"Seton Castle...on the last rampart of the Rockies where the Buffalo Wind is blowing."

Monday, April 14, 2014

James West Has Never Seen The Blue Sky In His Life

After going to much effort to support Edgar M. Robinson (an executive with the YMCA) in the formation of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) during the summer of 1910, Ernest Thompson Seton soon found himself in conflict with BSA management. I have given an account of the conflict in my book on Seton.*

In this essay, I want to skip to the end, when Seton gave his resignation at a news conference held at his New York studio. His anger at BSA was triggered in part by a private nastygram from Dan Beard, but Seton aimed his public ire at James. E. West, the executive director of BSA. By then, the two had a built up a significant history of antagonism. Among other comments from Seton:

            It should be clearly stated…that I esteem the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts to be a splendid lot of men, giving freely of their time and money to the work. My only criticism is that they have allowed all direction and power to centre in the hands of James E. West, a lawyer who is a man of great executive ability but without knowledge of the activities of boys; who has no point of contact with boys, and who, I might also say, has never seen the blue sky in his life.

            “Blue sky” was the slightly mysterious term used by Seton’s Woodcraft League. It’s inclusion by Seton in lambasting West was no accident. But what is its meaning? Last fall I was copied an email discussion of this by two close observers of Scouting history, Nelson Block and Todd Plotner who took an interest in Seton’s 1915 exit from BSA. According to Mr. Plotner:

“The subtlety of the "blue sky" quote is interesting.  Although I'm far from certain, because the "Watch Words" for Woodcraft were "Blue Sky", it is possible to read that line in two different ways:  (1) West has never even gone outside and has no idea how an outdoor program works or (2) West has never seen the spiritual side of Woodcraft.  Clause (2) is somewhat more generous.”

As to the first possible meaning suggested by Mr. Plotner, slamming West for not being a blue sky outdoorsman was a cheap shot (or a spiteful one) by Seton. West, who had spent much of his boyhood in an orphanage, had a significant physical disability making walking difficult. He could never be a wilderness explorer like Seton or an active camping leader like Beard. Accusing him of not having contact with boys was factually incorrect. He had raised himself up from the most unpromising life circumstances (more difficult than what Seton overcame) to make a stellar career of youth activism on several fronts including advocacy for a juvenile justice system before joining BSA. 

The second criticism, a philosophical critique of West not understanding the spiritual context of nature and the outdoors is, I believe, much more damning, at least from Seton’s perspective: West is interested in paper shuffling and rule making and legal issues more than getting kids outside. West does not understand the communitarian values of service (based on American Indian tradition) nor the essential spiritual renewal that comes from connection with nature. “Blue sky” encompasses the mystical element inherent to contact with wild nature. Maybe. But while Seton and Beard were outdoors happily camping, someone really was needed to mind matters back at the office.
West came to represent for Seton a destruction of his dream of leading the outdoors education movement. More specifically, Seton wanted to be recognized as the spiritual father of Scouting, although he was happy enough to let others do the hard work of institution building (e.g. West). He meant to hurt West, and given several vengeful actions West subsequently took, Seton must have managed to wound him deeply. (Mr. Block commented: My study of the lives of West and Seton has made me an admirer of them both, though I must say I’m glad neither was my dad. Based on my work on Urner Goodman’s career, I have the impression that one of the jobs of the senior men at the old BSA national office during Dr. West’s tenure was to clean up relationships.  West ‘got things done’ but Goodman, Schuck and others ‘kept things going’”)

My thought is that Mr. Plotner’s interpretation of the two meanings of “Blue Sky” are both correct, although whether in the moment Seton meant to emphasize one or the other (or something else) will remain unknown. Although the use of “Blue Sky” was intentional, Seton may not have worked out the subtle implications in advance. Our later interpretations of statements made by literary figures may be more accurate that the author’s own conscious intent at the time. In the end, Seton and West were both highly successful in delivering devastating blows to the other. Lost in this fight were the interests of the children they were trying to serve, although both of them would have argued against my statement, saying they were solely motivated by what was best for children. And while Seton and West made America (and the world) better for their contributions, in their war of personality, they were rather more selfish than altruistic.

Wishing Blue Skies to all!

