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

Friday, December 9, 2016

Was Seton a Conservative or Liberal?

The White Wind Blows (from winter into spring)

Ernest Thompson Seton didn’t leave a published record of his political beliefs, although there are clues. He greatly admired Theodore Roosevelt (more than Roosevelt admired him as it turned out) but Seton was not a U.S. citizen during the period of TR’s political activity; their relationship seems to have defined by their common interest in natural history. By the time of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency, Seton had become an American citizen and a supporter of FDR.
Seton made clear his admiration for the historical communitarianism of American Indians and First Nations peoples. I suspect that he would have liked at least some of what Bernie Sanders stands for as a “democratic socialist.” Ralph Nadar has defined those who use this term in the American context as “New Dealers,” that is,  supporters of government programs meant to benefit a broad segment of the population, as opposed to a select few. That would seem to position Seton on the political left, at least as it was defined in the 1930s and 1940s. He would have been appalled at the current rise of populism.
“Politics” as an activity is usually taken to mean partisanship in favor or in opposition to certain issues in economics, domestic social issues, war and peace, etc. In a more general way, an attitude or belief can be political, such as Seton’s belief in Darwinism or his championing of Native Americans or his stance regarding the existence of an emotional life among non-human animals. But ascribing these attitudes to the political “left” or “right” doesn’t fit with our current notion of politics.
In this series of essays I have addressed the many aspects of Seton as naturalist, explorer, artist, writer and so on. These parts of his life do not exist outside of the political (in the general sense mentioned above) so the question of his conservatism or liberalism is worth asking in an investigation of his life and views. He was not doctrinaire; he took the best of both positions.
Seton called for justice for native peoples (liberalism) while also promoting what he understood as their traditional values (conservatism). He rejected the conservative position of accepting our birth-assigned status place (he certainly didn’t) but rejected a notion sometimes followed by liberals of putting present needs above future concerns. Lifecraft philosophy, while strongly supportive of creativity, also looks to the restraint of authority to hold down the chaos. In this regard, Seton seems to weigh in on order and interest above liberty and choice. 
Through Lifecraft, Seton attempted to strike the right balance: the honoring of individual expression and achievement within a community to which one owes service as the price of liberty.

This service to community, moreover, comes out of individual choice, not through convention or force. By contrast, taking a traditional conservative line, Robert Baden-Powell held that service is owed to the prevailing societal arrangements—especially one’s country—because order flows from nationalist respect. The difference between these two approaches is monumental.

Seton took his most extraordinary step when he claimed that animals are different from us only by degree, that they, like us, have emotions, thoughts, feelings and desires. While his stories made him famous (and wealthy), the conservative backlash to this position destroyed much of the literary reputation he had worked so hard to achieve. Theodore Roosevelt, among others, could find no meaning in what Seton was attempting to convey. If Seton was correct, then everything believed by most people at that time had to be mistaken. This was Seton’s most revolutionary position—and it cost him dearly.

His most prescient position was one that cannot be characterized as either liberal or conservative.  Seton began drawing and writing about what I would call our war on nature as early as 1901. By 1925, he felt that damage to the environmental was already spiraling out of control. He did not promote specific policies but through his own life modeled the power that a rising consciousness about our place in the world might hold.

The Seton Legacy offers us an acceptance of the rational (in the case of climate change, conclusions derived from the scientific method) combined with an acknowledgement of history (we can compare conditions from past times to our own) and an obligation to the future (what we do now matters in a deeply moral way).

See my Seton Legacy Project blog on achieving peace through justice posted October 22, 2012, “St. Paul the Apostle.” For a comparison of liberalism vs. conservatism, inspired by a reading of the scholar Yuval Levin, see “Why the Environmentalist Movement Has Not Saved Us (Yet)” December 2016. at www.davidlwitt.com.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Seton, Humboldt and the Recognition of Nature

Willows replace meadows in the warming Arctic, Sand Hill Bay Camp, Aylmer Lake, NWT Canada

In the first two volumes of Lives of Game Animals, Seton repeatedly returns to the theme of wildlife conservation, calling for preservation while at the same time doubting that his efforts can be successful. In the third volume, his strikingly gloomy essay “The Lament” predicts not only a bad end for our wild kindred, but for our civilization as well: “The end is in sight. Desolation sweeps from sea to sea.”

