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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Peacock for Artists

Wall Decoration on Seton Castle

ETS had a great fondness for the peacock, making drawings of them and placing a decorative plaque of the bird (probably purchased in Mexico) near the front door of the Castle. Here is Seton’s explanation of depicting THE PEACOCK from Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals (1896). The short essay is also homage to this beautiful creature. Note that 118 years after its first publication, this book is still in print.

Plate XLIX

Common opinion has awarded to the Peacock, above all birds, the palm of beauty. Many of the recently discovered Hummingbirds are exquisite, as are the rare Birds of Paradise and some of the Asiatic Pheasants brought to light by modern research, but divested of their charm of novelty, it is found that none of the species mentioned can successfully compete with the Peacock. Probably there is nothing else as beautiful in the world of Zoology.

The train, or ‘tail’ as it is commonly called, is the unique and splendid feature of this regal bird. The chromatic beauties are no less notable than the mathematical correctness with which they are displayed. It is almost unquestionably the most remarkable illustration extant of the regular arrangement of feathers. The perfect geometric design, indicated in the Plate, is not merely hypothetical, but will be seen in every Peacock’s ‘tail’ when in full plumage.

The explanation of this is very simple, as will be seen on reference to the drawing of the naked Sparrow (Plate XLIV.). The true tail of the Peacock, composed of eighteen ordinary feathers, is underneath the train and supports it when spread. The train consists of two hundred and fifty odd posterior feathers of the dorsal tract, which towards the back, together with the radiation when spread, completes the mathematical figure.

A slight variation is sometimes seen when the tail is newly grown. The ends of the three outer rows or Y feathers are close together and separated from the true eye feathers by an exceptionally wide interval. They are also supplied with an embryo eye, which however is soon worn off.

Plate XLIV

Plate XLIX

Friday, November 7, 2014

Seton's Stories #3

From Seton Castle, sunset, October 21, 2014

This is the third in a series, an annotated listing of Ernest Thompson Seton books covering the years 1902-1904.

How to Play Indian. Directions for Organizing a Tribe of Boy Indians and Making their Teepees in the True Indian Style
(Philadelphia: The Curtis Publishing Company.)
Known informally as “The Red Book” (from the color of the pamphlet’s cover) this is a little known but influential publication, providing a model for the Boy Scouts in England and America. It was the first in a long running series of books collectively called by Seton, The Birch Bark Roll.

Two Little Savages. Being the Adventures of Two Boys who lived as Indians and what they Learned
(New York: Doubleday-Doran & Company.)
Quote: “BECAUSE I have known the torment of thirst I would dig a well where others may drink.”

A close companion to How to Play Indian and expansion of a series of articles in Ladies Home Journal on outdoor youth education, it proved one of Seton’s most popular works. This is an autobiographical work of fiction based on Seton’s largely unhappy childhood. That difficult period in his life was relieved by his increasing self-reliance and fascination with pioneering skills, camping and camp-craft, nature study, and what was once called “Indian lore.” Part adventure story, part how-to, Seton set out the broad outline of subjects emphasized by the early Boy Scout movement a few years later with one important exception: He rejects Christianity and accepts nature as his religion.

He also put forth the radical notion that the merits and accomplishments of one’s own actions represented a superior morality over the notion of competition where achievement can only come at another’s expense. Most of his young readers were much less concerned with moral lessons than with lessons in a range of practical skills from fire making to taxidermy. No fan of conventional classroom education based on abstractions, he felt that lessons in subjects from history to geometry could be best learned by living the experience.

Monarch, The Big Bear of Tallac
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)
Quote: “Another, more subtle theme was theirs that night; not in the line but in the interline it ran; and listening to the hunter’s ruder tale, I head as one may hear the night bird singing in the storm; amid the glitter of the mica I caught the glint of gold, for theirs was a parable of hill-born power that fades when it finds the plains.”

