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

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea.

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

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 Hollis 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.

Altering the Balance of the World

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My daughter at three releasing an eastern painted turtle we rescued after it was clipped by a car.

By Richard Telford

This past summer, my five-year-old daughter and I discovered a small nestling on the ground beneath a venerable eastern white pine at the front edge of our yard. We spent the next few weeks driving sticks into the ground to mark off a safe perimeter around this fragile creature. Each day it would drag itself in one direction or another, maybe three to four feet, and we would move the perimeter accordingly to make sure we didn’t inadvertently crush it. All the while, the parent birds, white-throated sparrows, delivered a steady flow of summer insects, growing less wary of us as the days went on. Day by day the fledging process unfolded before our eyes until one day the nestling was gone. The absence of the parent birds suggested that the young bird had fully fledged or had gained enough strength to work its way back to the nest.

Why do we sometimes feel compelled to disrupt natural processes through the imposition of human values upon them? It is a question that most of us consider at one point or another in our interactions with the natural world, especially when we act or react emotionally to natural phenomena in ways that defy, or seem to defy, rational, scientific thinking. Often, we are aware of this dissonance but feel compelled to act despite our inner conflict. We free the ensnared butterfly though we know the spider must eat. The navigation of this dissonance, I contend, forms a central and necessary foundation upon which to build, maintain, and advance an effective conservation movement. Our emotional response is a needed counterpart to our scientific knowledge. As David Sobel notes in Beyond Ecophobia, we must let children “love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” If we are to succeed in conserving the Earth’s biodiversity to the greatest degree possible, we cannot leave that love behind in childhood, even if it sometimes renders us conflicted.

In his 1960 book Journey Into Summer, the second of his four-book American Seasons chronicle, Edwin Way Teale writes about a visit with his wife Nellie to the western basin of Lake Erie in late June of 1957. Teale notes that Lake Erie, the second smallest of the Great Lakes, provides “a vast incubator for mayfly life.” The Teales traveled to Lake Erie hoping to see a “mayfly storm,” and they were not disappointed. They arrived when “the insects, gauzy-winged and trailing thread-like tails, were emerging in numbers beyond counting.” The Teales traveled by ferry to Kelleys Island, in the southern part of the basin, and Edwin offers a moving account of an act framed by the dissonance discussed above:

I remember once we stopped and freed a mayfly entangled in the grass. It flew hurriedly away to join the dancers. Its progeny may live, may owe their lives to this act of ours. Why did we do it? We could hardly say. Here life was abundant, life was cheap. One more among so many—what could it matter? Perhaps our reason was that we were on the side of life and in so small a degree we had altered the balance of the world.

Though Teale acknowledges the biological frivolity of setting free one entangled mayfly among millions, he affirms the larger value of such a seemingly inconsequential act. He places himself, and Nellie, “on the side of life,” and this placement of oneself on that side cannot be selectively turned on and off. The fundamental impulse to preserve life is not contingent on reason. Further, though we can certainly discern to some degree which conservation actions are supported by reason and which are not, i.e. setting one mayfly among millions free versus setting free a net-entangled right whale, that discernment is inherently subjective and may not be borne out by on-the-ground facts. Here, Teale’s “mayfly storm” provides an apt example in two dimensions.

Mayflies photographed by Edwin Way Teale for his 1960 book Journey Into Summer.  Copyright, the estate state of Edwin Way Teale, managed by the University of Connecticut Library System.  Used with permission.

Mayflies photographed by Edwin Way Teale for his 1960 book Journey Into Summer. Copyright, the estate state of Edwin Way Teale, managed by the University of Connecticut Library System. Used with permission.

The first dimension of Teale’s apt example is hypothetical. He notes in Journey Into Summer that a single fertilized female mayfly will eject roughly 1500 eggs into the water, and these will promptly sink to the lake bottom. The eggs will later hatch nymphs that will burrow into the lake floor mud and remain there for one to two years before they swim to the surface, molt the last in a series of nymphal exoskeletons, emerge in imago (sub-adult) form, and take flight moments later. In the next 24 hours, they will molt one last time to take their imago (adult) form and mate. The females will deposit their eggs, and a whole generation of mayflies will die, having spent only one day above water. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that the single mayfly freed by the Teales was a fertilized female. If 5 per cent of her fertilized eggs produced surviving young, and half of those were female, only half of whom were then fertilized and survived long enough to deposit eggs, those eggs would total 28,125. With that generation of eggs, presuming a 5 per cent survival rate, with half being female, half of whom were fertilized and survived long enough to deposit eggs, those eggs would total 527, 344. These figures are, of course, terribly oversimplified, but they are sufficiently representative of the potential long-term effect of one more surviving fertilized female mayfly. Perhaps Teale was not far off when he suggested that his and Nellie’s momentary act might in some small degree change the balance of the world.

The Second dimension of Teale’s apt example is grounded in fact. Dr. Kenneth Krieger of Heidelberg University, writing for the Ohio Sea Grant Extension, notes that, by the mid 1960s, the once-abundant mayfly populations of the western basin of Lake Erie had completely vanished, a casualty of eutrophication. Algal blooms and increased vegetation, a product of anthropogenic run-off, such as fertilizers and phosphate-heavy detergents, produced dissolved oxygen levels far below the critical thresholds for the survival of mayfly nymphs and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates. Five years after the publication of Journey Into Summer, the fifth chapter, “Mayfly Island,” transmuted from a contemporary account to a footnote in history. The lessons here are cogent: 1) abundance, in the face of significant anthropogenic change, is ephemeral, and 2) no life is cheap, and no act to preserve it entirely insignificant.

Only one sparrow in my home state of Connecticut, the grasshopper sparrow, is classified as endangered, and none are classified as threatened. Worldwide, the IUCN lists the white-throated sparrow as a species of least concern. So, one might question the conservation value of the “sparrow watch” in which my daughter and I engaged. Biologically speaking, our actions were almost certainly inconsequential, but their long-term conservation value is immense, despite the apparent dissonance. For those few weeks of summer, we chose, like the Teales, to be on the side of life. What better impulse could there be to underpin the movement to conserve and sustain both the resources and the biodiversity of our world? What better impulse could there be to foster in the next generation?

As an interesting footnote, mayflies began repopulating the western basin of Lake Erie in the early 1990s and by 2000 had grown to sizeable populations. The repopulation, according to Kenneth Krieger and others, is likely due in part to the long-term effects of the passage and enforcement of environmental legislation, including the Great Lakes Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act, both passed in 1972. The passage of these acts, no matter how grounded in science it might have been, likewise represented a choice to be on the side of life. While there is no possible empirical measure of the long-term effects of our individual conservation actions, those actions, no matter how small their scale, necessarily alter the balance of the world in some measure. Perhaps it is truly a question of scales, which, when elongated both spatially and temporally, beyond the range of our immediate and individual view, may shift dissonance to accord.