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Monday, June 5, 2017

A New Examination of Holling’s Environmentalism

One of the joys of writing about the Hollings is the number of unsolicited queries and thank-you's I receive.  Recently, an e-mail came from Lowell Wyse, a PhD candidate in American Literature at Loyola University Chicago.  He came across this blog while doing research on Paddle-to-the-Sea. 
Paddle's route through the Great Lakes.

At this moment, he’s teaching at a college in Peru and drafting a paper on Paddle for the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), which will take place at Wayne State University in Detroit.  His topic will be (whew!) “Ecospatial Orientation in the Great Lakes Watershed: Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea.” 

In an abstract, he states, “The Great Lakes are bowls on a hillside pouring into one another.  Lake Superior is a wolf’s head, and Lake Michigan is a summer squash.  Lake Saint Clair is a heart pumping red iron ore, ‘the life blood of industry.’  These are a few of the many memorable images from Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea (1941), a remarkable work of children’s literature that is also an imaginative natural and cultural history of the Great Lakes bioregion. 

“This slim little picture book details the journey of the eponymous toy canoe, carved by a schoolboy in Ontario's Nipigon Country, north of Lake Superior.  The boy places Paddle in the snowy hills before the spring thaw and trusts the watershed to do its work, carrying the toy boat through the entire Great Lakes system and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  Urged on by water currents, human intervention, and plenty of good fortune, the toy figure becomes not only a tourist of the watershed, but also a traveling palimpsest and a cartographic index, as the people who find it carve inscriptions and locations into its hull.” 

His position in presenting this paper is that “Paddle-to-the-Sea is an important and highly accessible work of Great Lakes environmental literature, a text that highlights the spatiality of the natural world — which I refer to as ecospatiality — a dynamic too often ignored by contemporary ecocriticism.  Through its unique story, maps, and other illustrations, the book deftly demonstrates the connectedness of nature, geography, and culture.  Written at the dawn of World War II, it also glorifies American industrialization in a way that is troubling (for an ecocritic), yet somehow quaint, as we look backward from the Rust Belt Era.” 

Much has happened — culturally, economically and sociologically — in the 75 years since Paddle was published.  But it’s heartening to feel that one of the great writers of books for young people has remained a positive force as we wrestle to better understand our environment and climate change.