This single, novella length story could have been called the Biography of Another Grizzly. Like the bear in the story from four years earlier, the life of this one also followed a tragic course. Seton never coddled nor patronized nor hid the harsh realities of life and inexcusable human behavior from his young readers. Perhaps that was the point. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Seton's Stories #2

Seton Castle, sunset, October 21, 2014

This is the second in a series, an annotated listing of Ernest Thompson Seton books covering the years 1899 - 1901.

Trail of the Sandhill Stag
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)
Quote: “…you would drive the wild beast wholly from my heart, and then the veil would be a little drawn and I should know more of the things that wise men have prayed for knowledge of.”

The narrator, Yan (who reappears in Two Little Savages), in the single story that makes up this book, relentlessly hunts a deer in a quest that becomes as much spiritual as physical. In its conclusion, it is a counterpoint to the Krag story of four years later. Yan comes to understand that personal salvation will not come from destruction of nature, but from its preservation and finding oneness with the wild. Sandhill Stag has literary roots in the story of the seventh century priest Hubertus.

The Biography of a Grizzly
(New York: The Century Company)
Quote: “The All-mother never fails to offer her own, twin cups, one gall, and one of balm. Little or much they may drink, but equally of each.”

A tragedy, the novella length story about Wahb, follows the course of his life from a cub to ancient and weak. After violent encounters with men, he is reduced to surviving by eating garbage at Yellowstone’s Fountain Hotel. He is finally overcome in a valley of poisonous gas.

Lives of the Hunted
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)
Quote: “I have tried to stop the stupid and brutal work of destruction by an appeal – not to reason: that has failed hitherto – but to sympathy, and especially the sympathies of the coming generation.”

“Krag, the Kootenay Ram.” This story, along with Lobo and Sandhill Stag, marks one of the literary beginnings of the environmentalist movement and one of Seton’s most important literary achievements. An obsessed hunter, Scotty, pursues Krag for fifteen years, from the time of the bighorn sheep’s birth. The greatest of all rams is finally felled by a single shot. His head hangs in Scotty’s cabin where it gradually drives him to madness, a reminder of his villainy. Our attack on nature represents the greatest of moral failures, for it leads to our own destruction.

“A Street Troubadour: Being the Adventures of a Cock Sparrow.” A sparrow is reduced “to subjection” by his young mate.  The story follows the struggles and tragedies of a sparrow couple. It is based on Seton’s observations of the birds in New York City. Nature is not just something that happens in the wilderness.

“Johnny Bear.” The short, not especially happy life of a bear cub sick from eating garbage. Johnny and mom Grumpy live near the Fountain Hotel in Yellowstone National Park where Seton watched them during the summer of 1897. The mother bear and a young woman do everything they to save the doomed cub.

“The Mother Teal and the Overland Route.” New-born chicks follow their mother to a new home pond. Predators try to capture the chicks. A man helps them across a rutted road. A day in the life, and for once, a day with a happy ending.

“Chink: The Development of a Pup.” Seton’s adventure in Yellowstone continues as he observes a dog in a nearby campsite. Chink learns from his mistakes and proves very brave when abandoned. His master is a worthless drunk who encourages the coyote to pick on Chink. At the end, the dog-owner kills the coyote and maybe will become a better person because of the example set by his faithful dog.

“The Kangaroo Rat.” Seton, just arrived in New Mexico, becomes fascinated with the natural history of these nocturnal rodents, learning about himself in the process. Like John Muir, he finds the natural world too compelling to leave room for belief in the supernatural.

“Tito: The Story of the Coyote that Learned How.” Tito, a coyote pup is captured and abused after her family is murdered by ranchers.  She learns about the terrible things that people do to animals, and uses that knowledge to preserve herself and teach other coyotes by example to avoid traps, poisons. She and her mate outsmart and survive all the attacks against them.

“Why the Chickadee Goes Crazy Once a Year.” Chickadees get agitated with the coming of winter but settle in and tough it out. This is a short whimsical explanation of curious behavior showing a different style from the other stories in the book. It was one of his earlier stories.

