Ernest Thompson Seton Lifecraft Philosophy #2

Fourfold Path
Fourfold Path

The drawing above shows the Fourfold path, or Lifecraft Way. Seton’s directional graph was inspired by the worldview of American Indians and First Nations Peoples with whom he studied and from whom he learned the outdoors skills, natural history, and ethics that comprise the core values of Lifecraft.

This is its directional organization: Service Way (north), Spirit Way (east), Body Way (south), Mind Way (west). At its core are the words, “Symbol of Great Spirit,” although not the symbol itself. From the four Ways issue the twelve “Laws.” In my view, the graph represents a non-linear complex system, one open to receiving, processing, and expending energy. There is no one entry or any one place of exit; all of the direction-ways are equally important.

The Fourfold Path calls for an integration of body, mind, spirit, and service: A fully lived life is holistic and ecological, in connection with nature, society, and other individuals. Lifecraft considers the individual (child or adult) part of a larger system of male and female, of family, of community (to which service is owed), of spirituality, and of the natural world. It stands against rigid standardization. Each of us should be inspired and enabled to follow our chosen life path. The competition that pits us against each other is morally wrong; the competition that matches us to a high, but achievable standard should be encouraged. The beauty we find in nature, or in our own creations (artistic or hand-crafted of whatever kind) is the highest good. Seton felt that the values he espoused were essential to the survival of our country and our civilization.

For each direction, I will begin with a short description of my understanding of the Lifecraft path. Although developed separately, Seton’s views parallel those of the Learning Model of the Academy for the Love of Learning.

North. Service of Love: Kind. Helpful. Glad Alive.

The heartfelt intention of kindness begins with those with whom we may be in closest contact and extends to all other persons and all other living beings. Helpfulness grows from the work we do, from freely sharing what we know, to making what we have available for the benefit of others. A sense of joy comes from the mere fact of being alive, at least if we remain conscious of it. We should develop the underlying intention to wake up to a greater degree of consciousness.

East. Sprit of Fortitude: Brave. Silent. Obey.

Bravery and valor is the great measurement of who we are in the world, the fountain of empathy, and the counterweight to fear, the font of hate. Our embrace of silence serves the purpose of allowing time for inward thought and outward listening. Obedience has nothing to do with blind, unthinking subservience, but is an inward following of personal principle. Be conscious of presence and spaciousness in listening. One should develop the capacity for self-reflection and the ability to enter into periods of disorientation.

South. Body of Beauty: Clean. Strong. Wildlife.

Cleanliness of person may seem self-evident, but this too is a continuum encompassing the space immediately around us, and continuing outward into the world so that we may all walk in beauty. Physical well-being grows from choice of sustenance, attitudes towards exercise, body image, sex, and a commitment to being as strong as our life circumstances may allow. Appreciating, celebrating, observing, and preserving the beauty of nature is essential to the preservation of our own bodies in this life, and also a practice critical to the survival and prosperity of all life.

West. Mind of Truth: Speak True. Reverent. Play Fair.

Honesty is the foundation on which all else rests, beginning with taking awareness and responsibility for all our actions. Reverence is being centered within to find a personal definition of the sacred, and an outward private or public expression of belief. The way we behave, our degree of reasonableness, governs our extension of fairness to others. An ability to speak the truth is another aspect of being able to hear the truth, and to be able to sit with each other in difficult conversation. This requires a willingness to be changed by the experience. But also coming to an awareness that what one learns benefits the other as well as oneself.

It is important to understand that the system described by Seton is without boundaries; we perceive each of these attributes as coming, firstly, from within, then extending outward past our own physicality, through our place of living and work, then into the community, and into the world. We must be open to acting as receiver as well as giver of insights. These concepts are neither static in direction nor in definition, but work in concert, shifting, blending, changing.

Ernest Thompson Seton Lifecraft Philosophy #1

Illustration by Amy Flowers, from Seton story of "Lobo"
Illustration by Amy Flowers, from Seton story of “Lobo”

 

Beginning in 1902, Seton set forth his ideas on youth outdoor education.  This series of essays takes a close look at what he termed Lifecraft. These ideas became the expression of Seton’s philosophy.

