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

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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Seton on Hunting with Guns and Arrows

Through an entry into his Totem Board newsletter, Ernest Thompson Seton found a way to express his ideas about hunting in a review of a book by Adolph Shane, perhaps published in the 1940s. The book: Archery Tackle, How to Make and How to Use It, Manual Arts Press, Peoria, Illinois. I believe it is important because in his published articles Seton developed from a 19th century trapping and hunting advocate to a 20th century trapping opponent and a qualified hunting advocate. He had two concerns: causing death and suffering to “harmless” wild animals, and fairness. That is, hunting should come closer to being a fair contest between the hunter and the hunted. I quote it here because it may be Seton’s final published word on the subject.

The review:

It is now over forty years since the present reviewer set about a revival of archery.

The modern gun which displaced the bow, is a chemical explosive, and is just as deadly if the touch be given by a baby as by a giant. The bow, on the other hand, shoots the arrow with the exact force of the archer. As guns have become more deadly and destructive, the game have begun to disappear, and the logical conclusion was, ‘Why not use poison gas, and kill it all at once if destruction is the aim?’ Alas, we came very near to this, and thoughtful men called a halt, and asked the question, ‘What are you after, sport or destruction?’ This question answers itself, and the rejoinder is evident. The bow gives a maximum of sport with a minimum of destruction. Explosive weapons, more deadly every year, will wipe out all the game in a decade.

These are the thoughts back of the bow revival. For this reason we rejoice in the practical, sensible, clear exposition of archery by an expert archer, Adolph Shane. Equipped only with this handy volume, each and every man and boy can become an archer, make his own tackle and enter a little kingdom of his own.

Ernest Thompson Seton 

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Preacher of Cedar Mountain Shows Seton as Progressive

Seton's “Preacher” novel seems unusual at first reading, but, as it turns out, more for its format than its content. Published in 1917 while Seton still had a contract with Doubleday, it was an attempt at publishing a conventional novel with a human protagonist who overcomes his adversaries by wit and by physical strength (also characteristic of his animal heroes). The preacher, Jim Hartigan, is, like Seton, almost more pagan than Christian, choosing to baptize his infant son at a Native American nature shrine rather than in a church. 

This format was not, in my view, an especially strong one for Seton. He seemed more comfortable – and was certainly more successful from a literary standpoint – in writing long stories about wildlife, e.g. Monarch, The Big Bear and Krag, the Kootenay Ram. There is here not so much narrative arc as vignettes from Jim’s lifetime, although the courtship of Belle does take center stage.

Therefore, the story is not really plot driven. And, it is only sort-of character driven: Jim is more an amalgamation of the white-hatted hero typical of 19th and early 20th century Western novels, Seton’s version of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. But if not plot driven and not compellingly character driven either, then what are we to make of it?

My notes on the book reminded me that it is theme-driven, that is, ideas and positions taken in Seton’s other published fiction and non-fiction works are gathered here in one grand conglomeration in the novel form. There is not much in the way of coherence, but instead is a collection of attitudes arising from the turn of the century Progressive Era of which he was such an important part – outdoor youth education and Scouting.

I was not looking for these when I first read the book and no doubt there are more to be discovered, but I can present a few examples here. First, and most evident, is Seton’s stated admiration for the values and mores of traditional Native American and First Nations peoples. Their honesty, perseverance, and dedication to the common welfare greatly appealed to Seton. He made clear his preference for Indian culture over the one he was born into – from The Book of Woodcraft to The Gospel of the Red Man. As examples of Native superiority in the novel, Indians outwit inept whites in two different horse races. Indian society represented for Seton an ideal socialism, eschewing greed in favor of resource sharing, cheerfully giving service to the community, putting others above oneself, etc. 

