Writers for Conservatives, 68: Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946)
Seton was well known as a naturalist, as a writer of books about wildlife, and as one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America and the writer of its handbook, but I would guess that most of the readers of my generation know him only as the author of Wild Animals I Have Known. Although he wrote many books, several similar to that one, it was the one most well known when I was a rosy-cheeked lad. I don’t know how many times I read that book in those years. After rereading it for this essay, I am still enthusiastic about its attractions. What first strikes a reader are the illustrations. In addition to the excellent full page pictures, the margins of most pages are decorated with small drawings of animals, or traps, or tracks, anything that is apposite to the story, lively drawings which animate the text, providing a running commentary on the words, a wonderful device that makes the reader feel an intimacy with the text.
And the text itself is masterly, simple and fluent and direct as this first paragraph of the first chapter, “Lobo the King of the Currumpaw” shows:
“Currumpaw is a vast cattle range in northern New Mexico. It is a land of rich pastures and teeming flocks and herds, a land of rolling mesas and precious running waters that
at length unite in the Currumpaw River, from which the whole region is named. And the king whose despotic power was felt over its entire extent was an old gray wolf.”
He goes on to tell of the depredations of Lobo’s band of wolves, leading up to the author’s adventures with all his fruitless attempts with poisons and traps, until he traps Lobo’s mate. Using her scent as a lure, he finally manages to trap Lobo. He stakes the now quiescent wolf out in the pasture with a strong chain and collar. By the next morning, Lobo is dead.
“A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will aver that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole? This only I know, that when the morning
dawned, he was lying there still in his position of calm repose, his body unwounded, but his spirit was gone — the old King-wolf was dead.”
There follows the story of Silverspot, a crow, which the author observes near Toronto in the 1880s. He writes out, in musical notation, the different calls, which he translates into English, as “Be on your guard,” or “Hawk.” Silverspot is the leader of the crows, and Seton makes much of his skills as a leader of the crows in his band. Eventually Silverspot is killed by an owl, and the band of crows dwindles without such an exemplary leader.
In the second paragraph of the next story, “Raggylug,” Seton raises the issue for which he was criticized at the time.
“Those who do not know the animals well may think I have humanized them, but those who have lived so near them as to know somewhat of their ways and their minds will not think so.
“Truly rabbits have no speech as we understand it, but they have a way of conveying ideas by a system of sounds, signs, scents, whisker touches, movements, and example that answers the purpose of speech; and it must be remembered that though in telling this story I freely translate from rabbit into English, I repeat nothing that they did not say.”
Understand that such critics did not have Beatrix Potter or Kenneth Grahame in mind; they were scornful of the writings of the naturalists which were supposed to be strictly accurate descriptions of the lives of animals. I think no one can read Seton’s books without concluding that he humanized the animals even as he honestly described their wild lives, but the point I am always making in these essays is that the writer, if he is any good, creates a world — you may like it or not, you may say you don’t like books that humanize animals, but you cannot deny the reality of the fully related work.
In my essay on Kipling, I remarked that some commentators claimed that his portrait of India in Kim was true, while others said it was false, but the real point is that he created a living picture in the book; whether or not it was true to fact is irrelevant. You may dislike the picture, but you cannot say that because you dislike it, the book is false. Similarly, Seton creates a world in which animals are, to a degree, humanized, and you may or may not like that, but he successfully creates a world, and that’s the only esthetic judgment that matters.
After “Raggylug,” Seton writes about his dog, a fox, a mustang, another dog, and a partridge. All the stories are interesting as we learn about the animal’s ways, but what makes the stories so attractive is that he makes us care about the animals, and that is the result of humanizing. For instance, the story of the pacing mustang is not humanized because the whole story is about various individuals trying to capture the unusual horse (a natural pacer being almost unique), so that when the animal escapes captivity and jumps off a cliff to its death, we are not stirred as we are by the stories that closely follow the animals’ lives.
I have a few of Seton’s books — The Trail of the Sandhill Stag, Wild Animals at Home, Lives of the Hunted — which follow the same pattern, stories of particular animals, as Wild Animals I Have Known, and while I think that is the best, they are all rather similar, and if you like one you will like them all. He wrote several books about woodcraft and Indian lore. The only one I have read is Two Little Savages, about two farm boys who try for a few weeks to live like Indians in the woods, learning how to make a teepee, how to make bows and arrows, and so on — a very entertaining story.
I don’t know how many tears I shed over the stories in Wild Animals I Have Known. Seton warned me in the preface that “the life of a wild animal always has a tragic end,” by which he meant that they never die a peaceful end of old age. I cried because they had an end, any end, and any author whose creations can do that deserves a measure of our respect. *