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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Arctic Travel Account #1: Expedition Planning Tips

Illustration from The Arctic Prairies



Summer, forty-two years ago, I came across Seton’s account of his 1907 exploration of the Arctic Prairies. I thought at the time that re-creating that adventure, or at least a part of it, would be a worthy goal. Finally, after years of desiring, I am just days away from the beginning of that trip. Thomas and Patty are joining me from the Academy for the Love of Learning.

Our journey begins where Seton’s ultimately ended (in 1946), Santa Fe. Quick flight to Denver, then a longer flight to Calgary, then another flight to Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake, capital of the Northwest Territories. The Arctic has its challenges (weather, grizzly bears, mosquitoes, etc.) but the only one that bothers me is making airplane connections – three different airplanes and two airlines to get to Yellowknife. Arrival there scheduled for 9:00 pm. There we will join up with project co-curator Michale.

I will be making travel notes along the way; I searched for but did not find any publications on how to plan an expedition. Among the four of us we have considerable wilderness experience, but it is the advance preparation that may be the greatest challenge. So I will present a planning few tips.

Why are you doing this? Lots of money and at least some risk is involved. TIP 1: Write out a statement of purpose. What is the justification for the expenditure? What do you hope to accomplish? How will you share what you learn? We have spent considerable time on this. Several people have edited and re-edited my original statement of purpose; it may also get additional post-expedition revisions. Our historical research will result in publications and exhibitions; we have not discounted the possibility of personal growth as well.

Pre-positioned supplies at Aylmer are limited. When Seton went there, additional supplies were non-existent. We are working with an outfitter who will supply food and much camping equipment, but not everything. Whatever we don’t take we won’t have. TIP 2: Make sure you understand what gear you will need, create a checklist to use when packing. Share the list among the expedition participants to make sure all anticipated needs are covered, but also be mentally prepared (as much as possible) for the unexpected.

The following morning we need to arrive at the Air Tindi Float Plane Base at 5:30am. Planning the trip to avoid such a tight schedule that allows for no major delays of airplane cancellations would have been a better course. TIP 3: Get to your location (Yellowknife, in our case) well in advance to avoid stressing out over missing air connections.

If you are planning to conduct research (this is a working trip, not a vacation), develop a workflow plan. I have put this together along the lines of the scripts I develop for museum exhibitions. Our goal is to explore and photograph the most important areas around Aylmer Lake visited by Edward Preble, Seton, and their two First Nations companions.

I have spent months studying maps starting with those drawn by Seton, and continuing with a contemporary topographical map and satellite imagery from Google Earth. Combined with Seton and Preble’s written accounts, I found GPS coordinates for all the places we need to reach. I know what days we need to be where and what we need to accomplish once we reach each of those places TIP 4: Know your territory before you even get there. Our time there is both short (eight days) and expensive ($$$$) so creating a daily schedule should get us the most value out of our time.

Anticipate what might go wrong (starting with TIP 1). In addition to travel delays, what happens in case of major medical injuries? If you are so wealthy that the prospect of spending tens of thousands of dollars on medical evacuation is not daunting, then you don’t need the remainder of this paragraph, although you should consider making a substantial donation to the Academy for the Love of Learning to help underwrite the expense of this trip. TIP 5: Get travel and medical insurance to cover as many disaster contingencies as you can imagine.

TIP 6: The Arctic sees lots of summer travelers. Be sure to make needed hotel reservations well in advance. Also, let your credit card company know you are planning out of the ordinary expenses.

TIP 7: Remember to take all your research files (old maps and written accounts in our case) and photographs. I will read (possibly aloud) the words of Seton and Preble to guide and inspire us.

TIP 8: Take a satellite phone or other communication device. Establish regular check-in time with home base: family members and/or co-workers should have a copy of the expedition member’s contact list. One person should be designated as the home base contact.

TIP 9: After the expedition, evaluate by comparing what you thought you might learn or experience with whatever actually happened. Were the original purposes met? Did new ones emerge? 
 
After each adventure like this, I return to all the above criteria and reassess, starting re-creating gear lists of what I took needlessly or what I should have brought. I will also review every other category to see how I might have improved on the plan.