Seton clearly referred to the end of wild nature—which Bill McKibbin exactly named in 1989—but compared also to John Muir, whose environmentalist critique was more direct, Seton’s remains oblique. I searched for “nature” in the indexes to Seton’s autobiography, in Julia Seton’s By A Thousand Fires, in the biographies written by Keller and Anderson, and then even in my own book. The word does not appear, not withstanding that whether Seton was writing about wildlife, aboriginal American cultures, or outdoor education for youth, the common element in each is—nature.

Is nature so close that we don’t see it? And if that is the case, what is “nature?” This is an important question, for how do we protect and preserve something unless we can first name it? We can name the danger, most dramatically the spate of alarming reports in July and August 2016 suggesting that the theoretical “tipping point” for the climate may have reached, as global high temperature records seem on the brink of spiraling out of control. (For Example see the NASA report, August 31, 2016.

“Nature” is endangered. But what does that mean?


In The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World—Andrea Wulf’s biography of the German adventurer, philosopher, and scientist—we find a way into this subject. In his great 1807 masterwork, Essay on the Geography of Plants, Humboldt defined nature as being “a reflection of the whole.” (Wulf, pg. 128.) He further wrote, “In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.” (Wulf, pg. 5.) Henry David Thoreau and John Muir said much the same—a direct reflection of Humboldt’s influence upon them both.

A reflection of the whole, a connection of causes and effects includes all that we may define as wild-nature, natural habitats along with their inhabitants, nature is all that outside stuff, but also us with our destructive ways. According to Wulf, the first person to make that connection was Humboldt. His study of nature, a combination of Enlightenment empiricism (named “science” in the 19th century) and the emotional (e.g. poetry, painting, creativity) became a new means of interpreting the world—known as natural history. Wulf shows that everyone from Darwin (to Seton whom of course she does not name) to today’s environmentalists are beneficiaries of Humboldt’s brilliant insights, for all that activists have remained unaware of their historical linage.

During Humboldt’s exploration of the Americas (1799-1804), he observed, “What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements.” (Wulf pg. 72.) But that soul recognition did not escape the lyrical landscape appreciations of Muir or the wildlife observations of Seton. If you don’t already know the emotions brought up by natural history, try reading the last three paragraphs of “Lobo, The King of Currumpaw” to a live audience without getting choked up. (Apparently, Seton himself had a difficult time getting to the end when he related the Lobo story.) Thoreau observed, “the most interesting and beautiful facts are so much the more poetry.” (Wulf, pg. 259) It is almost as if Thoreau was anticipating Seton’s work.


Seton was familiar with Thoreau’s work, but did not leave a direct account of the authors who had the most direct impact on his philosophy of nature. One clue I have is the late inventory of books from his Seton Castle library. That list, although long, represents only a fraction of the original collection. It does include Humboldt’s famous work Cosmos, A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (1845-1862) whose readers included, (besides Seton) according to Wulf: Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, early environmentalist George Perkins Marsh, and artist/scientist Ernst Haeckel. Although I did not find another Humboldt book in the collection, Seton used his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America (1852 edition) as a source for his chapter on the Jaguar in Lives of Game Animals. I cannot (for the moment) establish whether or not Seton read Emerson, Marsh, and Haeckel, but he certainly would have known of them.


Wulf selected only a handful of artists, scientists, writers, and naturalists—out of countless thousands—who were influenced by Humboldt. Seton as naturalist, as explorer/wilderness adventurer, as observer and admirer of native cultures, as educator, writer and artist, as reconciler of head and heart (science and emotion), as both pragmatist and lyrical interpreter of nature, is surely beneficiary (along with many of us today) of the intellectual path forced by Humboldt over two centuries ago.

