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Monday, May 21, 2012

Tree in the Trail, the Newest Septuagenarian

Tree in the Trail will be 70 years old this year — not a long time in some trees’ lives, but an eternity for many books. Still, readership of this evergreen classic (no pun) continues to grow. Parents are still buying the book for their children, as are grandparents who want to share a country whose values are changing too quickly.

Holling tells the story of a young Native-American boy in New Mexico who nurtures and protects a cottonwood sapling from bison who water nearby. Years later, in the 1540s, Coronado passes by the tree in his search for gold, the Sioux journey through the area, and the Spanish camp out beneath its branches. They’re followed by trappers and pioneers who trek across what becomes the Santa Fe Trail. Three hundred years pass before the tree grows old and dies, but its wood is fashioned into an ox yoke by Jed Simpson, a wagon-master. This lends a kind of immortality to the tree.

Half of the beauty in this book lies in the paintings and illustrations by Holling and his wife Lucille. The sidebar drawings are particularly choice (and instructive) as Holling shows how wood was cut and shaped into a yoke, draws diagrams of a Conestoga wagon, provides area maps, and explains types of arrowheads. It’s no wonder that home-schooling parents keep coming back to Holling’s work to teach natural history.

In fact, it’s time for me to order a copy for my five-year-old grandson. My copy of Tree in the Trail was bought by my parents for my brother in June 1944. The cover is torn, the binding is wobbly, and it smells like an old book, but I love it. Happily, copies are still available for less than $10.00. Isn’t that remarkable in this day and age of texting, speed reading and disposable writing?

A Surprise Discovery   I was looking at online bookstores to see how readers have received the book, and discovered a review from 1999. Nedd Mockler wrote on the Web site, “Fifty-seven years ago at the request of his mother I visited Holling C. Holling at his California ranch. I was eight years old. He asked me to pose for a few sketches he wanted to do. Later that year he sent me the book Tree in the Trail. Inside the front cover he had written ‘For Nedd Mockler, who posed for the Indian boy in this book. With best wishes, Holling C. Holling.’ The inscription is dated Dec. 1942.”

I’ve written to Mr. Mockler asking for other reminiscences he has of this exciting event and will share any results with you.