Apparently Seton and Preble did a good job of planning as they returned alive from a nearly six-month canoe trip. We can only hope to do as well as they did.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Academy Expedition to Aylmer Lake


Ernest Thompson Seton and the Search for Canada’s Lost Great Lake, The Aylmer Lake/Arctic Prairies Expeditions 1907/2015
An Exhibition and Book Project of the Academy for the Love of Learning

In 1907 forty-six year old artist, naturalist, and co-creator of the wildlife conservation and Scouting movements, Ernest Thompson Seton, began the greatest wilderness adventure of his extraordinary life. He led a six-month, 2000-mile canoe voyage into the Barren Lands northeast of Great Slave Lake (Northwest Territories). In The Arctic Prairies he chronicled the people and environment found along the way, including his destination, the fabled Aylmer Lake:

            Imagine a region of low Achaean hills, extending one thousand miles each way,    subjected for thousands of years to a continual succession of glaciers, crashing,      grinding, planing, smoothing, ripping up and smoothing again, carrying off whole    ranges of broken hills…

I have long imagined following Seton’s route over the cottongrass covered tundra, watching for Arctic Wolves, Musk Ox, and Caribou under the midnight sun along the shores of Aylmer Lake, far north of the Boreal forests and just south of the Arctic Circle. This summer I will lead an expedition there. Based on Seton’s maps, photographs, drawings and journals, we will follow in his footsteps, concentrating on the areas around the lake that he explored 108 years ago.

We will chronicle our experiences in video and still photography, and in words, reacting to and inspired by that earlier journey. In his time, Seton—who was a scientist and social innovator—made significant contributions to ecology, ethology and youth outdoor education, creating important foundations for today’s environmentalism. He raised alarmingly perceptive concerns about the problematic human relationship to wild nature. Our disconnection from nature, he believed, threatened the very survival of our civilization.

As a naturalist, historian, and museum curator, my goal with this project is to examine the nature of transformation—mostly environmental, but social as well—and to bring back what we learn (and what we feel, in terms of experience) as the basis for a traveling exhibition and accompanying publication. We also plan on using film and web-based media for dissemination of our findings comparing conditions of 1907 with those of 2015.

For Seton the Arctic journey was at once a professional one for him as a field biologist but also highly personal as a visitor to the wild. In his books, Seton described two visions of nature. In one of these nature is beautiful and dangerous, but always our teacher. In the other, nature is merely something to be despoiled at whim, particularly whim driven by greed. The vast wilderness that surrounds Aylmer is far from any city although not untouched by human activities. Nonetheless, Aylmer remains a touchstone of wildness, and given what we know about it from over a century ago, a place for contemporary data collection and for reflection on where, in a general sense, we came from and where we may be going.

This lens of transformation gives our project a unique perspective. Seton called upon us to become keen observers (in the tradition of Thoreau) while at the same time to take personal responsibility for how we choose to live as temporary wilderness residents and as citizens of the civilized world after our return. What Aylmer may teach us we cannot know in advance, but we will photograph and write and just be as best we can, afterwards sharing what we have found and learned on our own Arctic Prairies.     

The expedition begins on July 26, 2015. More about that soon.

David L. Witt
Curator, Seton Legacy Project

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Seton's Stories #11

Academy for the Love of Learning Feb 4, 2015


This is the eleventh, and perhaps the final in a series, an annotated listing of Ernest Thompson Seton books, adding two more titles to the existing list.

1932
Famous Animal Stories: Animal Myths, Fables, Fairy Tales, Stories of Real Animals
(New York: Brentano’s Publishers)
 
Quote: “In the wild world, November is the Mad Moon. Many and diverse the madness of this time, but none more insane that the rut of the White-tailed Deer. Like some disease it appears, first in the swollen necks of the antler-bearers, and then in the feverish habits of all. Long and obstinate combats between the bucks now characterize the time; neglecting even to eat, they spend their days and nights in rushing about and seeking to kill or possess.” (Excerpt from Rolf in the Woods.)

This large volume (686 pages) including dozens of stories was edited, compiled, adapted, “retranslated,” and even written by Seton. He draws on authors classic and contemporary whose names are well known (or not) even if the stories associated with them are only vaguely recalled. In this, his largest work following his move to Santa Fe, he provides an introduction to each story. Included are two of his earliest favorites, Mayne Reid and James Fenimore Cooper, as well as several of his New Mexico colleagues. 


1940, 1968
Trail and Camp-Fire Stories
(Santa Fe: Seton Village Press) Edited by Julia M. Seton

Quote: “My wife, Julia, college-bred, of high traditions, a leader of youth, experienced in expression, especially in story-telling, has listened to these same stories for more than twenty-five years. She knows what to leave out and what to emphasize. Her knowledge of the art has enabled her to put the tales into form most acceptable to readers, realizing the places where the emphasis given by personality on the stage could not be carried into print.”