Seton described “Principles” and a “Fourfold Path” (covered in a separate essay) as guidance for personal development that can be best learned and practiced through a close connection to, and respect for, nature. Over decades, the Principles have been reinterpreted and expanded by various authors (including Seton himself) keeping them relevant. Seton set forth as his goal:

“I should like to lead this whole nation into the way of living outdoors for at least a month each year, reviving and expanding a custom that as far back as Moses was deemed essential to the national well-being….it is not enough to take men [and all persons of all ages] out of doors. We must also teach them to enjoy it.”

Seton’s educational philosophy shares great affinity with that of the Academy for the Love of Learning. The four essays in this series were published in slightly different form at our sister site on Blogspot.

Numbered lines are Seton’s Principles from the 1923 edition of The Book of Woodcraft. The paragraphs following are my interpretation.

On his behalf, I have extended the Principles to apply equally to males and females as well as to persons of all ages whatever their backgrounds. dlw

Nine Important Principles of Lifecraft

1 This movement is essentially for recreation.

Many of us, from students moving from one activity to the next (academic classes, band practice, computer study, soccer, music, etc. etc.) to adults moving through the daily routine (listening to the news, working at the office or shop, worrying about finances, transporting kids from one activity to the next, etc. etc.) forget the simpler ways of stepping back. Even vacations—not to mention family reunions—can be work. Recreation is a different concept. It is an activity separate from the routine, something we create for ourselves and which doesn’t have to include (at least, not on a large scale) the consumption or purchase of material things. The very best place to experience recreation: the outdoors! Individuals, couples, families, small groups. This can include anything from a quiet walk to outside sports to activities of personal interest, such as for me, wildflower identification. But fishing, skiing, climbing, quiet reflection, or anything else that puts one in positive contact with nature works just as well.

2 Camp-life. Camping is the simple life reduced to actual practice, as well as the culmination of the outdoor life…When intelligently followed camp-life must take its place as a cheap and delightful way of living, as well as a mental and physical savior of those strained or broken by the grind of an over-busy word. The wilderness affords ideal camping, but many of the benefits can be got by living in a tent on a town lot, or piazza, or even a housetop.

From time to time, some of us may be fortunate enough to go camping, traveling away from home, enjoying the scenic wonders of the wilderness or the prosaic values of a local park. We may remain out over night, but a daytime picnic will provide much the same feeling. The purpose is to renew our contact with nature. I have done this on Arctic expeditions and other wilderness trips, but also by staying overnight in the roofless ruins of Seton Castle (pictured at the top of this blog)—something Seton could not have imagined, but I believe would have approved of.

3 Self-government with Adult Guidance. Control from without is a poor thing when you can get control from within. As far as possible, then, we make these camps [of the Woodcraft League] self-governing [by the youth participants].

Children (and adults, for that matter) are subjected to many a command and rule, even in their play activities. But given the chance for self-organization, individuals or groups of individuals will find their own way. Leadership does not mean command or management; it has more to do with respect and listening. Supervision is for the purpose of helping others find that path, but not ordering them onto it. Self-governance means taking personal responsibility and personal leadership. As adults, we are more effective and happier in the world if we make these into guiding values. The lessons we take from our time in wild nature can help guide our way through all aspects of life.

4 The Magic of the Campfire. Our [human] race has seen this blessed fire [as] the means and emblem of light, warmth, protection, friendly gathering, council. All the hallow of the ancient thoughts, hearth, fireside, home is centred in its glow, and the home-tie itself is weakened with the waning of the home-fire. Not in the steam radiator can we find the spell; not in the water coil; not even in the gas log; they do not reach the heart. Only the ancient sacred fire of wood has power to touch and thrill the chords of primitive remembrance. When men [and all persons!] sit together at the campfire they seem to shed all modern form and poise, and hark back to the primitive—to meet as man and man—to show the naked soul.