There is also a socialist basis in Christianity for the proper relationship of man to society. One character (while disparaging Saint Paul!), says,

“…if you take the trouble to read a publication called the Bible, and in particular the early numbers of the second volume, you’ll find that the Big Teacher taught socialism – and the real disciples did too…If this yere [sic?] government of ours was what it pretends to be and ain’t, it would arrange so every man could get enough work at least to feed him and his folks and save himself from starvation when he was sick and old…That’s my opinion; and I tell you it was that way the Big Teacher preached it in the beginning…”(247)

Feminism gets a part here as well. When Jim is asked his opinion about “Woman Suffrage,” he is not sure what to think,

“It was indeed a poser for Jim; a shock to a deep-set prejudice. Notwithstanding the fact that his mother had been a woman of power, the unquestioned and able head in a community of men, he had unconsciously clung to the old idea of woman’s mental inferiority.” (122)

Women in the harsh lands of the West had developed exceptional strength,

“There were women who boldly proclaimed that sex and mind had little bearing on each other; that women should train herself to be herself, and to stand on her own feet; that when woman had the business training of men, the widow and the unmarried woman – half of all women – would no longer be the easy prey of every kind of sharper. These new teachers were, of course, made social martyrs, but they sowed the seed and the crop was coming on. That every woman should prepare herself to stand alone in the world was the first article in their creed.” (85)

And also, for men and women, the West as Seton saw it was a place for optimism. No doubt this entered into his decision to make the move west himself. 

“One must remember that the West has always been the land of boom. It is filled with the energetic and enterprising who, by a natural process, are selected from the peoples of the East; and the stuff such booms feed on, grow on, and grow mighty on as they feed, is Hope. Every Westerner knows that the land is full of possibility, opportunity – free, equal opportunity multiplied; and he hopes that his name will be the next one called by fortune. To respond to the call at whatever cost – to be ready to respond – that is the condition that is worth while. A dozen bad defeats are passing trifles if the glad call only comes and one fail not to rise to it. So it is ever easy in a land of such undaunted souls to start a boom. Hope never dies in the West.” (254)

It goes on like this with statements against animal cruelty and for religious tolerance – although not for racial tolerance. (There is of course no way to know, but I suspect that if Seton had lived long enough to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s arguments for economic justice for all persons, his attitudes about race might have shifted.)

Jim, like Seton’s “Gorm, Giant of the Club,” is a hulking man/boy, an innocent who gradually learns that a morally driven life – and a good wife – make it all worthwhile. While Jim preaches the Gospel, Seton seems not to have been a practicing Christian for all that he admired the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. He occasionally refers to Jesus in his writings, although never by name.

The big difference I see in The Preacher of Cedar Mountain, differentiating it from the two earlier non-animal story titles, Two Little Savages and Rolf in the Woods, is that the earlier books were skills-oriented, while this one is message driven. It is basically "liberal" in a political sense, and by chance or not, came into being not long after political “conservatives” won the battle for control over the Boy Scouts of America, forcing Seton out.   

All Rights Reserved – may be quoted from by giving credit.

Do pass on the link to this essay! (This essay came from a submitted question.)


Saturday, August 10, 2013


Join the Academy for the Love of Learning and Curator of the Seton collection, David L. Witt, for the opening of a new exhibit.


Seton and the Quest to Save Nature


In 1893, on the winter plains of New Mexico, a drama played out between a wolf pack and a hunter named Ernest Thompson Seton. The wolves lost in the struggle, but in an unexpected way they prevailed by changing the spirit of the man. Seton experienced a personal transformation, putting the best of what he had learned to work in the world.

In 1901 Ernest Thompson Seton co-founded the wildlife conservation movement and helped set the course for modern environmentalism. Through his art and writing he changed the course of American history.


The opening reception begins in the gallery at 7pm and we will have an 8:00 pm champagne toast in celebration of Ernest Thompson Seton's birthday.

Gallery Open

10:00 AM - 4:00 PM / 7:00 - 9:00 PM  •  Free


Birthday Reception

7:00 - 9:00 PM  •  Free

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Saudi Arabian Scouts Association visits Academy

Members of the Saudi Arabian Scouts Association visited Seton Castle and the gallery at the Academy for the Love of Learning on June 27th. Twelve adult Scout leaders (one of whom took this picture), two interpreters, and local Santa Fe Scouter Grant Wright were in the group. Over more than an hour we toured the Academy, talked about Seton and exchanged information about Scouting in our respective countries. Organized by the U.S. State Department, their stop over was part of a longer three week tour that included a visit to Philmont. This International Visitor Program was called “Messengers of Peace.” They observed the call to prayer in the Seton Gallery – definitely a first for that space. They gave me a black and white scarf as a memento of their visit.

