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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ernest Thompson Seton Stories #4

Curator at Seton Castle

This is the fourth in a series, an annotated listing of Ernest Thompson Seton books covering the years 1905-1907.


Woodmyth and Fable

(New York: The Century Company)

Quote: “Most boys gather in the woods pretty and odd bits of moss, fungus, and other treasures that have no price.  They bring them home and store them in that universal receptacle, the Tackle-box.  Some boys, like myself, never outgrow the habit.”

A collection of fifty-three short tales, essays, poetry and observations. Most of them are concluded with a one line “moral” of the story. Like all of Seton’s books, this one is filled with illustrations. Included are his alternative names for months, Thunder Moon for July, Mad Moon for November.

Animal Heroes

(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)

Quote: “A hero is an individual of unusual gifts and achievements. Whether it be man or animal, this definition applies; and it is the histories of such that appeal to the imagination and to the hearts of those who hear them.”

“The Slum Cat.” A mother cat raises her one female kitten after the others are killed. a common theme in Seton stories. The kitten is soon orphaned. Her beauty and luck earn her a place in human society which she rejects in order to return to the slum where she call live the life of a feral cat which she loves.

“Arnaux: The Chronicle of a Homing Pigeon.” The young bird shows great promise from his first race. His greatest attribute: he has no fear. He flies 210 miles from a ship to his home in NYC. Arnaux makes his living carrying messages. After many an adventure, he is killed by a falcon who takes advantage of his weakness after having been kidnapped and imprisoned by a bad man. Unlike mammals, the bird operates almost entirely on instinct and does not show much individual personality.

“Badlands Billy, The Wolf that Won.” Joining Lobo, the Sandhill Stag, and Krag, this is the fourth major story with an environmentalist message. Once again, as with Lobo, Seton has joined a wolf hunt, but this time (three years later), as an observer, not a hunter. And he is rooting for he wolf. A heroic wolf mother adopts the orphaned Billy. (Seton adored his own mother; there are no bad mothers in any Seton story.) As with Lobo and Krag, we learn a good deal about the real lives of lives of wolves as well as about the cruelty of those humans who persecute them. This is an important counter-story to Lobo, an atonement perhaps: wild nature prevails over man – its triumph is right and just. The wolf hunters fail to capture Billy.

“The Boy and the Lynx.” Apparently based on an incident Seton claimed from his own childhood, a mother Lynx will do anything for her kittens, including attacking humans (although unsuccessfully). A very interesting aspect of the story is Seton explaining the Lynx-Hare population cycle connection, later to become a standard model in explaining the science of ecology. Seton was the first to write a science-based description of this relationship.

“Little Warhorse: The History of a Jackrabbit.” This one could be subtitled, the Jack than won, escaping a cruel fate planned by humans. Seton fascination with these creatures is shown by his close observation of their natural history. Jackrabbits are adaptable and able to seek out accidental allies such as cows and hedgerows to escape their many enemies. Another Seton contribution to ecology was explaining protective (camouflage) and directive (draws attention) coloration used by animals in different circumstances.

“The Winnipeg Wolf.” Based in part on personal experience, Seton’s brief sighting and subsequent research into this particular wolf proved a pivotal life experience. The wolf’s family was murdered (a common fate of Seton’s wild families) after which the pup was raised by humans, most of whom were cruel but for a boy who gave him love. The wolf might have survived by moving away from town, but stayed to be near his one human friend.

“The Legend of the White Reindeer.” Seton begins the story with a lovely mini-essay, a beautiful landscape description of the Norway sub-Arctic, a place he had visited while researching caribou. Like Krag, the reindeer learns many lessons in the wild before being tamed to the sleigh by its kind owner. The animal is kidnapped by an evil man who intends great harm to Norway. The story takes a supernatural turn when the reindeer (still pulling a sleigh) does not stop, bearing the evil one into the snowy wastes of Norway.  

The Natural History of the Ten Commandments

(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.)

“Years ago I set for my theory that: The Ten Commandments are not arbitrary laws given to man, but are fundamental laws of all highly developed animals.”

This short work actually covers only the latter six Commandments, the first four not applying to our fellow species, although Seton briefly speculates on a kind of recognition that animals might have of a higher power.

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

Ernest Thompson Seton 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

Ernest Thompson Seton 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.