Your campfire partner wins your love, or hate, mostly your love; and having camped in peace together, is a lasting bond of union—however wide your worlds may be apart. The campfire, then, is the focal centre of all primitive brotherhood. We shall not fail to use its magic powers.

While building a campfire is not always practical, appropriate, or even allowed in many public places, the experience of having sat around one is always memorable. The fire may be in the home fireplace, but one outside at night is best of all. Campfires should be intimate, a soft glow in the night, not a blazing inferno meant to defeat the dark Our earliest ancestors, whoever they may have been and whenever they may have lived, practiced their ceremonies within the glow of burning wood. The campfire may create a sense of community. Just as important is one person contemplating the embers alone, or two or three sharing their truth as the last warmth of flame is replaced by cold night. For some reason, the primitive self, the individual soul, may find a way to express itself here where all earlier efforts, in all other places, have failed.

5 Woodcraft [Lifecraft] Pursuits. Realizing that manhood, [or womanhood or personhood!] not scholarship, is the first aim of education, we have sought out those pursuits which develop the finest character, the finest physique, and which may be followed out of doors.

The love of learning, not academics, should be the first pursuit of education. The outcome for the individual is the opportunity to become a fully realized being, finding one’s place in the world, emotionally centered and, in some sense, truly happy. Children are born with a love of nature and the outdoors and a need to engage in physical activity. By encouraging them at an early age to follow their instincts in physical exploration and experiential contact with the natural world, they can be set on a path of learning that lasts a lifetime.

6 Accomplishment by standards. The competitive principle is responsible for much that is evil. We see it rampant in our colleges to-day, where every effort is made to discover and develop a champion, while the great body of students is neglected. That is, the ones who are in need of physical development do not get it, and those who do not need it are over-developed. The result is unsoundness of many kinds. A great deal of this would be avoided if we strove to bring all individuals up to a certain standard.

In our non-competitive tests the enemies are not “the other fellows,” but time and space, the forces of Nature. We try not to down the others, but to raise ourselves. A thorough application of this principle would end many of the evils now demoralizing college athletics [as well as all other levels of the educational system]. Therefore, all our honors are bestowed according to world-wide standards. (Prizes are not honors.)

The worth or power of individuals in society is all too often measured by competition as a zero-sum game where the gain of one can only come at the expense of another. A more positive view of achievement is to measure one’s accomplishments by standards of time and space, and age and physical ability. The lesson is that the measure of our success is in line with what is physically, mentally, and morally possible. Instead of tearing down, we build up. This is an additive-sum game where success drives upward what is possible for us as individuals, and as collections of individuals.

7 Personal Decoration for Personal Achievements. All have a chance for glory through the standards, [Principle #6] and we blazon it forth in personal decorations that all can see, have, and desire.

It is possible to take pride in one’s achievements without being prideful. Recognition of our achievements by others serves as validation of our efforts and as incentive to continue on a path of personal fulfillment, especially where that path leads to outcomes that serve a larger purpose.

8 A Heroic Ideal. The boy from ten to fifteen…is purely physical in his ideals. I do not know that I ever met a boy that would not rather be John L. Sullivan [a sports hero from the 1880s] than Darwin or Tolstoy. Therefore, I accept the fact, and seek to keep in view an ideal that is physical, but also clean, manly, heroic, already familiar, and leading with certainty to higher things.

Personal valor may take many forms for young males and females. It may be the ability to take physical action or moral leadership in a crisis situation. It may mean stepping up into leadership or serving the community or taking on a problem no one else can tackle. It can also mean making personal sacrifice or facing an extreme form of suffering. This does not mean not knowing fear, but, in the face of some great task, overcoming stasis, and taking a needed action or holding to an important principle. In our time—as well as Seton’s had he more clearly recognized it—heroism is a larger genderless concept that includes but is not limited to or by a particular physical ability.

9 Picturesqueness in Everything. Very great importance should be attached to this. The effect of the picturesque is magical, and all the more subtle and irresistible because it is not on the face of it reasonable. The charm of titles and…costumes, of the beautiful in ceremony, phrase, dance, and song, are utilized in all ways.

