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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Six Views of Seton Castle and the Academy

The following photographs were taken on August 14 (Ernest Thompson Seton's 154th birthday) in and around the campus of the Academy for the Love of Learning. (Copyright 2014 David L. Witt)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Woodcraft Helps Reduce Youth Crimes

An article from a British Columbia newspaper, the Gulf Islands Driftwood, September 18, 1991, subtitled, “Sociologist’s report credits nature-based movement,” validates Seton’s original purpose in creating his movement. The first Woodcraft camp took place in March 1902 on Seton’s Cos Cob, Connecticut property when he invited local boys – who had been vandalizing his property – to join him for a weekend of outdoor activities. In addition to stopping the destruction of his fences, the boys found among themselves a deeper level of connection than they had known before.

According to the Driftwood, a “sociologist’s report on the effects of an Ojibway circle operating in Deer Lake, Ontario, observed an almost immediate change from a “gang mentality" to a supportive one. The work was based on the concept of the “talking circle.” In this, “Members always have an activity to do, a topic to think about and discuss and ‘something to enjoy in the woods.’” This offers “hope for people educated in the adversarial way to try the consensus way.”

“Individuals, communities and the earth will benefit as more people traverse those bridges because, after all, sane people do not destroy what they love.”

Seton’s “talking circle” took place around a campfire where boys (and girls) learned about nature and traditional Native American ethics through activities and discussion. Importantly, in this 1990s incarnation of Seton’s work, Woodcraft practices by then had been “culture and gender neutralized.”

Although developed independently and at a later time, a contemporary version of this learning model can be found at the Academy for the Love of Learning. On the home page, click on “learning field inquiry.”

Seton Birthday at the Academy: August 14th. Opening reception for our new exhibition, Bird Portraits, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. with annual "Toast to the Chief" at Seton Castle, 7:30 pm.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014


This years display of Glandularia bipinnatifida - Dakota vervain - added wonderful color to the Castle. It is one of several plant species attracting insects and birds to the Academy for the Love of Learning campus this summer. Birds and bird lovers are invited to attend the opening of BIRD PORTRAITS, an exhibition including some of Seton's finest avian illustrations. It coincides with his 154th birthday on August 14th. The Seton gallery will be open during the day from 10 - 4, and in the evening for a special reception from 6:30 - 8:30. This is a free event. 

Weather allowing, we will hold our annual "Toast to the Chief" at the Castle around 7:40 to view the sunset. This has been a popular event in the past and promises to be so again this year. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our deepest feelings about nature

Periodically I make presentations on various aspects of Seton’s life and work at the Academy for the Love Of learning. The next one, with co-facilitator Molly Sturges, “Learning from Crisis: How Do We Meet This Ecological Emergency Together?” takes place on Wednesday May 14. Then, on September 23, I will offer an evening campfire reading at Seton Castle, “Why the Chickadee Goes Crazy Once a Year and other stories.” To keep up with Academy programs, visit our web site.

Here I will go back to April 12th.  New Mexico members of Defenders of Wildlife came by the Seton Gallery to hear a talk about him as environmentalist, including his popularization of wildlife conservation, his role in early environmental legislation, and his work to change (and grow) our consciousness about the feeling world of animals. While I did bring up those subjects, we spent most of our time in deeper contemplation about wild nature and its meaning for us. What we find upon reflection of our feelings is that nature is both the source of much joy and much grief, for its bringing us solace and joy at its beauty, and despair at its destruction.

For an account of that morning, please go to the wonderful blog by one of the participants, Ellen Heath. The essay titles are: “Blanca and Lobo” (April 18) and “For the Love of Lobo” (April 16).

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)