In this book Julia Moss Seton transcribes twenty stories told by Seton to his live audiences, but which for the most part, did not himself write down. She begins, however, with her own informative essay on the art of dramatic presentation. (Extraneous note: Seton introduces the term “google” in “Gorm, the Giant of the Club.” He defines it as the sound and/or process of a boat sinking as it takes on water.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

New Book About Seton



Seton has been the subject of several biographies, from children’s books to dissertations to an exhibition catalog (mine!). Most of his biographers were too young to have known Seton; to my knowledge Jack Samson was the only one who met him. It turns out there is an important exception to this.

Leila Moss Knox, Julia Seton’s niece, not only knew the Setons but also lived with them in the 1930s. And now, most fortunately for us, she has written about the experience in The Storyteller: My Years With Ernest Thompson Seton, Including Illustrations and Excerpts From His Stories. I have known about the production of this work for some time and was fortunate enough to read the manuscript in early versions. Seeing the final product shows that it was worth the wait.

With its release we have a fascinating, charming, and insightful account of Seton as he was in the 1930s when Leila Knox was a young girl living at the Castle for three years. Those of us who write biographies can read Seton books, peruse documents in archives, review photographs, and even recreate some of his adventures by following in his footsteps. Historians can learn a great deal from various sources, bringing our own experience as researchers and expertise as writers to interpreting our subject for readers.

Various “Seton’s” emerge based on the perspectives, prejudices, and filters applied by any particular historian. Leila’s book, however, is unique for she brings to it her first hand memories. The Seton who emerges here is the one that many of us may have hoped for. He is a funny, kind, and loving man who also lives up to the Woodcraft ideals he espoused. He is, for me, the man I wanted to know. The “Seton” described in my book can be very hard-edged and at times not particularly nice. Although combative and contrarian, I always suspected that he could also project considerable warmth. The “Seton” in this book is the one you would have wanted to know—the naturalist, the genuine friend and admirer of native peoples, and always, the engaging and charismatic storyteller.

Leila herself has a knack for storytelling as well as an incredible power of recall that she credits in part to her training by Seton and Julia in the skill of “Quicksight” (Chapter 19) where she must commit objects and shapes to instantaneous memory. We are most fortunate to have had such an acute observer on the scene. She sets it all up from the first sentence: “When I was a little girl, I lived in a castle.”

Weaving together her own story with that of the Setons, she also presents excerpts from Lobo, Johnny Bear, the Slum Cat and many others. She had the great privilege of hearing them directly from Seton at the Castle and during their travels around New Mexico and elsewhere.

The book is written for early readers as were many of Seton’s stories. And as with those stories, Leila’s account can be enjoyed by any of us who want to know about what the Chief was like at home and about Seton Village itself in the early decades. Seton fans can look forward to a reading an enchanting account packaged in a beautifully designed volume.

No one lives in the Castle now (although I sometimes sleep there under the stars on warm nights), but it comes alive again with this account of its builder and the life he led there. The Storyteller is not to be missed by anyone who has admired Seton or has had their lives changed for the better by coming into contact with his stories.

The book has been released this month, for information go to setonthestoryteller.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Lucia and the Bear

Lucia at the ready



In his first book of stories, Wild Animals I Have Known, Seton included “Bingo, the Story of My Dog.” In the account, the narrator is caught in his own wolf traps and is soon surrounded by wolves.  From afar, Bingo senses his plight, and comes to the rescue chasing off the wolves and bringing a wrench within reach so that the narrator can release himself from the traps. (A model for the later movie and television character, Lassie.) The story is about the high moral value of loyalty, one of the canine virtues.

With that in mind, I present a story about a real dog, Lucia LRC, as told by one of her humans. Lucia passed away after a long illness on February 24, three months shy of her 14th birthday. Lucia knew only other dogs during her first four months of life. She had never set foot into a house until she came into ours, inexplicably already house trained. She remained remarkable to the end, a canine of the highest virtue.

Lucia and the Bear by Bonnie Schermerhorn

I was sitting on my porch one delightful summer afternoon enjoying the simple delights of warm air and sun on my skin, a book in hand, a drink at my elbow when Luca and Lucia began a ruckus. Lying down and barking—yes they are multi-taskers—something, or someone was getting their collective dander up.

They raised themselves from the cool of the cement and ambled over to the edge of the porch, hackles rising as they walked, warning in low-throated growls rising to deeper barking, bodies stretching and straining. What was over there, I had to wonder. “Quiet down, quiet down” got the usual response – increased barking and growling. Enough growling and I had to get up to determine if anything was truly amiss—strangers on the property, another dog passing through, a flock of wild turkeys?

