Geography: Traveling the World Through the Pages of a Book
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. –Saint Augustine (354-430)
The ancient Greek, Strabo (c. 64 BC-24 AD), is credited with writing the first complete book of geography, in the years that Augustus Caesar reigned as emperor of the vast Roman Empire. Because travel was difficult in the ancient world, and most people, with the exception of merchants and sailors, rarely traveled far from the homes of their birth, knowledge of the world was very limited. But with the reign of peace brought about under Augustus, Strabo changed all that when he traveled extensively in what was then the known world. He traveled throughout Asia Minor, into Egypt to the border of Ethiopia, into Tuscany, and many other parts of Europe. What Strabo’s Geographica did was to combine the knowledge of the land and topography of regions with anthropological information, which proved invaluable to all future students of history, philosophy and science.
Strabo’s Geographica demonstrates the importance of travel to having a broad and informed knowledge of the world, its peoples, customs, and beliefs. The notion that travel expands us in good ways is summed up in Mark Twain’s maxim: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” While this is a worthy goal and often desirable in youth, when responsibilities are few and freedom is possible, travel is an option to any and all who simply open the pages of a good book. Indeed, it might be stated that by traveling extensively through literature, one is truly prepared for the lessons of life one will meet in future far-flung places.
An award-winning children’s author who understood the importance of literature and travel to inform his youthful readers about the beauty and wonder of the natural world, was Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973). His most popular books created a new genre of children’s literature–the geo-history. But in these books, the travelers are not human, but are creations of the author’s imagination. Holling understood how central the element of adventure is to his audience, and so he created anthropomorphic1 characters that readers can identify with–a tiny Indian canoe, a lone cottonwood tree on the Great Plains, a baby snapping turtle, and an ivory bird–carved by a young sailor. By following their travels, readers learn painlessly important facts of history, science and geography.
Holling’s most well-known work is titled Paddle-to-the-Sea and is the story of an Indian boy who carves a tiny canoe with an Indian figure, which he names Paddle-to-the-Sea. He inscribes upon the bottom, “Please put me back in water, I am Paddle to the Sea.” (image here) The boy then places the canoe at the headwaters to the Great Lakes, where it will eventually follow the currents, tides, and winds though each of the Great Lakes, and finally to the Saint Lawrence River and out to the Atlantic Ocean. The genius of this work, is that in following the intrepid adventures of this tiny canoe, the reader learns all about the history, geography, ecology, and industry of the majestic Great Lakes. Paddle barely survives a trip through a sawmill, a fishing net, a vast forest fire, and a fall over Niagara Falls; but he is also the object of care and kindness of many human characters he encounters along the way. He also sojourns for some time in a marsh, a pond, and passes through the giant locks of Sault Ste. Marie. As befits his noble Indian character, the tiny passenger is always brave, stoic and undaunted.
In Tree in the Trail, the author creates an intriguing story around a young cottonwood sapling growing up on the Great Plains long before the white man “discovered” these areas. Nurtured and protected by a young Kansas Indian, the tree grows to become a symbol of significance for the Indian tribes–Kansas, Sioux, Pawnee, Comanche and Dakota, that seek shelter in its shade and ascribe meaning to its survival. Detailed and lavish illustrations reveal the way of the life of the buffalo hunting tribes, their customs and beliefs. Eventually Spanish conquistadores, French trappers, and then American frontiersmen pass by, each leaving a mark of some kind upon the tree. While wildlife build nests, rest, and take shelter under the tree, lonely frontiersmen leave messages for the folks back home at this “post office”. This beautiful panorama of life over a period of 200 years, is told with authenticity and warmth. The tree is eventually struck by lightning, dies, and is chopped down to make a yoke to travel the Santa Fe Trail. Now the tree that had been rooted so long, is free to travel and discover the world of the wild, wild West.
In Minn of the Mississippi, a baby snapping turtle hatches out of its protective shell at Little Elk Lake, Minnesota, one of the headwaters of the Ol’ Miss–little knowing it will eventually travel a long and winding journey to the Gulf of Mexico–over 2500 miles away. At just a tad over an inch long, the tiny snapper is vulnerable to hungry crows, mischievous boys, and ravenous pickerel, fishing for a tasty snack. These dangers prove nearly fatal for the little turtle, and though she manages to survive, she does so minus one rear leg, shot off by a careless boy shooting at crows. Thus begins the intrepid adventures of Minn, who, in the course of her travels will encounter raccoons, mink, otter, muskrats, beaver, and a host of other river creatures.
Minn will live in a river that has been witness to thousands of years of history from the ancient Indian Mound Builders, to numerous American Indian tribes, to frontiersmen of French and American stripe, and to Civil War soldiers transported upon this watery highway. Minn will encounter every conceivable mode of river transport, and the various types of men and women that ply these waters. Minn will learn that this river is ever-changing its course, carving, cutting, creating, new paths for itself, while wiping out and forever burying its past under layers and layers of mud.
In Seabird, a ship’s boy named Ezra at watch on an 18th century whaler, when the sudden uplift of a seagull in flight alerts him to a dangerous iceberg dead ahead. The boy’s gratitude to the seabird for saving the ship from almost certain destruction inspires him to carve an ivory seabird as a mascot for the ship and crew. This seabird travels the Seven Seas with Ezra as the crew seeks out the lucrative whale for the oil and other commodities necessary to life in that day.
For mates aboard a whaling ship, life is not only a traveling adventure, but the pursuit of whales is a deadly hair-raising challenge in itself. Ezra learns firsthand the heart-stopping fear of a Nantucket sleighride, the terror and power of being high in the rigging during a raging storm “South of the Line” and the tedious boredom of life at sea for years on end. But Ezra also experiences the azure beauty of the islands of the South Seas, the exotic sights and sounds of Chinese ports, and the magnificence of the earth’s largest living mammal–the whale.
The story of Seabird traverses three generations of seamen–Ezra, his son Nate, and his grandson Jim. In the course of their lives, the sea and the ships that ply her, change from the seagoing whale ship, to the swift and sleek merchant Clipper ships, to the age of the steamship. Seabird is handed down through these generations, a symbol of the courage of those “That go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep”2.
Holling Clancy Holling, along with his wife Lucille, have created an enduring literary legacy for youthful adventurers who are still a bit young to take off traveling on their own. His works have inspired generations of children to study geography, history, and the natural world and quite likely, later on, to throw on the traveler’s backpack, and see the world. Proving the maxim of Emily Dickenson that
“There is no Frigate like a book
To take us Lands away. . .”3
1. An anthropomorphic character is an inanimate object, a plant or animal, who has been given human characteristics and qualities. This literary technique is often used in children’s literature to enable young readers to identify with a particular creation or character invented by the author.
2. Psalm 107:23.
3. Dickenson, Emily. Complete Poems. Accessed 29 December 2011 at: http://www.bartleby.com/113/1099.html
- Paddle-to-the-Sea (reaberg.com)