“The Thought (Tail-piece).” This title makes its second of three appearances at the end of this book. It was used for an entirely different image in Wild Animals I Have Known. It shows up a third time in Lives of Game Animals (1925). In this version, a nude European/American white male shows his dominance over the regenerative ability of nature. But there will be dire consequences to his action.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Seton's Stories #1

Seton Castle, sunset, October 21, 2014

This is the first in a series: annotated listing of Ernest Thompson Seton books.
In this group, the first three books with individual story notation.  

A List of the Mammals of Manitoba
(Manitoba Scientific and Historical Society.) A monograph of Canadian mammalian species.

The Birds of Manitoba
(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.) A monograph listing Canadian bird species.  The two books on Manitoba earned Seton an honorary doctorate from the Moscow Emperor’s Society of the Naturalists in 1893.

Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals
(London: Macmillan.) The first book presenting, in Seton’s words, “the general principles of Comparative Anatomy applied to Art.” The book showed motion and muscles, fur and claw, details and proportions, of several birds and mammals.  A tour de force of classic scientific illustration, it also proves that the finest representations of animals are made from the inside out. An artist cannot convey the outward appearance of animal life without understanding its structure.

Important quote: “In every case art is a conventional abstract from nature, and its appeal to the imagination must necessarily be influenced largely by nature.”

Wild Animals I Have Known
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.) The book that led to Seton achieving best seller status was published near the end of the year. The “Lobo,” “Silverspot,” and other stories became classics read by several generations of American youth.

Quote: “Such a collection of histories naturally suggests a common thought – a moral it would have been called in the last century.  No doubt each different mind will find a moral to its taste, but I hope some will herein find emphasized a moral as old as Scripture—we and the beasts are kin. Man has nothing that the animals have not at least a vestige of, the animals have nothing that man does not in some degree share…Since, then, the animals are creatures with wants and feelings differing only in degree from our own, they surely have their rights.”

“Lobo, the King of Currumpaw.” The great and big-hearted wolf is characterized by physical prowess, strength & honor, intelligence, stealth, critical thinking. Lobo shows a visceral rejection of technology. He is motivated by loyalty and love, but is ultimately defeated by the narrator who uses underhanded tactics. In a larger sense, this is an undermining of nature itself.

“Silverspot, the Story of a Crow.” Leaders of crow flocks are the “oldest and wisest” and “strongest and bravest.” This serves as a model for Woodcraft leadership. Silverspot leads by example and force of character.  Leadership requires the ability to convey one’s will while at the same time requiring of the true leader to take the same physical risks and a willingness to do the same jobs as anyone else.

“Raggylug, the Story of a Cottontail Rabbit.” From a rabbit’s point of view, predators are villainous. Rag learns the art of woodcraft – how to thrive through co-existing with the environment, surviving by his strength and wits. This lesson is clearly also for us. But there is also this: “No wild animal dies of old age.  Its life has soon or late a tragic end.”

“Bingo, the Story of My Dog.” 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. The story is about the high moral value of loyalty. At the same time, dogs have less sense than wolves; Bingo falls victim to poison left for wolves, showing in a larger sense, the results of our war on nature: we kill the things (and the ones) we love.

“The Springfield Fox.” A fox exhibits a craftiness that demonstrates intent, and thus a high degree of consciousness. Common sense rules for foxes could be read as having value for us as well. In the end a mother kills its kit rather than see it chained. Seton faced criticism for what were seen as exaggerated accounts of complex animal behavior.

“The Pacing Mustang.” A relentlessly hunted horse commits suicide rather than lose its freedom. Many stories in this book chronicle men’s cruelty to animals. Here, the hunters want to kill or capture the animal precisely because of its dedication to freedom. The horse is morally superior to those who would destroy it. Like most of the others here, this story is about the human need to destroy nature, in part, just to prove that we can do it.

“Wully, the Story of a Yaller Dog.” The hero of this story remains doggedly loyal to a worthless master who has abandoned him.  The betrayed and heartbroken Wully eventually becomes a murderer, an enemy to the world of men and sheep.  This is about the immorality of abuse and neglect.