It came as no surprise that Scouts in Saudi Arabia combine a love of the outdoors with community service. They play an important role in operating Public Service Camps in Mecca during the Hajj. In 2012, over three million Muslims took part in the pilgrimage. Over 600,000 took advantage by services provided by Saudi Scouts, especially guide services. With that many people, getting back to your tent must be a challenge. I have a hard enough time trying to relocate my car in the parking lot of the Taos Wal-Mart. Who better to help you find the trail than Scouts?

They told me that Scout membership in their country has reached 150,000 members. The organization was founded in 1356AH which I think translates to 1957. Some of the details are different, but anyone familiar with Scouting in the U.S. will recognize the fundamental aspects of Scouting in Saudi Arabia:

Its Principles: “The scouting movement is a volunteer movement open for all youths and depends on the following: Duty towards Allah. Duty towards the others. Duty towards the self.”

Its Method: “The scouting movement is characterized by its reliance on a holistic method in which it depends on choosing proper activities according to the age of the participants in this method which can be summarized as follows: 1. Commitment to the scouting pledge and law. 2. Sextet system or van guards. 3. Badge system (merit hobby medals). 4. Learning by practice. 5. Wild life. 6. Progression and variedness of hard work programs.

The Scouting Pledge: “I pledge to do my best towards Allah, the King and country, to help people in all circumstances and to comply with the scouting law.”

The Scouting Law: “Scouts are honest, loyal, useful, kind, comradely, polite, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, and clean.”

Seton probably did not anticipate his youth movement taking root in the desert lands, but who knows? he was foresighted.

We greatly enjoyed the time spent with these Scouts and look forward to welcoming more international visitors to the Academy and Seton’s final home in the future.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Pervasive Influence

In his Forward to Ernest Thompson Seton, Founder of the Woodcraft Movement 1860-1946 (London: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2007), Seton biographer Brian Morris took on the puzzling issue of why Seton has been largely left out of 20th century history.

“Perhaps Seton, by the very diversity of his interests, attempted too much. Perhaps in attempting, in one lifetime, to be a wildlife artist, naturalist, a youth leader and a writer (not to mention his other, less public activities) Seton overstretched himself and failed, in the end, to attain full stature in these respective fields…Seton’s influence was personal and persuasive…in the lives and work of other people…This means that his influence has been diffuse and pervasive rather than concrete, latent rather than explicit. Seton, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries attempted to affect a union between the arts and the sciences, between poetry and fact.”

The thrust of Seton’s lifework was ecological in the sense of being inherently integrative – all aspects of art and nature related to and reflective of one another. To a linear-minded society, this approach was clearly not the guaranteed path to lasting recognition. Still, there is an undercurrent of support. Visitors to the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe and the Philmont Museum and Seton Memorial Library at Cimarron, sometimes come by to talk about how Seton affected their lives or the lives of older family members, or we hear about how the reading of Lobo story or another of Seton’s stories is still remembered with fondness.

I am in occasional contact with scholars who include Seton in their studies, but I have also wondered about his past appearance in professional journals. Recently a few of few of these have come to my attention. Thanks to Academy for the Love of Learning archives intern Bill Ferguson for helping to find some of them. Citations for several scholarly articles follow in a chronological listing.

Cornell, George L. (Michigan State University) “The Influence of Native Americans on Modern Conservationists.” Environmental Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 1985. “That George Bird Grinnell and Ernest Thompson Seton made enormous contributions to the ‘new’ environmental awareness is unquestionable. What must be added is that these contributions were, to some extent, an outgrowth of American Indian philosophy, which both men studied and understood.”

Block, Nelson R. (Publisher and Editor) “Ernest Thompson Seton and the Founding of the Order of the Arrow.” The Journal of Scouting History, No. 1, February 1990. E. Urner Goodman, a Scout executive, founded the Scout honorary organization, the Order of the Arrow, in 1915. “As the Order celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, it is important for us to search for the origins of that sprit and the search must begin with Ernest Thompson Seton.” The Indian lore part of Woodcraft influenced the Order of the Arrow but no records have been found connecting Seton to that organization.

Helstern, Linda Lizut (Southern Illinois University) “Indians, Woodcraft, and the Construction of White Masculinity: The Boyhood of Nick Adams.” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Fall 2000. “Altogether, Hemingway owned six individual titles by Ernest Thompson Seton, published between 1909 and 1921, and a set of collected works published in 1927 as The Library of Pioneering and Woodcraft. The total ranks Seton among Hemingway’s favorite writers.” Woodcraft philosophy, particularly sections on Indians and rugged outdoor life, plus the novel Rolf in the Woods, influenced Hemmingway’s Nick Adams stories.