Aesthetics means sensitivity to beauty. This is the sense we use in our appreciation of the natural world or works of art. It can be a sense of awe. Beauty resides also in mathematical equations and in the logic of philosophy. And, it is also found in the way we see ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly. Without this sense, we are little more than shadows.

 

 

Hunt for Lobo Part II

Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature
Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature

Untangling the Past

When Seton arrived in New Mexico in 1893, decades of hunting had decimated the previously abundant wildlife. Wolves had hunted animals from bison to pronghorn antelope. But by then predators preyed upon cattle, the only large animals remaining. Lobo and company prowled the ranch country along the Corrumpa watershed.

This intermittent creek (“Currumpaw” in Seton’s spelling), arises from the east slopes of two prominent peaks, Sierra Grande and Capulin Volcano. It runs north of  Clayton, New Mexico and on towards the Oklahoma border. The resident wolves declined by six due to Seton’s efforts, all taken in inhumane leg traps. Two of their skulls ended up in the Vertebrate Collection of the specimen storage facility at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Collections des Vertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature) in Ottawa.

I saw them in a high ceiling, dimly lit, quiet hall. Few visitors make it into this secure facility. And almost none visit the New Mexico wolves. I stopped by on my way to Baffin Island in 2009, assisting a plant ecology expedition.  Dr. Kamal Khidas, Chief Collections Manager, kindly brought out the two skulls, long ago informally named “Lobo” and “Blanca” by someone familiar with the story.

Laid out on a heavy wood table, they gleamed startling white against a black cloth background. They retained Seton’s original specimen tags on which was written a catalog number, date of kill, and other notes. I compared these tags to Seton’s original field notes. Sometimes Seton specified the manner of death, i.e., by gun or by strangulation. I show them below in numerical order.

#653 December 13, 1893, male, 100 lbs. (maybe shot in trap)

#655 December 25, 1893, male, 87 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature; pelt at Philmont or Canadian Museum of Nature)

#662 December 29, 1893, female, 75 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#672 January 25, 1894, female, 80 lbs. (shot in trap? strangled?) “Blanca”

#675 January 29, 1894, female, 60 lbs. (maybe shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#677 January 31, 1894, male, 78 lbs. (died of injuries after release from trap) “Lobo” (skull gifted to Caroline Fitz Randolph in 1894 or 1895, not located)

Meanwhile, in New Mexico

I assumed the correct tags were still connected to the current specimens. I’ll return to the Canadian skulls in a moment, but first to the collection of the National Scouting Museum—Seton Memorial Library at Philmont Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.

In 1965, Julia Seton, Ernest’s widow, promised a donation of Seton-related material to the Boy Scouts of America. This collection was eventually housed at Philmont. Included was a wolf pelt identified as “Lobo” when it was displayed in the Castle at Seton Village. But a few years ago, when Philmont museum staff opened the case, and invited me to take a look, we noticed two things. First, the tag on this pelt was for specimen # 655. Lobo’s number was #677. Second, the appearance in the famous photograph of the wolf identified by Seton as being Lobo, is not the same as the pelt in the Philmont collection.

That is, if the photograph taken by Seton really shows Lobo, then the Philmont pelt is that of a different wolf, maybe #655 as it is marked. Or, the photograph, identified by Seton as Lobo, is actually of a different wolf. But since Julie (and presumably Seton) passed off #655 as being #677…well, we can’t know anything for certain.

Back to the Canadian specimens

Seton specimen #662, Canadian Museum of Nature #3726

Written on tag #662:

Species: Texas Gray Wolf
Locality: New Mexico, Union County, Currumpaw River, about 35 mi. N.W.  of Clayton, N.M.
December 29, (1887: Crossed out) 1893
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Blanca. Canis lupus monstrabilis. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in Union Co. New Mexico on December 29, 1887”

(I didn’t get the information copied from this one, but the number 662 was attached. Skull showed no bullet hole. Blanca’s specimen number was #672, so presumably this one is not Blanca.)