“Redruff, the Story of the Don Valley Partridge.” A flock of birds tries to make a home, but persecution by humans and terrible weather destroy them all. A snare catches the bird: “Have the wild things no moral or legal rights? What right does man have to inflict such long and fearful agony on a fellow-creature, simply because the creature does not speak his language.”

“The Thought (Tail-piece).” This is a wordless story, an illustration of a nude man, a wolf, and a bird. Above them the life-giving sun while below is life-giving water. A spiral of dynamic energy inseparably connects them. Will we come to reconnection the interconnection before it is too late? Heady stuff for 1898!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Exhibit Update

Hunting down and eliminating dust

The ever-changing Seton Gallery is now showing additional ETS works in open storage display drawers. Museums generally have more stuff than can be shown on the walls. The rest goes into storage. The solution: store artwork where it can be seen by the public. Adjoining the Gallery is the Academy's Conference Room with two storage units with 54 drawers showing ETS drawings and paintings. Most but not all of the drawers show labeled artwork. The ones not currently used will show new work in the future. Here museum consultant Amy Flowers searches for errant flakes and dust motes. 

The Gallery is open the second and fourth Wednesday of each month and by appointment. Free admission. 


Monday, October 6, 2014

Seton Gallery Visitors

The Seton Gallery at the Academy for the Love of Learning is officially open twice a month (second and fourth Wednesdays), but really is open any time I am there – a day or so every week and by appointment. Free admission.

Late last month Japanese scholar of American literature Yoshiko Kayano and Seton Villager (and resident Village historian) Jerry Zollars were among the many who came by. In this case, getting their picture taken with me.

The “Bird Portraits” exhibition of Seton drawings and paintings has been popular with visitors, finding especial favor with birders.

Hope to see you there. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


In 1901, Ernest Thompson Seton, having achieved his goal of gaining widespread fame and growing wealth, turned his attention to researching his ancestry. Monsignor Robert Seton had published An Old Family, Or, The Setons of Scotland and America in 1899. ETS maintained that his father should have claimed the title of “Baron of Seton Winton” (a.k.a. Earl of Winton). See Ernest Thompson Seton, the Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist for a fuller account of this story. Monsignor Seton, however, showed that the title was extinct; my research into the peerage record turned up the same result. ETS and others in the Thompson family thought differently.

Shortly before the death of his father, Joseph Logan Thompson, ETS made one last attempt to get the story. Apparently, they were not on speaking terms so he asked his older brother George Seton (1854-1944) to make an inquiry on his behalf. From the Seton archives at the Academy for the Love of Learning, here is the typescript copy of Joseph’s reply to George (and thus to ETS). I have added punctuation in a few places for clarity.

Toronto, 14th May 1901
My dear Son G.S.

            Yours of 10th inst with enclosures from Mr. Seton [ETS] duly reached me and I lose no time in replying there to.

            I have answered seriatim every question in the list to the best of my knowledge and belief, I hope the answers will forward the object he has in View, and shall be very glad to know if they prove so.

            It is rather curious that my dear father’s family history runs almost parallel to that of my dear mother. My great-grandfather was out in the Jacobite wars, & was defeated, for “the stern arbitrament of the sword” was against his party & being defeated, he, like the rest of his fellow rebels, fled for his life, and found a refuge in So. Shields, my native place, and, of course, changed his name, Cameron to that of Thompson. I am not sure whether his baptismal name was “Alan” or “Evan.” I know that my paternal G-father’s name was “Evan” & likely that was his father’s name also, we have both in our boys’ names. I [word missing] fancy his name was “Alan” but I have no authority for it, but this I do know, that our progenitor who fled from Scotland to So. Shields, whether “Evan” or “Alan” was a man of importance in the Cameron Clan, being a blood relation & a foster-brother of the well known Chief of that ilk, the brave and gallant “Lochiel.”*

