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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

An Academic Look at Holling's Work


Lowell Wyse dropped me a line from Lima, Peru, where he was teaching and working toward his doctoral dissertation.  His subject: Holling Clancy Holling!  Of course, I invited him to pass along his thoughts for our blog, and this is what he wrote:
 
Dear Readers,
I first stumbled upon this blog last year, as I was preparing to give a presentation on Paddle-to-the-Sea for an academic conference on literature and the environment. I was thrilled to come across this resource, and I reached out to Walt, who very generously scanned and sent me a copy of the most comprehensive history of the Hollings, a 1958 Master’s thesis by Hazel Gibb Hinman, which I’d had trouble locating. I’m excited to be writing this guest post as small thanks for Walt’s help and a chance to connect with my fellow Holling fans.
Like most of Holling’s readers, I imagine, my interest in Paddle-to-the-Sea goes back to my childhood in  Hillsdale County, Michigan. To this day, a copy of the book remains in the tiny library of the tiny church I attended, and the library card shows that I checked it out every few months in my later elementary school years. I remember, as a kid, loving the book’s sense that the Great Lakes mattered, and that they were somehow connected to all the other waters of the earth. I also liked imagining the life of the Native American boy who carves the toy, a small connection to my own identity as a descendent of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. (I am of Swiss, French, and Ojibwe descent, with a tribal relationship to the Lac Courte Oreilles and Fond du Lac bands of Lake Superior Chippewa in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.) 
Above all, Paddle taught me that I lived in a watershed—specifically, I later learned, on the East Fork of the West Branch of the St. Joseph River of the Maumee River Watershed, which drains to Lake Erie. But it was only recently, as a scholar working on issues related to place and mapping in literature, that I realized this book’s connection to my doctoral research: Paddle-to-the-Sea was my dissertation in microcosm! 
To a large extent, my research is grounded in the unique view of the natural world that Holling highlighted in Paddle-to-the-Sea, an understanding of the environment as simultaneously geographical, ecological, and historical. In my dissertation, I refer to this as my theory of ecospatiality, and I use this concept as a way of discussing how place operates in literary texts. In my view, we can’t understand place unless we see both nature and geography; they are like the two lenses in a pair of glasses. Looking through them means seeing ecospatially and adopting a more holistic understanding of places in the world. 
Paddle-to-the-Sea demonstrates this ecospatial sense of place extremely well. By this I mean that Paddle, the toy canoe that travels the whole Great Lakes watershed, is always both a part of the natural world, subject to winds and waves and human intervention, and a point on the map, a kind of geographical marker that Holling uses to tell the story of the Great Lakes. Illustrating how the watershed works, Holling memorably compares it to “bowls on a hillside,” and Paddle’s travels allow the author to map the region in story form (which scholars are now calling “literary cartography”). 
Of course, the narrative also includes actual maps that Holling drew, which allow readers to track the boat’s progress during his four-year journey. These maps explicitly pose the major events of the story, as well as other pertinent facts and illustrations, alongside Paddle’s course, often with labels indicating, “Paddle is here” (33) or “where Paddle is now” (17). In effect, Holling uses the illustrative cartography of his maps to supplement the literary cartography of the narrative; indeed, the two are ultimately inseparable.
 Another set of maps and drawings focuses on teaching Great Lakes geography. As Paddle travels through each new lake, a new series of illustrations appears, generating a comparison between the shape of the water body and an image relating to the local natural and/or cultural environment. Lake Michigan is a squash with leaves, and Lake Erie (ever the outcast!) is likened to a lump of coal. This imagery not only encourages readers to memorize names and concepts surrounding Great Lakes geographical and cultural identity, but also promotes an ecospatial viewpoint that supplements the primary plot of travel in and through the watershed.
 


 

 
My favorite map is the first one that appears in the book, which shows the watershed in its entirety. In it, the headwaters in Ontario appear at an exaggerated elevation, as a mountain of snow with a colorful sun blazing down on it. But the most interesting feature of this illustration is the way in which the hydrological features—lakes, rivers, and piles of snow—are made to obscure the lines of latitude and longitude. In effect, Holling has cleverly superimposed a painting of the watershed on top of a U.S. political map. It is as though, once the snow melts, the map will be revealed instead of the earth itself! This is a unique way of thinking about a place in the world, and I see it as a memorable mage of ecospatiality.

  Paddle-to-the-Sea is not a perfect book, by any means. The book’s Native American imagery includes elements of caricature, at times invoking the “silent Indian” and “noble savage” stereotypes. And from a more narrowly environmental standpoint, the book seems to celebrate industry without thinking about the ecological consequences. At one point, Paddle is covered with the red dust from iron shipping, which today we would recognize as severe water pollution. These are not minor concerns; on both subjects—environmentalism and representing Native peoples—it might be fair to say that Holling was insufficiently ahead of his time.         
For my part, I hope to continue researching and writing about Holling’s life and work. With Paddle-to-the-Sea he established a successful formula—the blend of the travel motif with environmental history— with imaginative stories like Tree in the Trail (1942), which depicts two centuries of Santa Fe trail history from the perspective of a prominent cottonwood, and Minn of the Mississippi (1951), which follows a snapping turtle hatchling (Huck Finn-like) all the way down the Mississippi River. I am excited to have rediscovered this great American author, and I hope that another generation of readers will be inspired to do the same! 


Dr. Lowell Wyse holds a Ph.D. in Modern Literature and Culture from Loyola University Chicago. His research interests include American literature, travel writing, environmental studies, mapping, and spatiality/place studies. Originally from the Maumee Watershed in Hillsdale County, Michigan, he is currently working as an Assistant Professor of English for Broward College (Florida) at the Center for Global Education in Lima, Peru. His presentation for the 2017 biennial conference for the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) in Detroit was entitled “Ecospatial Orientation in the Great Lakes Watershed:
 



 
 
 
 

 



 

 
 


 




 


 

 

 



 

 


 

 
 
 
 
 
 



 



 
 
 
 
 
 

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