Seton Specimen #665  Canadian Museum of Nature #1875

Written on tag #655:

Species: Canis lupus nubilus Say, Plains Gray Wolf

Locality: United States: New Mexico
Date: 1893  Sex: Female adult
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton
Second National Museum of Canada tag on #655:
Species: Texas Gray Wolf, Canis Lupus monstrabilis Goldman
Locality: U.S.A., Clayton County
Date: 1893?
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Lobo. Canis lupus nubilus. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in New Mexico in 1883.  Loaned by J.H. Fleming. From old mounted specimen dismounted in February 1942.)

(This skull has a bullet hole; there is a pelt associated with this number. The 1883 date above is a typo.)

But here we encounter a new problem. Both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the National Scouting Museum have pelt’s identified as #665! At least one, and perhaps both of these identifications are incorrect. Also, notice that the Canadian Museum of Nature’s “Lobo” and “Blanca” are identified as belonging to different sub-species.

DNA

In an email to me dated September 3, 2009, Dr. Khidas shared with me the “Genetic Analysis of Canadian Museum of Nature Samples.” This was conducted by Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, dated October 8, 2007, on the two New Mexico wolf specimens.

For specimen #662 the researchers took their DNA sample from a tooth. For #665 they used foot skin from the pelt. Both specimens had the same “mitochondrial control region haplotype” or DNA sequence. This is “a unique sequence not previously detected in extant or historic Canis lupus. This “haplotype is in the same clade as historic Canis lupus nubilus haplotypes” observed also from Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, the “interior continental U.S. gray wolves.”

Neither of these specimens, if they are indeed from different animals, conform to the genetic profile of monstrabilis. The ranges of both intersected in northeast New Mexico.

Don’t confuse either of them with the Mexican Gray Wolf Canis lupus baileyi, the still extant subspecies living in southwest New Mexico.

We are unlikely to untangle all these mysteries, historical puzzles mainly of interest to a few experts. Further DNA analysis and a closer look at textual evidence could help.

Of greater concern is preserving the wolves still living. Or will Canis lupus baileyi follow nubilus and monstrabilis into the forever oblivion of extinction?

(An exhibition, Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, accompanied by a graphic novel of the same name, is currently showing at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning.)

Lobo Graphic Novel Premiers

Academy founder Aaron Stern and Ernest’s granddaughter Julie Seton at the opening reception
Academy founder Aaron Stern and Ernest’s granddaughter Julie Seton at the opening reception

The passage of time brings change to the details of life. But overarching themes may change very little. One-hundred and twenty-four years ago Ernest Thompson Seton attended the last hours in the life of a wolf. Referred to in his journal as specimen #677, the wolf returned to literary life as “Lobo” ten months later. The wolf’s biography, “The King of Currumpaw” become “Lobo, The King of Currumpaw” in 1898, four years after his first appearance. The story anchored a short story collection in Wild Animals I Have Known. It was, in its way, the first Lobo graphic novel.

Seton illustrated the Lobo story (depending upon the edition) with more than twenty drawings. He referred to Lobo several times in later books and often in his lectures. Lobo has now appeared yet again in a newly illustrated version the story. The Academy for the Love of Learning has just released a graphic novel, Lobo, The King of Currumpaw, The World’s Greatest Wolf Story. Forty-eight artists created fifty-five illustrations for the latest re-telling of the story.

A new art exhibition

The original art premiered on Sunday, August 12 at the Academy’s Seton Gallery. The opening reception attracted an attendance of over 150 (including more than twenty of the artists). This also marked the debut of the graphic novel.

Each artist was given one section of text from the story to illustrate on a 20 x 15” board. Their only instruction was to create an original work of art in reaction to the text. They used whatever medium they wished—painting, drawing, prints, and collage. The artists worked independently from one another.

The visual result is remarkably evocative of the landscape and challenges faced by Lobo, of the violence and loyalty of wolf life, and of the role Seton himself played in this drama. There were as many different artistic approaches as there were artists. Lobo and his story continue to inspire us in the Twenty-first Century, much as he did in the Nineteenth.

