a definite, detailed task—“THESE CELLS SHALL BUILD TO A CERTAIN PATTERN WITHIN THIS SEA”—all cells were busily obeying this magic, mysterious order.”

Recently, justifiable attention has been paid to the reality that children—and many adults—grow more physically disconnected from the natural world with each passing year. The implications of this disconnection on the conservation movement are ominous, and the most commonly espoused approach of ecological triage is simply to bring children out into nature.  While this is critical, it is a simplistic solution with arguably little benefit in and of itself.  Many children lack a meaningful context with which to frame their experiences in nature.  It is not enough to simply deposit a child in a natural setting and hope for the best.  Works like those of Holling Clancy Holling can provide critical context for those experiences; they can likewise meaningfully frame those experiences after the fact.  They can also spur engagement.  The Internet is full of stories of individuals and school groups who have launched their own incarnations of Paddle-to-the-Sea.

In considering the power of children’s literature to foster conservation-mindedness, the works of Thornton W. Burgess, a staple of my childhood, likewise come to mind. During the early twentieth century, nature study as a national past-time hit its peak, and the national literature of that period reflects this. Much of that literature deserves revisiting, despite some challenges to our modern views, such as Holling’s appreciation for industry or Burgess’s heavy use of anthropomorphism.  There is, of course, modern children’s literature of great value as well; Janet Yolen’s Owl Moon, Natalia Romanova’s Once There Was a Tree, and Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born come to mind, as do a host of books by Jean Craighead George. And there are many others.  Still, in a time when we too must face the unavoidable reality that all natural systems, hydrographic and otherwise, are fragile, threatened, and fleeting, it is critical that we use all available tools, including the full canon of children’s literature, to engage children with and provide them meaningful context for the natural world.  Allowing a child to journey with a Nipigon boy’s Paddle-to-the-Sea “to the Great Salt Water” can accomplish these ends and a great deal more.

Featured image: The original 1941 cover for Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, which was awarded the 1942 Caldecott Medal.

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