McCallum, Mary Jane (University of Manitoba) “’The Fundamental Things’: Camp Fire Girls and authenticity, 1910-20.” The Canadian Journal of History, April 2005, republished at http://thefreelibrary.com. This article was the winner of the Graduate Essay Prize for 2004. “In 1910 Luther Halsey Gullick, a medical doctor, educator, and nature enthusiast, founded an extraordinary youth movement called Camp Fire Girls.” The author acknowledges Seton’s “endorsement” of this organization (now called Camp Fire USA). She lists its many Woodcraft attributes, but seems unaware of these having come in large measure from Seton. Nor does she acknowledge Grace Seton’s involvement with the organization.

Chalmers, F. Graeme and Andrea A. Dancer (The University of British Columbia) “Crafts, Boys, Ernest Thompson Seton, and the Woodcraft Movement.” Studies in Art Education, A Journal of Issues and Research, 2008, 49(3). Notes on Seton biography and Woodcraft subjects. “Seton’s Woodcraft Indian legacy has revealed much about socially constructed masculinity as well as the notion of art versus craft.”

Horn, Gavin Van (Center for Humans and Nature) “Fire on the Mountain: Ecology Gets its Narrative Totem.” Equinoxonline, 2011. “Aldo Leopold’s essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ was more than a parable about a redemptive personal moment; it was the fruition of a larger effort on Leopold’s part to effectively communicate the fundamentals of a ‘land ethic’.” Leopold, as a boy, read Seton’s work and may have been directly influenced by “Lobo, King Currumpaw.”

Gavin Van Horn writes this regarding Seton’s consciousness raising regarding our perception of wildlife: “His influence on public sympathy toward wild animals at the turn of the twentieth century cannot be overestimated as several scholars have argued.” He cites two books (which will become part of the Seton library). Thomas Dunlap: Saving America’s Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850-1990 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Ralph H. Lutts, (ed.): The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science and Sentiment (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998).

Gronauer, Jeffrey A. (Camp Fire Club of America, B&C Regular Member) “The Camp Fire Club of America.” FairChase, Fall 2011. The Camp Fire Club was created by biologist William Hornaday. After incorporation in 1904, “its stated purpose was to ‘combine into a parent and allied clubs, sportsmen of America that, through effective organization, proper support may be given to game protection and forest preservation measures both state and national.’” Hornaday was joined by Seton, Dan Beard and other notables in supporting a variety of early 20th century conservation efforts. (Seton later served as president of the organization.)

We are continuing to work on organizing the papers of Ernest Thompson Seton and related material. These are available for study by researchers and can be accessed at the Academy for the Love of Learning by appointment. Additional sources are listed in Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist (Witt 2010). Please send your recommendations on Seton-related articles that we should include in our library.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Woodcraft Rangers, Los Angeles

May 8, 2013 Woodcraft Rangers 90th Anniversary Celebration at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes
Shoes with painted designs by Woodcrafters

One hundred and eleven years ago Ernest Thompson Seton found a unique solution to a special problem. In time, this solution would lead several hundred million children around the world to take part in what may have been the largest social movement of the twentieth century. Seton’s vision manifested itself under several names – including Woodcraft and Scouting.

At the turn of the twentieth century, in Greenwich, Connecticut, Seton fenced in his newly acquired estate to protect wildlife. He fenced out local boys who had used the woodland as a playground. They retaliated by tearing down his fences and vandalizing the property. Neighbors advised him to have the kids arrested.

Seton came up with a different plan. He later wrote, “I knew something of boys, in fact, I am much of a boy myself.”

In March of 1902, he visited the local school and invited the boys to join him for a weekend of camping, canoeing, and running about his property as much as they pleased. On Friday after school a mob of them arrived – he gave them an unstructured hour to burn off energy, fed them as much as they could eat, and called them together for a council ring, a feature that subsequently became a mainstay of every summer camp in America. Seton talked to them as if they mattered, telling them stories of wolves and Indians and the great American West.

His most daring move was to give them responsibility for organizing themselves. He gave them trust and respect and high expectations. They did not disappoint.