Wolves still in trouble

And yet, the tragic theme of wolf killing in that earlier century continues to repeat itself in our own time. The two wolf subspecies living in northeastern New Mexico where the Lobo story was set are long extinct. Today, the remaining subspecies, the Mexican Gray Wolf, is similarly beleaguered.

The names change. The stories remain much the same.

Hunt for Lobo Continues Today

Lobo wolf at night by Ernest Thompson Seton
Lobo wolf at night by Ernest Thompson Seton

Part I

Seton had planned to spend the winter of 1893-1894 at his home in Toronto, and with luck, in New York as well. His professional future as an illustrator (and later, as a writer) resided in the American city. His manic work schedule, however, resulted in severe eye strain. A doctor advised him to take a break from the drawing board and try something else. I have not found the name of that medico, but his advice for a change of venue set Seton on a new track. This included coming up with ideas resulting in worldwide Scouting and mass marketing of wildlife conservation.

The Intervening Step

That step was traveling to far-away New Mexico to hunt wolves in October 1893. Over a year earlier Seton had met a young New Jersey woman, Virginia Fitz Randolph. Renewing their acquaintance back in the States (he was by then spending time with her younger sister Caroline), he met their father Louis. An absentee ranch owner, Louis V. Fitz Randolph was losing money on his cattle operation due to wolf predation. Seton, described by Fitz Randolph as “my wolf killing friend” wrote up a business agreement on October 6 outlining two month’s work. Within days Seton was on his way to Clayton to begin the extermination process.

I have already given the story so will skip to the post-script issue: What happened to Lobo and Blanca after their deaths? And for that matter, what about the other four wolves Seton killed that winter? I’ll get to the other five in another posting and here will start with Lobo.

Seton kept Lobo’s skull, or at least a wolf skull he claimed to be that of Lobo. Contained in Seton’s files (and now at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa) is a letter from Caroline. Dated March 13, 1895, she acknowledged a special gift:

 

My dear Mr. Thompson

At last the head of your victim has come, am very proud of it and delighted am I. It is the very best thing of the kind that I have ever seen, and I am already attached to it as the glory of my modest possessions….

Mother[?] says that she can’t bear to meet Lobo’s eye – she fancies that he has a “Mr. Hyde” sort of sneer, a look as though he might be the evil side of a human [ ? ], but for me, I love Lobo. He fascinates and attracts me, and his quaint [ ? ] and [ ? ] charms and satisfy me afresh every time I glance at him. I shall consult Julie [ ? ] before having his mounted and protected. But have a notion of my own that I should like him in a [ ? ] band of plain ebony with a tiny sample rim of gold inside – to signify le rir est mort. Does that sound right and fitting, oh mighty conquerer?

I have said a great deal, but somehow seem to have fallen short of telling you how good you are to me to send me Lobo, and how warmly I appreciate your kindness. I’ve not written

[The letter ends at this point, although it must have continued on another, now lost page.]

Caroline wrote on letterhead showing their address as Front Street & Farragut Road, Plainfield, New Jersey. Some years ago, a correspondent at the Historical Society of Plainfield, New Jersey confirmed for me that Lewis Fitz Randolph and his wife Emily Caroline had a daughter named Caroline. Lewis apparently was prosperous, purchasing “a lot of property” following the Civil War. Caroline eventually married, but we did not find her married name. Did the “Lobo” skull survive?

The Iliad of Lobo and Seton

Illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Matthew Chase-Daniel
Illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Matthew Chase-Daniel

Seton wrote Lobo story in slightly fictionalized form. At its conclusion we know the fate of Lobo and Blanca, but not that of Seton. His attitudes about hunting and trapping unfolded through lectures and additional books in the early 20th century.