As I stood at the end of the porch tension increased—Lucia, ever faithful, ever vigilant ran to the edge of the house and took a stand. With her paws firmly planted and barking in her deepest, deep throated bark she made it clear “no one shall pass!” Luca, never one to be left behind, and devoted sibling that he is, ran to her side. Between the two of them they sounded like the hounds from hell banishing whatever fool-hearted being might come their way and try to cross their path.

However just as Luca took his stand, shoulder to shoulder with Lucia, to battle whatever demons were approaching I saw something. Emerging from the trees was a large, brown, no…cinnamon colored, an elk calf, a large dog? As it ambled ever closer both Luca and I realized at the same time just what it was—a cinnamon bear. Big, shaggy coated, large head moving slowly side to side as it waddled along.

Luca registered the bear as a ‘do not mess with’ creature. He promptly turned tail and ran back to me on the porch and inserted himself behind my legs with only his head peering around from my knees. Lucia barking manically, Luca yapping and yelping, me screaming at the top of my lungs for Lucia to get herself over here—well, we were quite hysterical!  Frothing, biting, champing at the bit, sounding as demented as we possibly could and Lucia never wavered. I called to her, I pleaded with her, Lucia return to safety! What I was going to do to defend us all should the bear continue on his path I gave no thought to. Lucia stood her ground. She would do battle with that bear if it was her last act upon this earth.

We all stood frozen in this tableau for a few minutes continuing our ear shattering sounds. The bear was practically nose to nose with Lucia when finally, it seemed, he had had enough of our foolishness. Perhaps too much noise after the relative quiet of a night filled with dumpster diving. He took one final look at Lucia; he couldn’t be bothered with Luca or me, ever so slowly turned his back to us and meandered away as if not bothered by a care in the world.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wolf! Annual Letter to Lobo

Canine drawing by Ernest Thompson Seton, courtesy Academy for the Love of Learning



January 31, 2015 marks the 121th anniversary of the death of Lobo, a wolf trapped by Ernest Thompson Seton along the Corrumpa River in northeastern New Mexico. I have written in my book on Seton and elsewhere in this blog about how he underwent a psychological and spiritual transformation as a result of his encounter with the great wolf Lobo. This encounter became one of the foundational moments leading to today’s environmentalism. Over thirty years after Lobo’s death, Seton wrote this wolf appreciation. Excerpt from Vol. I of Lives of Game Animals (1925), pg. 336-337.

LIFE VII—THE GRAY-WOLF. His True Character—A Challenge
[Excerpt from Vol. I of Lives of Game Animals (1925), pg. 336-337]

“Thus have I offered evidence of the courage, the chivalry, the strength, the playfulness, the love loyalty, the fidelity, the friendliness, the kindliness, the heroism, the goodness of the Wolf—completing my attempt to set before you the faithful and fearless portrait of a creature so long maligned; to piece together the little scraps of truth I have found in countless hunter-tales, like gold raked out of garbage bins; to make you know the wild one’s true character and his way of life as it really is.

Now with all the evidence before me and much more of the same available, and with the story of Lobo in mind (for it is true in the main), can anyone wonder that I love the Gary-wolf and credit him with true nobility of character—with the attributes of a splendid animal hero?”

Monday, January 26, 2015

Seton's Stories #10

Seton Castle, Through the Window Looking East

This is the tenth and final in a series, an annotated listing of Ernest Thompson Seton books covering the years 1937-1945.



1937

The Biography of an Arctic Fox

(New York: D. Appleton-Century Company)

Quote: “This is the story of the cache, and many they made that harvest time, without clear thought of the motive indeed, but with the persistent urge of opportunity, and the blind helpful instinct that I chose to personify as Mother Carey, the Spirit of Nature, the Keeper of the Wild Things.”



This biography is about fox natural history in day-in-a-life form, no plot, nor does individual character play much of a role. Unlike other animal stories, in this one people play no role until the end until a starving innocent wild creature is killed by dogs after coming too close to human habitation and its smelly trash. Perhaps it was meant as a metaphor for our distressing civilization.



Great Historic Animals, Mainly About Wolves

(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)

Quote: “There is no such danger. Wild Animals, in America at least, let you alone, if you let them alone. I would undertake, if it were made worth while, to walk from Maine to California, and sleep in the woods alone every night, and never need a gun, so far as wild animals are concerned. A gun may be needed for my own species, but I have never yet been in serious danger from a native wild animal.”



“Wosca and Her Valiant Cub.” A tragic beginning, a dedicated mother, and quality time with Buffalo Bill Cody gives a North Dakota wolf an interesting life. Years later he cares for his old mother, but they can’t escape the prairie’s worst killers.