I was struck by another important similarity between Seton and Humboldt. I have written (as has Seton biographer Brian Morris) that Seton has become largely invisible to our contemporary life due to the pervasiveness of his ideas about conservation, ecology, education, environmentalism, and perhaps most importantly, animal sentience. Wulf points out that Humboldt became famous in his own time for his worldview: “His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.” (Wulf pg. 335) She also writes, “Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever…His concept of nature as one of global patterns is more relevant than ever.”
Humboldt and the line of thinkers descended from him have attempted to prove that we are not separate from nature. The lesson we can take from them is that what goes on in the environment around us, from evolution to pollution, from habitat preservation to species extinction is “a reflection of the whole.” The question for wild-nature and humanity-civilization is: will we recognize that wholeness—the very definition of nature—while there is still time to save some of the goodness in the world that remains, both the natural and the human-made?

Thursday, July 28, 2016


The Arctic Prairies

On Sunday, August 14th, the Academy for the Love of Learning will mark the 156th birthday of Ernest Thompson Seton with a new art exhibition and a documentary film.

In a highlight of his extraordinary life as an artist, writer, and scientist, Seton led a daring expedition into the Arctic wilderness of the Northwest Territories in Canada, an area then largely unknown to the outside world. His dual goals: documenting the wildlife of the Boreal forest and the tundra, and determining the geography of a remote lake, Aylmer.

Last year, the Academy mounted the “Arctic Prairies II” expedition to Aylmer Lake in search of the places Seton described more than a century earlier. The results of our research can be seen in an exhibition of his drawings, and in a new 30-minute documentary film, Ernest Thompson Seton and the Exploration of Canada’s Fabled Aylmer Lake.

Located at 133 Seton Village Road, twenty minutes from downtown Santa Fe, the Academy’s Seton Gallery will be open on August 14 from 12:00 to 4:00pm. The film will take place in the Leonard Bernstein Room starting at 3:00pm. Admission is free, but seating for the film is limited. A second showing of the film will take place on Tuesday August 16th at 7:00pm. The film will be introduced by Arctic Prairies II expedition members.

Schedule for Sunday Afternoon, August 14:

              High Noon! Seton Gallery Opens

12:30 Guided Tour of Building, grounds and Seton History

1:30 Welcome to the Academy! by Aaron Stern, Founder & President, Academy for the Love of Learning

1:35 “3 Questions That Came Out Of Nowhere” A presentation by Patty Nagle, Arctic Prairies II expedition member

             2:30 Remarks by Aaron Stern

2:45 Annual Toast to the Chief by David L. Witt, Curator

3:00 Premier of Film “Ernest Thompson Seton and the Exploration of Canada’s Fabled Aylmer Lake”

4:00 Guided Tour of Building, grounds    and Seton History

(Background on the 1907 and 2015 expeditions by David L. Witt)

Through his writing and the example of his life Ernest Thompson Seton called on us to respect nature and all its creatures, and to develop a personal and meaningful relationship with the outdoors. In his work he demonstrated our close kinship with wild animals but as well he examined the dark consequences of environmental destruction.

Seton led an expedition to the western sub-Arctic in 1907 that gave him an opportunity to reflect on the nature and society of a place that is far away from the big cities of Canada and the U.S, but not so far as not to matter.

Given that the rapid environmental changes overtaking the Arctic will have consequences for everyone as the planet continues to warm, last year the Academy sent its own expedition to explore the northernmost part of Seton’s route, Aylmer Lake. 

In Seton’s time, the area was home to abundant wildlife including caribou, musk ox, and wolves. One hundred and eight years later the once vast migrations of caribou have become the stuff of history and may not long into the future become the stuff of legends. Global heating and over hunting (by humans) have made Aylmer a more quiet and somber place, although the landscape of endless sky and low but rugged hills are much as Seton experienced.

Human activity has increased in the Northwest Territories and the sub-Arctic has experienced summer warming from climate change. Highways now provide access to the southern third of Seton’s route, but Aylmer Lake remains accessible only by boat or by air—a nearly two-hour airplane trip from Yellowknife.