In later years, the ideals of Woodcraft spread to many youth organizations. One of those was the Woodcraft Rangers. According to their website, Woodcraft Rangers opened its doors to Los Angeles youth in 1922, based on founder Ernest Thompson Seton’s principles of character building through a tribal model of organization – service, truth, fortitude and beauty.

Ninety years later this great organization continues to improve the quality of life for thousands of young people. Courtesy of the Academy for the Love of Learning, I had a first-hand opportunity to learn about Woodcraft Ranger programs on May 8 and 9. Along with Academy founder Aaron Stern and other Academy staff, I attended their gala dinner and fundraiser which featured children from the various Woodcraft “clubs” showing off singing, dancing, and public speaking skills.

The Woodcraft Rangers provide vital educational services through after school programs for 15,000 kids in 60 schools during the course of a year. Students from grade school through high school are included. The Woodcraft Rangers “serve an at-risk population in neighborhoods where access to positive structured activities are limited.” Promoting self discovery and academic achievement, they involve youth in activities that appeal to the desires and imaginations of their students.

Which is to say that everything they offer – from instruction in music to shoe decoration to foundations of robotics – is in response to the interest of the students. Youth become involved and stay involved because it is about them. Although these activities are often different than those offered in 1922, child-driven education is precisely what Seton felt was needed to engage boys and girls.

Several Academy staff visited one of the schools where we watched Woodcraft Ranger instructors working with students in flag drill, volleyball, fine art, skate board, video photography, and soccer – all this just on one afternoon at one school. If not for the Woodcraft program, these kids would likely be on the street with nothing to do. In my brief acquaintance with them, it was clear from the intense and happy expressions, that youth and their instructors (many not much older than the students) had achieved something special. 

Ernest Thompson Seton – or “Chief” as he was called by the founders of the Woodcraft Rangers, would have been (in a phrase he sometimes used)  mighty pleased” by what they have accomplished and by all the good that will be done in the world by those who take part in these programs.

                                                                                       Young dancers at the Gala                           

Woodcraft Rangers
Academy for the Love of Learning

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Alectoria minuscula, The Black Lichen of Baffin Island

          ONE of the goals of Seton’s 1907 Arctic trip was to find and study Musk-ox (Ovibos moschatus), the only survivor of the ice age mega fauna. He went looking for them north of Aylmer Lake. Glorious and huge, they are, all them together, of insignificance compared to the true lord of the north – as duly noted by Seton:

But a new force is born on the scene; it attacks not this hill or rock, or that loose stone, but on every point of every stone and rock in the vast domain, it appears – the lowest form of lichen…soon another kind follows…then another…which in due time prepares the way for mosses higher still. In the less exposed places these come forth, seeking the shade, searching for moisture, they form like small sponges on a coral reef; but growing, spread and change to meet the challenging contours of the land they win, and with every victory or upward move, adopt some new refined intensive tint that is the outward and visible sign of their diverse inner excellences and their triumph.


He wrote a lot more about these most diminutive beings and made many illustrations of the lichens and mosses found along the way. Sadly, there are no Musk-ox on Baffin. It does not, however, lack for lichens. Just as Seton described for the western regions of the Arctic, lichens seem to have made a home on just about every rock we saw; central Baffin is a world of loose rock from pebbles to basketball and desk-sized rock, and often larger. Many of the millions of rocks host from one to many lichens, presumably numbering into the billions of individuals of numerous species. (There were plenty of mosses as well.)
Dr. Patrick Webber, whose 1960s research inspired our 2009 expedition (see previous essay) gave me assignments covered in two pages of hand written notes (I still have them). Separately, and most importantly, he gave me a large packet of information on lichens. He wanted me to measure one. I’ll restate this: from among an infinity of lichens on Baffin, he wanted me to search out one particular individual measured in 1963 and again in 1967. I was to check on its progress and I suppose, give it his regards. I thought that finding planets in distant solar systems would likely be more easily accomplished. Worse yet, this individual was of the species Alectoria minuscula, which as far I could tell was the single most common organism in that region. 
Fortunately, the search area narrowed down considerably. To the east, the torrent of water known as the Lewis River arises from its namesake glacier, itself an arm of the Barnes Ice Cap. On its way to the mighty Isortoq River, the Lewis reaches a confluence with another fast stream, the Striding River, so-named by Dr. Webber long ago when it was possible to walk across. (Like the Lewis, it is now an impressive flood during the summer.) He gave me a map showing that the lichen - #5 by name – lived near the corner where the two rivers came together.

