Geography: Traveling the World Through the Pages of a Book

Published with Permission

Written by Rea Berg

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”—Saint Augustine

The ancient Greek, Strabo (c. 64 B.C.–24 A.D.), is credited with writing the first complete book of geography during the years that Augustus Caesar reigned as emperor of the vast Roman Empire. Because travel was difficult in the ancient world and the fact that most people, with the exception of merchants and sailors, rarely traveled far from the homes of their birth, knowledge of the world was extremely limited. However, 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 to many other parts of Europe. In his Geographica, Strabo was the first 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 in order to develop 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.

Holling Clancy Holling (1900–1973) was a children’s author who understood the importance of literature and travel to inform his readers of the wonder of the natural world. His most popular books created a new genre of children’s literature­—the geo-history. In these books, the travelers are not human but are creations of the author’s imagination. Holling understood how central the element of adventure was to his audience, 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 important facts of history, science, and geography painlessly.

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 these words on the bottom of the canoe: “Please put me back in water. I am Paddle to the Sea.” The boy then places the canoe at the headwaters of the Great Lakes, and it eventually follows the currents, tides, and winds though each of the Great Lakes, finally sailing 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 not only survives a trip through a sawmill, a vast forest fire, and a fall over Niagara Falls, but he is also the object of care and kindness offered by many human characters he encounters along the way. He also sojourns for some time in a marsh and a pond, and he 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 significant symbol for the Indian tribes:Kansas, Sioux, Pawnee, Comanche, and Dakota, who 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, including 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. The massive cottonwood tree is not only home and shelter to the wildlife of the area but is also the “post office” of lonely frontiersmen who leave messages on it for the folks back home. This beautiful panorama of life encompassing a period of two hundred years is told with authenticity and warmth.

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