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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.


  1. Dear friends, back in the mid-1950s, I taught my self to really read in order to read "Seabird". among my older brothers' books, as the text was a bit more sophisticated than what we were reading in the 2nd grade at Sierra Madre School. I soon found and read Holling's other books. Years later, I learned that our family friends, the Eagle Rock, Ca sculptor, Jan Deswart and his wife Ursula, were friends with the Hollings. He had died, but i was able to visit Lucille at their home on the Linda Vista mesa in Pasadena in 1976. I have a picture, taken of me, holding the original "Paddle-to-the-sea" carving they picked up during one of their wandering driving/trailer trips in the 1930s. I have also learned that HCH was a member, as I am, of The Grand Ignoble Order of E Clampus Vitus, a mens' California History and Drinking Society (not necessarily in that order), a fact that makes me appreciate him all the more. I have given later edition copies of his books to many young people, hoping that they will be as excited and intrigued as I was. Anyone who was touched by Holling and Lucille Holling is a better person for the experience, and I am happy to be a part of this slice of the blogosphere.

    I now live in Hopewell Junction, NY, in the Mid-Hudson Valley north of NYC and would be happy to correspond with any of you.

    Best regards,

    john Potter

    1. John, forgive me for not replying sooner. The Holling blog is just one of the many things crying for attention and I'm neglectful at time. I'd dearly love to see a photo of you holding the original Paddle carving--and to share it with Joan Hoffman at the museum in Michigan. Would it be possible to scan or digitize the picture and e-mail it to me at Many thanks in advance, and apologies for not responding sooner!