A tall rock cairn had been built beside #5 back in 1963. Given the ferocity of polar winters and the possibility of massive floods, we were not certain that the stone monument would have survived the decades. Expedition leader Dr. Craig Tweedie and I dutifully marched off into the endless felsenmeer of naturally occurring cairns. Perhaps because he is taller, Dr. Tweedie spotted Dr. Webber’s cairn before I did. Remarkably, it had changed not at all in forty-six years. We knew this because we had a photograph.
Lichen #5 was known to have lived on an average sized rock, about the scale of a 35 gallon Rubbermaid “ActionPacker” storage box of the kind in which we had transported our expedition gear (we had several of these). Fortunately, we also had a photograph of the rock which was right where a retreating glacier had left it long ago. (See #5 at roughly the center of the sketch.)
I had one more piece of information, a sketch Dr. Webber had made of #5 and its companions nearly a half century earlier. In 1963, #5 had been about 2cm across; four years later it had shown modest growth as shown by the overlapped sketches from the two years.
Then – there it was! I re-photographed the scene as closely as I could to match the 1963 photographs.
I then re-measured #5 to find that while its circumference had expanded – as expected – the center part that had existed in 1963 had died out. At its greatest extent, #5 now measured 6cm. (See sketch, left side, #5 with arrow and 2009 date.)
I took many photos (#5 is to the left of the yellow ruler). Soon thereafter, we made a satellite phone call to Taos to let Dr. Webber know of our re-discovery. On a trip that can only be described as thrilling, one of the highlights was finding diminutive #5 still active on its rock, expanding like an exploding star.
Our small friend has taken its part in “lichenometry,” the measurement of lichen growth rate. Lichens appear to grow at a relatively predicable rate. This is useful for dating everything from medieval buildings to the rate of glacial retreat. Lichens don’t grow under the ice, but do colonize rock soon after the glacier has melted away. The question is, how long has a particular spot been ice free? By measuring the size of lichens, it is possible to establish a probable date for when the rock was no longer beneath glacial ice. I made a new series of measurements all the way to the current end of the life zone near the edge of the retreating glacier. Someday maybe other researchers will hike up the Lewis valley to find out how my own little crop of Alectoria’s are faring.
Photographs Copyright 2009 David L. Witt 


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Ice Caves of Baffin Island

            The eastern Arctic Inuit town of Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, west of Greenland, at 72° north latitude, experienced the unusual temperature of 72°F during the third week of July 2009. This was about twenty-five degrees warmer than is typical in one of the world’s northernmost towns. Many residents, walking, or driving four-wheelers, nonetheless remained dressed in their usual summer attire of hoodies or heavy jackets. The hot weather in “Pond” made no sense to residents or visitors. But the change has come. Mosquitoes, once a lesser problem, are now present in hordes and enthusiastic at the presence of visitors. Permanent snowfields have shrunk or disappeared. Mountain glaciers on Bylot Island, a few miles north of Pond, across Eclipse Sound, still reached the water three years ago, but now have retreated. Small rivers emerging from the Baffin glaciers have become raging torrents.





Most surprising, however, is the presence of thunder – in two forms. The summer of 2009 became the first when thunderstorms became a regular feature; previously, such storms were uncommon due to the cold conditions. Even more alarming is thunder in a second and more ominous form. Located at the center of the island, the Barnes Ice Cap is the largest ice feature outside Greenland and Antarctica. From beneath its massive surface can be heard the thundering sound of the collapse of its internal ice caves. In the central highlands where the Barnes is located, nighttime temperatures (in what passes for night under the twenty-four hour sun) dropped by less than 10 °F, making midnight high above the Arctic Circle warmer than midnight in Taos, New Mexico (36° north latitude). The Arctic, one of the world’s two massive air conditioners, is, as we know, blowing out less frigid air now than in decades past. But it is one thing to read about the changes, another to be roasting because of not having brought warm weather clothes for an Arctic gone mild.