“The Chillingham Bull.” Confronted by a charging bull, Seton stands his ground until the animal leaves.



“Little Marie and the Wolves.” A little girl wanders into the forest and disappears for two months. She becomes wild and snarly like a wolf, but after she is found and reunited with her mother, it appears she will recover.



“The Wolf on the Running-Board.” A wolf-dog hybrid appears out of nowhere while Seton is being driven through the Mojave Desert. Appearing to be well practiced, it jumps onto the running board of the car to catch a ride.



“The Wild Ways of Tame Beasts.” An essay on animal behavior, especially the importance of dog ancestry as well as the use of markings, color, and sense of smell. Other domestic animals and birds are also considered.



“Padraic and the Last of the Irish Wolves.” In the dark decades of the 17th century two men manage to kill the last two wolves in Ireland.



“Rincon, Or the Call in the Night.” A domestic dog mates with a female wolf, bringing the pups back to live at the ranch following the apparent disappearance of the mother.



“The Wolf and the Primal Law.” A young man communes with the wolves, but for some reason moves the buried prey of one of them. When the wolf returns with the pack and they find the prey  missing, the wolves turn on the one who lied to them killing the innocent wolf and leaving the man heartbroken.



“The Story of Carrots.” A brave Airedale rescues his owner and faces down mountain lions.



“Chicaree, an Adventure in the Life of a Red Squirrel.” A little rodent goes to considerable trouble to get a mushroom as a present for his mate.



“The Woman Bear.” A poetic description of a mother’s love for her cubs.



“The Lovers and the Shining One, A Rede by the Singing Woodsman.” The pleasures of watching foraging raccoons in the moonlight.



“The Rat and the Rattlers.” A rat is thrown into a cage with two rattlesnakes. A cornered rat is as dangerous as rumored and kills both of the reptiles.



“Dipo: Sprite of the Desert.” A natural history of Mojave Desert kangaroo-rat.



“Hank and Jeff.” A hunter gives his beloved dog away, but then regrets it. Both man and dog die of grief.



“La Bête, The Beast Wolf of Gevaudan.” Hunters kill a litter of pups in 18th century France. One survives to become a Loup Garou, taking revenge on men, dogs and sheep, killing hundreds of humans before an army is organized to track him down and end his reign of terror.



“Courtaud, The King Wolf of France.” War torn France is terrorized by man-eating wolves. The wolves lay siege to Paris but are eventually defeated.



“The Leopard Lover.” Inspired by the Balzac story “Passion in the Desert,” a lost soldier is befriended in the wilderness by a great cat. The cat’s devotion grows into cruel jealousy and he must kill her to escape.



“Who Were the Heroes?” Seton presents a defense of Darwin’s Origin of Species in three parts.





1938

The Buffalo Wind

(Santa Fe: The Seton Village Press.)

Quote: “I heard the Voices, and I heard the Strain again. It sang or moaned: “The Buffalo Wind! The Buffalo Wind!”

An essay published for Seton’s 78th birthday by the Seton Village Press, Seton describes several ecstatic experiences that guided (or forced) his life path. This is Seton’s only direct statement about his deep spiritual life, albeit a very short one.





1940

Trail on an Artist Naturalist, the Autobiography of Ernest Thompson Seton

(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)

Quote: “The way had been legally cleared, so that, when I came West, she came too. She is now Mrs. Ernest Thompson Seton, the chatelaine of Seton Castle, in Seton Village, on the last rampart of the Rockies, in the land where still the Indian lives unchanged, and where the Buffalo Wind is blowing; where the Rio Grande rolls as it always has, through unchanged mountains and realms of snow, to its rest in the far-off sea.”



This is a romanticized account of a romantic life. Seton made no attempt to cover everything he did, nor was he particularly concerned about accuracy and truthfulness. There are few great reckonings or much in the way of personal insights. Seton instead concentrates on telling good yarns about selected episodes from his life, especially from his younger years. Included are sections on Lobo, the Arctic Prairies and the origins of the Boy Scouts.





1945

Santana, the Hero Dog of France

(Los Angeles: The Phoenix Press)

Quote: “Countless generations of household life have developed in the dog love and loyalty to those of his home. As a result, the trustworthiness of the dog is not simply good, or variant, or measurable—it is perfect. It is the standard of all loyalty. The dog is the symbol of absolute fidelity. There is none other to compare with it.”



This single short story is a departure from earlier ones for focusing on an animal’s happy life. The bond between Santana is spiritual and psychic, a deep love that transcends even death after the two of them gives their lives to stop the German advance on Paris during the bleak days of World War I.