            My father has frequently told me that he knew well enough that there [were] large estates in the highlands of Scotland that he was undoubtedly heir to, but that when the rebellion was crushed all the estates belonging to the rebels were forfeited, & most of them bestowed among the leading followers of the winning party, so there was very little chance of any portion falling to those who fought for the Stewart-party. Lochiel & perhaps a few others of high rank & great family influence, who eventually submitted, had much of their lands restored to them, but the majority were not so fortunate, and among these was our ancestor, but as to the lands of the officers other than leaders, or those who had not sufficient influence to expect to be successful applicants for forfeited lands, or those who perhaps dared not claim their lost inheritance. Many estates were not sought to be restored, & my g.g.g.-father was one of them, and my father, whether he knew the locality that should have descended to him, or not, he knew right well that the attempt to recover his rightful inheritance would involve expensive and unending lawsuits, and, as a result of actions at law is mostly a question of the longest purse holding the longest out, & he not being speculative besides, declined to waste good money after bad, on the barest chance, gave up the idea of fighting for his own, & moreover, believing with Shakespear [sic] that the best policy was to be “content with the ills he had, and sought not others that he knew not of” he adopted it & I think he did well doing so.

            But now my dear Son I will draw this long yarn to a close, & with best love & all good wishes to you & all your dear ones am ever, your affectionate father.

            J.L. Thompson

P.S. I return the memdum of questions propounded by Mr. Seton having taken a copy of them.

Answers to questions re Seton claim.

            No. 1. I have no legal evidence, at hand, of my descent from Ann Seton, but the Parish Registers of S’Hilda’s Church, So. Shields will prove my birth, also, that of my mother, Mary Ann Thompson nee Logan, was the daughter of Ann Logan nee Seton.

            No. 2. I am sure that my Grandmother was the Ann Logan, nee Seton in question.

            No. 3. I have no books, letters, writings, rings, or inscriptions in books bearing on this matter. My family and myself left my native [country] in 1866. My father and my mother were both living at the time. My father died Dec. 27, 1874 and my mother died 5 days afterwards. I never received any rings, or heirlooms being absent in America at the time of their death, and doubtless, those members of our family present at their demise would keep all the trifles that might have belonged to my parents under the impression that they were not worth the sending to America.

            No. 4. I do not think it at all likely that there are any witnesses, now living, that could prove this.

            No. 5. I remember George Seton paying a visit to his cousin my dear mother when I was quite a little boy. I do not remember much about him, but I distinctly remember being told of his having proved, by the Scottish judges, to be the lawful heir to the title Baron Seton of Winton, but the Seton estates, having been forfeited, were sold and afterwards I suppose, were resold in lots, as they would probably be, and the Estate broken up.
            No. 6 Geo Seton was my mothers full cousin, as I have heard her often say there can be no question about that.

            No. 7. I must have had some conversation with him, as he spent the greater part of the day in my father’s house.

            No. 8. I cannot recall aught of the conversation I am certain to have had with him.

            No. 9. I was told by my mother that her cousin, George Seton had died unmarried, and that she was the next heir to the Barony of Seton Winton but that the estate having been lost to the family, the title was not worth the expense of her proving her right to it. Had the estate been restored, I suppose my mother’s claim to it would have been in due form long ago, and my father being in good circumstances, would certainly have proved my mother’s rights, but there being only the bare title he did not think it worth his while to waste money over it.
            There must, I think be a mistake about George Seton’s death having occurred in 1853. My impression is that he would not be more than 30 or 35 at most when he died, as when I met him in 1832 about, he was, I believe about 22 or 23 years of age, and as his death took place a very few years after that; he must have died many years prior to 1853!
            I have no knowledge whatever of George Walker, neither had my grandmother Ann Logan (nee Seton) for, on the death of her nephew, George Seton, she asserted that I was now, in my mother’s, the heir to the Barony (title Baron of Seton Winton) and on her deathbed, addressing her daughter (my mother), she said “now Mary, mind, Joseph’s the heir,” (that is, myself). These are the last words she uttered.
            The foregoing statements are, to the best of my knowledge and belief, correct.

            J. L. Thompson
            14 May 1901

*The Cameron’s of Lochiel, Scotland, were chiefs of Clan Cameron for several generations. Joseph was referring to one of them, Donald Cameron.