I made these observations during the summer 2009 as part of a plant ecology expedition titled Back to the Future (BTF). Funded by the National Science Foundation, BTF was part of the International Polar Year, research conducted by hundreds of scientists on changing conditions in the Polar Regions. Five researchers (four scientists plus me as photographer and contributing botanist) spent three weeks studying the flora of central Baffin. The group was led in the field by Dr. Craig Tweedie of the University of Texas (El Paso), and mentored by Dr. Patrick J. Webber, professor emeritus of plant biology at Michigan State University. Dr. Webber, now a resident of Taos, New Mexico, initiated the expedition. He first explored Baffin during the summers of 1963 and 1964 and over a long career has headed Arctic and alpine research organizations. Our expedition was a follow-up to his earlier ones, comparing current plant composition to that of forty-five years ago. I also took on “re-photography” taking pictures from the same perspective and at the same focal length as those taken in the 1960s.



The expedition studied two areas, a dry, Polar Desert plateau on the edge of the Barnes, and, near-by, one section of wetter, High Arctic habitat along the Isortoq River canyon (pronounced ee-sore-tok) which channels runoff from the western side of the ice cap to Foxe Basin, far to the west. The Barnes Ice Cap, at 2300 square miles (3700 square kilometers) is a super-glacier covering an area larger than Taos County where I live. At 70° north latitude, it is set in the middle of the world’s fifth largest island. Baffin Island covers an area larger than Kansas and New Mexico combined, supporting a mostly coastal population of fewer than 12,000. The treeless interior is a rock-strewn landscape of sparse vegetation, lichens with small patches of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, similar in appearance to the more stark areas of the Rockies.

There are no roads or man-made structures of any kind for the entire 170-mile distance from Pond to the Barnes Ice Cap. Access over the dozens of deep canyons, glaciers, lakes, and flooding rivers is by air. We flew out from Pond aboard a Twin Otter – two strong engines attached to a stout body. Known as the workhorse of the North, the Twin Otter can carry a big load and, with balloon tires, can land in most unpromising locations. The airplane passed through several storms before emerging from clouds above the Isortoq. The pilots swept down low over the river several times, making sharp turns within the canyon walls as they searched for a place to land. After several brief touchdowns to determine surface conditions, they chose a long gravel-bar island along the main river channel, bumping down hard and stopping abruptly, seemingly in not much more space than a heavy truck would take to stop from similar speed.



Until the last century, much of central Baffin was heavily glaciated, making travel impossible. There are a few caribou, wolves, ermine, foxes, hares, and jaegers, but overall, not many animals. With limited hunting and fishing opportunities, human visitors have been scarce or absent. Elsewhere on the island are found stone tent rings and, Inuksuit, stone assemblages that serve as markers for hunting areas, overland routes and sacred sites. The only signs of human presence near the Isortoq are abandoned camping supplies and rock cairns left by the small number of recent explorers. I found no record of anyone having navigated the entire length of the Isortoq by raft or kayak. Its reputed stretches of class five rapids will no doubt someday attract the skilled and the foolhardy.


We twice crossed the wide Isortoq by raft, examining both sides of the river, hiking its barren shores, then climbing above its banks to grassy valleys spotted with glacial ponds. Higher still are endless felsenmeer (rock fields) crossed by swift streams too large to wade, too small to raft or kayak. Along the way we found swaths of large-blossomed purple Epilobium near drifts of cotton-grass looking like left-over snow. Narrow canyons, whose bottoms were entirely covered by blood red and bright green mosses, survive beneath unstable rocky moraines as high as five story buildings. Our goal was to relocate, re-photograph, and re-sample eighty-one plots, established in the sixties, and not visited again until this past summer. Each plot measured 1 x 30 meters. The scientists noted the species found in each to compare current plant composition with what was found in decades earlier. Species composition had clearly changed. (The analysis is still ongoing.) To do this kind of work, botanists spend a good deal of time looking at the ground. But from many places, when we looked up, we saw the ice cap.



Both its floodwaters and its sheer mass make the Barnes Ice Cap a looming presence. The Pleistocene-era ice at the base of the Barnes may go back 100,000 years, and, in places, it is more than two thousand feet thick. The ice cap is a remnant of the Laurentide ice sheet, which at its greatest, extended from Baffin to central Kansas. The ghostly ice mass constantly changes color under the twenty-four hour sun. Under clear sky, it can appear as an expected undifferentiated white, but it can also seem yellow and textured like a desert hillside. At other times, it exhibits what only can be described as an electric blue that to all appearances seems to be glowing from within. As the Laurentide, the ice mass was a controlling factor of global weather. As the Barnes, it gives gusty reminders of its past glory by hurling forth katabatic winds, short strong bursts of down-slope refrigerated air. Its coming death matters even to those who will never know its winds. As melt the glaciers of Baffin, so also will melt the gigantic ice sheet covering Greenland. The realm of ice – the cryosphere – at least on Baffin, is in a major transition of energy loss. In any system, the end point of energy loss is death.



