Published: April 12, 2011
A pioneering advocate of wildlife conservation, trailblazing author of realistic animal tales, accomplished painter/illustrator and best-selling author, Ernest Thompson Seton (1860‱946) is a significant figure in American history. His efforts stimulated a revolution in perceptions of nature, offered a model of environmentalism and inspired generations to go outdoors for recreation, adventure and solitude.
Seton is perhaps best remembered as author of the beloved and influential book, Animals I Have Known , published in 1898 and still in print, and as a participant in founding the worldwide Boy Scout movement. Yet Seton’s name is largely forgotten today, seldom invoked at a time of increasing concern about youth development, the environment and endangered animal species. A fascinating exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum, “Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton,” sets out to change that.
On view through May 8, this first major Seton show comprises more than 30 paintings and drawings, books, memorabilia and photographs. Most objects are on loan from the Academy for the Love of Learning (ALOL), a Santa Fe educational organization, and Philmont Museum at Philmont Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. The New Mexico History Museum, opened in 2009, is in a complex that includes the Palace of the Governors on Santa Fe’s Historic Plaza.
Seton was born in England, son of Scottish parents. When his father’s shipping business foundered, the family moved to a farm near Lindsay, Ontario, Canada, when Ernest was 6, and a few years later to Toronto. His father’s strict adherence to Presbyterian morality and his often violent temper prompted young Seton to spend a lot of time outdoors, expanding his knowledge of animals and nature.
Much of Seton’s understanding of nature came from first-hand experiences, including extensive studies of Canada’s First Nations people. Throughout his career he was a vigorous supporter of Indian political rights, and an enthusiastic advocate for study of Native American history and culture.
As he grew into manhood, Seton studied art in Toronto, London, New York and Paris, acquiring skills for a lifetime. He interrupted his studies to spend five years hunting, trapping, collecting and drawing birds, mammals and other wildlife on the Manitoba prairie, leading to his first writings.
As Seton immersed himself in study of the natural world, becoming an important expert on animal behavior, he used his fine art skills to portray wildlife with accuracy and empathy, and to illustrate prolific writings. Word of his work led to invitations to join naturalist organizations and to illustrate various publications. Eccentric and egotistical, he repelled some conventional colleagues, but still managed to form a wide circle of friends and admirers.
In 1893, Seton accepted a fateful assignment to track and kill marauding wolves on a ranch in New Mexico. After a brutal encounter in which he killed the lead wolf named Lobo, Seton underwent a profound change of heart. “Reflecting on his violent actions,” naturalist/writer Bill Gilbert has written, “he began his transition from wildlife killer to wildlife protector&”
The following year, Seton’s “The King of Currumpaw, A Wolf’s Story” was published to wide acclaim in Scribner’s Magazine . Seton’s plot for this tale served as a model for numerous stories to follow in which an animal successfully copes with a series of perils. Seton felt this sequence was typical in nature. Many agreed, calling “The King” the first realistic animal story, depicting animals as they actually lived and behaved in the wild, rather than making them act like humans or fantasizing about their existence.
Seton’s animated painting, “Black Wolf of the Currumpaw,” with its fearsomely bared teeth, suggests his ability to convey the animal’s strength and menacing appearance. Believing that wolves were the cleverest and noblest of animals, he chose “Black Wolf” as his Indian name, and the wolf paw print became part of his signature.
Seton’s best-selling book Wild Animals I Have Known , retelling encounters with all manner of animals, has inspired generations of young people to appreciate wildlife and the nature around them. The text followed the adventures of horses, rabbits, wolves, birds and others, with names like Lobo, Raggylug and Wully, accompanied by Seton’s knowledgeable paintings and drawings of them.
Rudyard Kipling wrote Seton that the book inspired him to write the Jungle Books, and Sir David Attenborough, in his foreword to the exhibition book, recalls receiving a copy as an 8-year-old, adding, “I still have it. It was the most precious book of my childhood.”
Seton spent much of the late teens and 1920s producing the four-volume Lives of Game Animals , published between 1925 and 1929, which sought to rebut critics of his views about animal behavior. Blending his own observations with findings of zoologists, he penned a readable text reflecting the latest scientific thinking.
For nearly a decade around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Seton explored wild areas of North America, including Yellowstone and Wind River, and undertook a 2,000-mile Canadian canoe trip almost to the Arctic Circle.
In 1902, Seton’s Windygoul estate in Cos Cob, Conn., was vandalized by local youths. Rather than prosecuting, he invited them to meetings on his land that evolved into an outdoor youth-education program known as “Woodcraft Indians.” What eventually became the Woodcraft League of America stressed story-telling about Native American life and lore, camping in tents, animal and plant identification, stalking and trail-making, swimming and fishing and handicrafts.
Due to Seton’s active promotion of Woodcraft’s noble ideas, it provided a model for numerous American summer camps. By 1910 it was estimated that more than 2,000 were either alumni or currently involved in what had become a prominent movement to restore America’s understanding of its Native American past.
His passion for self-reliance, sensitivity to the world around him and outdoor youth education programs led to friendship with British military hero Lord Robert Baden-Powell, an environmentalist and youth advocate. In 1905, influenced by Seton’s Woodcraft Indians ideas, the Englishman launched his own organization †the Boy Scouts †in Britain.
In 1910 Seton helped to found the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), serving for five years as Chief Scout and writing the original handbook.
Seton’s unique combination of writing and illustration made him an exceptionally effective advocate for nature and wildlife. In all, Seton authored †and often illustrated †some 60 books and around 400 short stories and magazine articles, drew or painted about 6,000 works of art, and gave thousands of lectures around the world. His writings are considered to be as fresh and authoritative today as when they were first published.
“More than two million copies of his books have been sold&⁛and during] the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, he was one of America’s most popular lecturers and celebrities, continually traveling to venues in the United States, Canada and England,” says curator David Witt.
Seton continued to write and lecture until his death at age 86.
Curator Witt’s 186-page book, Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist (Gibbs Smith, $40, hardcover), serves as the exhibition catalog. It brims with Seton artwork and historical photos that complement Witt’s outstanding examination of the great naturalist’s career.
The New Mexico History Museum is at 113 Lincoln Avenue. For information, www.nmhistorymuseum.org or 505-476-5200.
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