*For more insight into the quarrelsome and fascinating events of 1910-1915 see The Scouting Party by Dave Scott and Brendan Murphy; Ernest Thompson Seton: Man in Nature and the Progressive Era, by John Wadland; Ernest Thompson Seton, Founder of the Woodcraft Movement by Brian Morris; and Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist by David L. Witt - all available in the Seton Library at the Academy for the Love of Learning, Seton Village, Santa Fe. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Classics Illustrated Features Seton


Before the graphic novel, “Classics Illustrated, Featuring Stories by the World’s Greatest Authors,” put pictures to much abbreviated words retelling great stories from Alexandre Dumas and Daniel Defoe to Jack London and Ernest Thompson Seton. Several of these comic books appeared each year beginning in the 1940s. Of the reputed 169 issues, two were based on Seton’s work.
Issue 152, September 1959, sold for 15 cents. On the cover: Lobo. Inside: the stories of Lobo, Bingo, Raggylug, Wully, and the Pacing Mustang. For some reason, they represented Seton as an old man in a World War I vintage Scout uniform.
Issue 157, copyrighted October 1967, sold for 25 cents. On the cover: Krag. Inside: the stories of Krag, Johnny Bear, Mother Teal and the Overland Route, and Tito. The 1967 copy could be a re-issue, since Issue 157 could have originally been issued earlier in the sixties. With luck, someone reading this will know the answer – there seems to be a scholar for every occasion. Why should Classics Illustrated not be on someone’s sub-specialty list?

Whatever the chronology, I was more interested in the presentation. The stories, while very short, capture their essence. Whoever selected the stories made the right decisions in featuring Lobo and Krag,  his two most important. Not neglected: the sadness and violence of the originals (excepting Mother Teal which has a happy ending). Left out is the morality tale aspect – these are straight action/adventures. Nonetheless, young hearts were perhaps stirred by the tragedies of wolf and bighorn, rabbit and horse. Even in this brief format, the majesty, loyalty and heroism of the subject animals come through. 


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Canis lupus nubilus

"Lobo in the Four Traps" photo by ETS

Dear Lobo,

I am sending this out for the 120th anniversary of your death, January 31, 1894 – January 31, 2014. Your subspecies, Canis lupus nubilus became extinct during my lifetime or perhaps somewhat earlier. The date of your birth cannot be known, but Seton suggested you were at least five years old, so perhaps this year also marks your 125th birthday.

You first came to Seton’s attention through large tracks left in snow and mud, and then through mournful howling after the death of another member of your pack, perhaps your mate, based on your search for her after her death. You were entered into Seton’s journal as specimen number 677, photographed, and then gained immortality as the famous Lobo in the short story “The King of Currumpaw,” published about ten months after your death. As the lead character in Wild Animals I Have Known, you gained international stardom five years after your death. Your story has remained in print through the intervening decades with book sales perhaps reaching a million copies – a lot for one wolf.

Yours is a classic American story – a hero of the West matching strength and wits against all foes while demonstrating loyalty to your pack and love for your partner. You roamed the last days of the Old West, the canine version of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the last of a dying breed making a final heroic stand against impossible odds. And of course you lost the battle although you gained immortality.

Your cousins, Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican wolf, have faced and still face persecution by a variety of human enemies. They are named in honor of early 20th century biologist Vernon Bailey who advocated their extinction on the mistaken notion that game hunting would improve in the absence of wolves. Many of these wolves have also died heroically protecting their families and their way of life. The personal stories of these individuals have not been written, but they loved (and love) life as much as you, Lobo, loved yours.

Seton hoped that he would have crossed the great divide before the coyote might be exterminated from the West. They of course long survived Seton. But great predators throughout the world are endangered. I wonder if I will cross the great divide before the wild African lions or Indian tigers are gone from the wild? They too have wonderful individual stories that we cannot know. The future will be a bleak place without lions and tigers and wolves. If more people knew your story, maybe this would change.

Lobo, you represent all that is good and valiant about the wild. May memory of you live on forever.




(There is more about Lobo in my earlier blog postings)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Animal Communication

The December 9, 2013 Time cover story – “America’s Pest Problem” – called for the mass extermination of wildlife. Apparently, wild animals are inconveniently in our way. This appallingly unconscious attitude suggests that, as pervasive as Seton’s influence is, that influence has not penetrated everywhere.
By contrast, Aaron Stern, founder of the Academy for the Love of Learning, sent me a link to a documentary about a South African woman who has achieved a remarkable level of empathy for our wild brethren. The film shows her using a special talent to actually communicate with animals. (http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11936/The-Animal-Communicator)
From the film promo:

“Synopsis: What if you could talk to animals and have them talk back to you?