            The cryosphere should not look as if it is alive. But the inescapable impression from thirty thousand feet above (as well as on the ground) is that the ice realm of our planet demonstrates life-like characteristics. Individual glaciers wrap over high ridges like thrown drapery, then crowd through deep canyons, dirty white striped ribbons whose motion is evident – like a fast stream caught in the millisecond image of a photograph. Glaciers plunge over cliffs into the sea fog covered fiords. On the horizon white capped mountains and hovering grayish clouds blend to obscure the line between the ice cryosphere and the icy atmosphere.

This was nowhere more evident than from the drained basin of Flitaway Lake where stranded, dirt-covered ice burgs form hundred-foot pyramids, contrasting dramatically with the ice cap that rises mountain-like behind. In 1963, Flitaway was a glacial lake covering a thousand acres and reaching more than two hundred feet deep. Its dam was the ice cap itself until one day within the last couple of decades (no one seems to know just when) instability in the ice or ground caused most of the water to drain away. Scores of rivulets run down the ice cap, splashing into what is left of the lake. The continual sound of waterfalls is punctuated by the loud collapse of the invisible ice caverns, giving the impression that the Barnes is rotting from within.

A few hours south (by foot), the ice cap pushes outward as the Lewis and Triangle glaciers. Once the two were connected, flowing all the way to the Isortoq. By 2009, the Triangle had retreated far back towards the ice cap. Melt water drops so fast and violently through its steep, twin canyons that the resulting turbulence roars at a frequency similar to that of a Twin Otter. Lewis Glacier descends a canyon of lesser slope. Its terminus shoves downward into the earth on the south and forms tall ice walls on its north. Over time those walls melt and collapse, sometimes exposing ice caves. Dr. Webber photographed the revealed caves in 1964. One photo shows a smiling scientist standing against a white wall of unknown height, apparently unconcerned that a section of the cryosphere might well give way to gravity at any second. Another photo bears the caption: “Large enough to park a double-decker English bus.”

Those ice structures melted long ago, victim of the glacier’s one-mile retreat. I crossed the now ice free spot where they stood forty-five years ago. The melted glacier left behind a boulder-strewn flood plain. Nearing its current end point, the land below the glacier is unsettled into huge piles of churned-up rock rubble where even the ever-present Baffin lichens have not yet found a foothold. The crumbling moraines are undermined by permafrost in decay, creating the kind of trap that wooly mammoths used to stumble into.

The ice walls of 2009 look much like those of 1964, even though they are in a different place. But there was a difference: Part of the Lewis River, which used to emerge from beneath the glacier, now floods along its side. In one spot, the river has carved a tunnel through the ice wall where it quickly disappears into complete darkness. Although entry into the cave was not more than fifty yards away, the furious downward slide of the river made it impossible to cross.  It looked alive and very dangerous, the dynamic nature of the scene increased still further by the arrival of a thunderstorm with its attendant lightning – a scene that could have been taken out of The Lord of the Rings.



The massive flow of water is the lifeblood of the glacier. Old photos showed the Lewis as a monster of ice; now it is much reduced in stature and in a few years will disappear back into the edge of the ice cap itself. Walking on just-revealed earth, ground never before touched by any human, I was watching liquid history, ice formed thousands of years ago, now melted into the water passing swiftly by. The water level pulsed to a higher level once each day, for about seven hours, before, in the evening, subsiding again – the glacial heartbeat.

The hidden ice caverns must be fantastical, the realm of ever-change. Its rivers pulse through like veins of blood, although those sibilant streams do not bring life to the ice mass; they are more like the hemorrhaging of a wound. The interior thunder suggests that its many passages are growing in size causing it to bleed out – the cryosphere equivalent of the Ebola virus. The arterial outflow from its slowly beating heart carries an unmistakable question. When its great heart stops, what will become of us?


Photographs © 2009 David L. Witt