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. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Landscapes of My Past
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
In an essay I mentioned, in passing, the sadness I felt seeing abandoned fields, and a reader chided me: the sight of fields reverting to their natural state, viewed dispassionately, can be very attractive. Ah, but I was not dispassionate! That was the point — my feelings were involved. I have cleared land, I know the labor involved: felling trees, pulling stumps, ditching and draining, manuring, plowing, disking, planting, policing the edges. To see it neglected, all that work cast away, left to the destruction of entropy without even a valedictory word seems almost blasphemous to me, a sin against our striving life.
I see this sort of landscape all around me in the Champlain Valley that was once intensively farmed. Well into the 1970s it was a center for the production of trefoil seed, and when I began planting trefoil in Cape Breton in the 1970s, the seed bag label said: “Produced in the Champlain Valley.” But something in the soil caused a blight, and all that remains today are the yellow flowers blooming among the weeds along the roadsides. There were always dairy farms, but today only two remain in the area. There is still a market for hay downcountry, so some fields are still kept up, but as I drive by the fields growing up to brush, by empty barns and leaning silos, I can think only of the rural life that was and is no more. I did not live here then — we have lived here only 16 years — so my feelings are general, a little abstract.
I can summon up a more specific scene: in Vermont once I spent a week roofing a barn that overlooked an abandoned road that led through equally abandoned fields, and in the midst of those desolate acres was the ruin of a house beside the road, its roof gone, its windows hollow gaps, and as I worked on the roof I thought of the house when it was a home, when a farmer’s wife looked out the window to see her flowers growing before the house, and it made such a sad impression on me that I can still see it in my mind nearly 50 years later.
During our first summer here we took the ferry across Lake Champlain to visit some old Vermont friends, and on the way back we took a back road to pass a farm where an old Irishman had taught me how to mow with a scythe. I remember following him, studiously watching every move as the scythe left a neat row of clover beside his path, the scythe moving steadily, smoothly from right to left as Jack stepped forward. I had to watch him because he didn’t know how to tell me; he couldn’t put his technique into words. So I watched him, and so I learned, and so I worked. Fifty years later I drove by that field and it was a wood. Not a brushy field, a wood.
Cape Breton was a special case, its fate the result of the death of two cultures: the old folk culture transplanted from Scotland, and the culture of Provincial self-sufficiency manifest in the fishery, the forest industry, coal mining, and the steel mill. By 1971, when we got there, the decay of both cultures was far advanced. The state of the folk culture was more obvious to us as we struggled to make a living from a harsh unfamiliar environment and also tried to accommodate ourselves to a folk culture, something we had never before encountered.
I have told that story before, so now I will say only that in the 19th century, when the Island was settled, there were thousands of small farms spread across the Island, but they were not commercial enterprises. In the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides, where most of the colonists came from, the hard conditions and poor soil dictated what was essentially subsistence farming, raising food for one’s family, with perhaps a meager surplus for trading, so there was little incentive for change or development. When you are raising products to sell in a market, when you have to satisfy people at a distance, people who do not know you, you feel the commercial pressure for improvement. There was little of that in Cape Breton.
So long as the Island was isolated during most of the 19th century, the old ways endured, but by the 1890s a steel mill opened in Sydney, the principal town, and steamship service to Boston was regular. The most independent and resourceful youth left the farms in droves, to work in the steel mill or in industries around Boston or as domestics there, dooming the little farms to a lingering death. By the 1950s, when the last survivors from the 19th century, those left behind after the resourceful ones left, finally died, and the farms were abandoned. By the time we got there in 1971 they were gone.
The survival of the few farms in our area was due to the presence of a gypsum quarry on the peninsula where the men worked, so allowing them still to keep a cow or two, a pig and some hens, perfunctorily maintaining the old ways desultorily. So we were able to learn from them and to observe the old patterns of life in a folk culture. By the time we left in 2001, the countryside around us was deserted: the old had died or gone into nursing homes. And by then the modern economy of the Island had died, too. The coal mines and steel plant were closed, the pulp mill was barely surviving, and the gypsum quarry was defunct.
Of course it was sad, but so much of the decay had happened so long ago, and it was not our culture that had died there, that I could not have the strong feelings I had when I saw Jack’s clover field, where I had learned and labored, grown into a wood.
When I call up those old rural scenes in my mind, there is one — Waln’s Mill where I worked on Bob Davis’s farm nearly 70 years ago — that resonates with especial power. The farm was sold to a company that used it to raise turf for the suburban housing developments burgeoning in New Jersey in the ’50s and ’60s, and I heard that the estate by the mill had been turned into a restaurant. These changes do not bother me because I do not think about them; after all, I have never seen them (as I saw a clover field succeeded by a wood). No, when I think of those years a kaleidoscope of scenes fill my mind: sitting beside Bob in the ’38 Chevy truck piled high with baskets of tomatoes, driving to Trenton; swaying on the back of the combine, bagging oats; reaching up to pull corn tassels; maneuvering the old Allis-Chalmers tractor through a narrow gate, proud of my prowess; watching the cows on the bridge over Crosswicks Creek. I know, of course, that I can never revisit these scenes that still live in my mind, I know that my nostalgia is stupid, I know the saying “You can’t go home again” — but still, there it is, the long-gone rural scene, archetype of so many more I was to see in my lifetime.
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. —A. E. Housman *