Anna Breytenbach has dedicated her life to what she calls interspecies communication. She sends detailed messages to animals through pictures and thoughts. She then receives messages of remarkable clarity back from the animals.”

Compare this to “The Wolf and the Primal Law” in Seton’s Great Historic Animals (1937). In this story, about the accidental betrayal of a wolf by a wolf lover, Seton resurrects his alter ego “Yan.” In earlier stories, he used Yan when writing about his own adventures and abilities. It seems that Yan, like Anna Breytenbach in 2012, can directly communicate with wild animals.

“He was intensely sensitive, and had the most amazing sympathy with animals – not only sympathy, but knowledge of, and an understanding that amounted to telepathy. I have seen him walk gently up to a wild deer feeding out in the open, a deer that would have fled at speed from any one else.”

Indignant at the brutality of a zoo keeper attempting to transfer a leopard from one cage to another, Yan literally steps in, assuring the keeper that “there is no danger.”

“He talked softly to the leopard for a minute…. Yan went in, softly crooning a little purring sound in which were often heard the words: ‘Now Pussy; now, Pussy! Fear not, we are friends; we are friends.

There is no reason to suppose that the leopard understood the words; but he got the friendly emanations. His hair no longer bristled; his growling ceased; his eyes were not now flowing; his long whit whiskers like antennae took in the kind vibrations. The look of anger died away; and gently talking, Yan reached out his wand and scratched the leopard on the head. Gradually, the spotted savage head went down, the creature leaned toward the boy, and a low, deep, catlike purring was heard. It grew louder; and Yan continued making medicine with his song, and nearer came, till his hand could touch and stroke the leopard’s head.” (pg. 121-122)

We can only hope that someday the lessons of Seton, Breytenbach, and others like them will overcome the reactionary thinking of those for whom the others beings with which we share this earth are perceived only as inconveniences.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Work of Ernest Thompson Seton by Nancy Bell

Here are excerpts from an article appearing in The Humane Review, an anti-animal cruelty journal, published in London, April 1903, pp. 11 – 20. A copy of the journal, from the Seton Castle Archives, is found in the Seton Gallery library at the Academy for the Love of Learning.

IN these days of eager haste to acquire knowledge at no matter what cost, and feverish haste to turn that knowledge to material account, it is refreshing to consider the work of a reverent student of nature who, from first to last, has recognized the sanctity of life given by the Great Creator, whatever form that life may assume, and has never allowed his ideal to be obscured by any pandering to expediency. With eyes trained by long discipline to observe accurately; a brain capable of computing the relative value of that which is observed; a memory schooled to retain and compare results; and, perhaps most effective of all, so far as winning converts is concerned, a poet’s power of kindling in others his own enthusiasm, Mr. Ernest Thompson Seton has indeed won the right to be called a leader in the campaign against ignorance, prejudice, and selfishness now being waged by the greatest thinkers of the day….

Many others have striven to prove the danger of upsetting the balance of nature; many eloquent men have preached the doctrines of mercy and forbearance towards those unable to plead for themselves; but it was the luminous eloquence of the great naturalist which first brought home to the hearts of the rising generation with convincing force the kinship between animals and men, and aroused a genuine healthy interest in the primal joys and woes of the wild creatures he knows so well….

That he has succeeded not only in arousing but in retaining those sympathies [towards wildlife conservation] there can be no doubt, and he may yet live to see the movement he has inaugurated spread throughout the civilised world….

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Buffalo Wind and Seton

October 23, 2013, 67th Anniversary of Seton’s Death

In his short mystical essay, The Buffalo Wind (1938), Seton considered his own passing:

The swift years have gone – the urge becomes a lash. I am going now – I am going with all my strength. So have I sought a homeland under the white Snow Peaks – where Trail meets Trail – and far away, flashing and bright, the Red Man’s River seeks the open sea.

