Thursday, April 08, 2010

Paddle to the Sea

I have written here before about David Nash's Wooden Boulder which took twenty-five years to be carried from a Welsh river to the open sea.  Nash documented its slow progress through the landscape, but has now lost sight of it.  "The wooden boulder was last seen in June 2003 on a sandbank near Ynys Giftan. All creeks and marshes have been searched so it can only be assumed it has made its way to the sea. It is not lost. It is wherever it is.”

I've just been watching with my three year old son the short film, Paddle to the Sea, made in 1966 by Bill Mason. It follows the journey of a small wooden canoe, carved by a lonely boy in the woods of west Ontario, as it is carried by currents through lakes and rivers until eventually being found at the sea by a lighthouse keeper.  He releases it back into the Atlantic Ocean where, like Nash's boulder, its ultimate destination is unknown.

How different they are - a huge wooden boulder that Nash was unable to transport, slowly pushed to the sea when the currents are powerful enough to move it, and a light model canoe floating at the mercy of the elements.  One makes its way down to the Atlantic through the river Dwyry, the other is carried across twenty-two thousand miles of the vast Canadian landscape.  Paddle to the Sea was immediately lost to its creator, whilst the Wooden Boulder became a constant presence for Nash over a period of twenty five years.  Nash's work was accidental and its narrative unfolded by chance, whilst Mason's film is fictional, based on an original picture book by Holling C. Holling, published in 1941.

On the Criterion site Michael Koresky gives a good description of the film and describes the efforts Mason went to, taking 'the exact route through the Great Lakes and down the Saint Lawrence River illustrated in the book—both a visualization of Holling’s work and a pilgrimage. ...  The most dangerous part of the shoot was, unsurprisingly, at Niagara Falls, where Mason dropped his 16 mm camera, secured by a line anchored to a telephone pole, eighty feet down the fierce waterfall.  The filmmaking adventures notwithstanding, Paddle to the Sea is perhaps more remarkable for the patience and contemplative silences of its storytelling, beautifully typified in the placid exterior of its impervious main character. Though it’s never fully anthropomorphized by the film’s narration, the piece of wood becomes a character in its own right. Even when threatened by curious wildlife, including sea snakes, gulls, and frogs, or the looming machinery and pollution of mankind, Paddle simply smiles, an oasis of serenity amid nature’s unstoppable, alternately merciless and merciful, flow. In one of Mason’s most extraordinary moments, the tiny carved figure floats, still and upright as ever, silhouetted against a sky of blooming Fourth of July fireworks in Detroit harbor; he’s either oblivious to these odd, man-made pleasures or watching intently with alien awe, but the narrator refuses to impose a reading.'

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