Importantly, with modern explorers going in search of the Seton legacy, the story continues. In 2015, the experience of wind and storm, twenty-four hour daylight, and an enforced closeness to the land (expedition members had to fish for their food) led everyone on the trip into periods of reflection and just being.

Expedition members from the Academy (three of the five on the trip from last summer) will share their experiences with the audience as an introduction to the film.

(Background on Seton by David L. Witt)

In May 1907 New York-based artist/naturalist/writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) began the most extraordinary wilderness journey of his life. By the age of 47 he had become the most important wildlife illustrator of his generation and, as the creator of the realistic wild animal story, achieved best-seller status as an author. He popularized the cause of wildlife conservation to a mass audience, laying the groundwork (along with Muir and Roosevelt) for today’s environmentalism.

He introduced a concept of outdoors education that became the worldwide Scouting movement (including the Boy Scouts of America.) He was an established expert on Mammalogy and Ornithology and made important contributions to the sciences of Ecology and Ethology. Later authors from Ernest Hemingway to Aldo Leopold to David Attenborough cited him as a major influence.

English by birth and Canadian by upbringing, Seton spent much of his early adulthood exploring wilderness Manitoba, sometimes in the company of First Nations peoples from whom he learned hunting, survival skills, and traditional native concepts of land use. By the time of his middle age he had logged more wilderness time than just about any of his peers, but had not explored the Arctic.

He knew about 19th Canadian explorer George Back and his 1820s expedition north of Great Slave Lake to little known Aylmer Lake, and a later expedition by Warburton Pike. Seton had recommended the spiritual and adventure value of engaging in a six-month wilderness immersion. Taking his own advice, Seton took half a year to explore regions south and north of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Accompanied by American biologist Edward Preble and by native guides (who themselves had never been so far north), Seton left his family, career and New York society for an arduous adventure between May and October exploring little documented lakes and rivers. His goal was to chronicle the plants and wildlife of the region. Both Seton and Preble kept journals; Seton used them for his book, The Arctic Prairies, published in 1911.

The expedition combined geography with field biology to become the Northwest Territories equivalent of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. They canoed north on the Mackenzie River arriving at Aylmer Lake three months later. Preble continued walking farther into the Barren Lands reaching approximately 64° 40’ north latitude, two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Afterwards, they returned south, leaving late enough in the year to experience the first winter frosts.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

anno ab incarnatione lupus

Wolf portrait by Seton

According to Julian/Gregorian calendar reckoning, we have entered the 2016th year following the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The religious descriptor A.D. (in the year of the Lord) has been in widespread use for over twelve hundred years. The more secular C.E. (common era) has in recent times gained limited traction with historians.

I will here propose a new system for reckoning time: January 31, 2016 C.E. should become known as the first day of the Year 122 E.E.

Year 1 (a.k.a. Environmental Era—E.E.—January 31, 1894) marks the death of the gray wolf “Lobo, King of Currumpaw” at the hands of Ernest Thompson Seton. Not long afterward Seton repudiated animal trapping as well as persecution of predators (including wolves). In 1925 he predicted the coming civilization-ending environmental disasters.

I chose January 31, 1894 as the New Year 1 E.E. because the death of Lobo represents the turning point between the old world of unconscious environmental destruction and the new world of conscious environmental destruction. After that fateful year we had no more excuses for our war on nature.

Seton’s account of the life and death of Lobo was published in November of 1 E.E., proving the link between morality and wild nature. In his stories, Seton showed that we ignore this connection at our peril.

Other than Seton, the Apostles of Lobo of course did not know him; indeed, few are left who personally knew Seton. But we who know the Gospel of Lobo (the environmental New Testament Part I) and the Gospel of Walden (the environmental Old Testament) will continue to carry the message as long as we have breath.

My celebration of New Year’s Day 122 E.E. will include climbing the mountain behind my house to spend time with the elk who reside there this time of year. I hope you will also find a way of honoring wild nature on this special day.

Happy New Year, Lobo.

(New Testament Part II is Seton’s 1901 story “Krag, the Kootenay Ram.”)