Seton arrived at this level of understanding only after experiencing several spiritual storms during his lifetime. In each case, he gained insight about the esoteric part of nature. The main section of my book Ernest Thompson Seton, the Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist concluded with a consideration of these experiences. In some cases he heard voices, but in one case he did not. He wrote:

A friend loaned me a book, The Shades of Shasta, much of good picture and much of sordid meanness in it. But always when the writer told of Shasta, it was noble. In the end, the Indians of Shasta were massacred – massacred by the Christians – all their love and dreams of the Great Mountain were forgotten. And the writer stood alone on the high shoulder, to look before leaving it all. There was no human sound – the quail whistled in the grass, and the wind moaned in the cedars and the grass, and moaned farewell. My eyes blurred. I knew that he had heard it. The book dropped from my hand, for “The Buffalo Wind is blowing!”

The account of the Shasta Indian’s tragic tale triggered a spiritual storm in Seton, an important moment of existential insight. In this case, however, Seton’s words have given rise to a literary mystery. We have not found a book with the title, The Shades of Shasta.

Intrigued by this, Seton researcher Bob Hare found a different book: Unwritten History: Life Amongst the Modocs by Joaquin Miller, published by the American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut, 1874 and dedicated “To the Red Men of America.” Miller gave an account of his times among the remnant Modoc people. He titled his first chapter, “Shadows of Shasta.” Here are a couple of relevant quotes from Miller; note how close Seton came to remembering the original:

Captain Wright proposed to meet the chiefs in council, for the purpose of making a lasting and permanent treaty. The Indians consented, and the leaders came in. “Go back” said Wright, “and bring in all your people; we will have a council, and celebrate our peace.” The Indians came in great numbers, laid down their arms, and then at a sign Wright and his men fell upon them, and murdered them without mercy. Captain Wright boasted on his return that he had made a permanent treaty with at least a thousand Indians...The mountain streams went foaming down among the boulders between the leaning walls of yew and cedar trees towards Sacramento. The partridge whistled and called his flock together when the sun went down; the brown pheasants rustled as they ran in strings through the long brown grass, but nothing else was heard.

Miller finally met up with a few survivors, although none of those known to him from earlier years were still alive. He quoted one of them:

All along the shores stood deserted lodges, and the grass grew rank and tall around them. They had been depopulated for years... “Once,” [said one of the few survivors] “we were so many we could not all upon this hill; now we are all in one little cawel,”* and here he made a solemn sweep with her arm, which was very grand.

Seton likely read Life Amongst the Modocs decades before writing the Buffalo Wind essay just before his 78th birthday. The power of the experience created by Miller’s words had not diminished. The 1874 book is in digitalized format at www.openlibrary.org.

*I could not find a definition for this word.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Utah Rock Vandals Should Read Woodcraft Conservation Statement

Two Boy Scout troop leaders were in the news this week and last for vandalizing a geological formation in Utah. Destruction of our natural and national heritage is of course contrary to the most basic principles of Scouting and Woodcraft. This reckless and stupid behavior was rightly denounced by BSA. One can easily imagine how appalled Seton would have been to hear that the core value of conservation was so flagrantly violated. He was no fan of ignorance. Seton did not mention ancient rocks, but no doubt would have if he could have predicted the behavior of the Utah yahoos. These jokers need a remedial class in common sense.

Here is a short Seton statement on conservation from the Birch Bark Roll (1930). I’ll put it in red so as to get the attention of the uninitiated!

“In my young days some 50 odd years ago, trees were considered the greatest plague of the settler, and every means of destroying them was employed with vigor. The man who cut down a tree on his neighbor’s land was supposed to be doing him a benefit.

Now what a change we see! Forest destruction has gone so fast and so far that we have been suddenly confronted with the probability of a woodless waste where once were the American forests famous the world over; with a desolated deliberately desolated, fatherland.

We know these things today, and wise leaders are everywhere at work inculcating the methods of true conservation.

With these leaders, the Woodcraft League co-operates, and to this end, we have in this issue of the Birch Bark Roll carefully avoided any line of activity that seems likely to lead to destruction of any of Mother Nature’s blessings.

Collections of butterflies and birds we no longer encourage, baskets made of materials where their use would be a menace to our forest resources are not now listed for honors. On the other hand, the placing of bird boxes, the planting of trees, and dissemination of wild flowers and the destruction of tent caterpillars, etc., are cited as honorable Woodcraft activities.

Feel free to pass on this conservation message to anyone you feel is in need of it.