The meaning of the story became clear only after a decade passed from its original 1894 publication. He became increasingly adamant about the need to protect wild nature. In 1901 he wrote,

“I have been bitterly denounced, first, for killing Lobo; second, and chiefly, for telling of it, to the distress of many tender hearts. To this I reply: In what frame of mind are my hearers left with regard to the animal? Are their sympathies quickened toward the man who killed him, or toward the noble creature who, superior to every trial, died as he had lived, dignified, fearless, and steadfast?”

The story ended without our knowing that on the day of Lobo’s death Seton unexpectedly decided to leave New Mexico. Having touched Lobo and looked into his eyes, the wolf hunter could not bring himself to hunt another wolf. Ever. Nor could he remain in the place where Lobo’s death occurred.

I explained Seton’s personal transformation from wildlife killer to wildlife protector in Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist. The three-months covered in the Lobo story may be the most important period of Seton’s life. It was part of a longer nature journey beginning on the Canadian frontier and ending decades later in Santa Fe. The man who hunted Lobo and Blanca later came to bitterly denounce the wanton and senseless destructions of our wild relatives.

Ancient History

The importance of this relatively short period to the longer struggle has a literary antecedent, another, much earlier tragedy.

The Iliad of Homer describes just two weeks of the ten-year Achaean siege of Ilium.  Or two weeks of twenty years if one includes the subsequent travels of Odysseus. The Achaeans were Hellenistic peoples of the heroic Mycenaean period when the gods of Olympus were believed to have taken an active role in the lives of men at the siege of Troy and elsewhere. (Subsequently, following the mysterious fall of Mycenae, the gods retreated, and these peoples became recognizable in history as Greeks.)

Two warriors, Achilles and Hector, representing their respective armies, are pitted against one another. They have (at the start at least) no special antipathy for one another. They have no reason to be at each other’s throats except that terrible circumstances have brought them together. Achilles is fated to win their deadly competition because of his special advantages. This increases the pathos of the humiliating and ultimately pointless death of Hector. There is no honor in the way Achilles kills Hector, although Achilles is otherwise an honorable man by the standards of his time.

Similarly, the great warrior wolf Lobo wants nothing of this war with the invincible Seton, who for his part, holds no antipathy for Lobo. Their conflict is for Seton just a job he has traveled to from a faraway land. Seton gives us a hint that his attitude towards Lobo and consciousness about animals in general is beginning to change. The rest of his story, like that of Odysseus, comes later.

By 1901 in Lives of the Hunted, Seton seems to recognize the shallowness of his victory. (See quote above.) In 1905, he tells of witnessing another wolf hunt, but one in which he refuses to participate. He wrote “Badlands Billy: The Wolf that Won,” in Animal Heroes. Billy survived his encounter with human enemies, much to Seton’s approval.

It is only by knowing this sequel that we can understand the meaning of Seton’s life. The death of Lobo changed first Seton and then the world. I am tempted to write that maybe, knowing the outcome of Seton’s journey, we can begin to forgive him for his murder of Lobo. Or maybe not. Seton did not ask our forgiveness for his heinous act against the wolf. But without Lobo, there would have been no Seton Legacy. Seton learned important lessons about himself and about wildlife from his three months in New Mexico. One could read the balance of his life as a kind of atonement.

In another 3000 years our civilization may be as mysterious to the people of that time as that of the Achaeans is to us. The story of Lobo and Blanca will have become mythical, its author a shadowy legend. They will marvel at our pointless cruelty and mourn for that earlier time when the howl of the wolf could be heard in the West and was its most beautiful sound.

{The graphic novel based on Lobo, The King of Currumpaw, will be released on August 12. Original art work illustrations from the novel will be featured on the walls of the Seton Gallery. For more information, contact the Academy for the Love of Learning.}

Lobo’s Story of wolf hunting in New Mexico

Detail of illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Jamison Chās Banks
Detail of illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Jamison Chās Banks

First introduced as a long form story in 1894, “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” became a star because of Seton’s 1898 book, Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s story has resonated ever since, re-issued many times. It has also been re-imagined. British illustrator William Grill published his own graphic novel, The Wolves of Currumpaw in 2016.

A satirical version (which appeared to have been influenced by my book on Seton) appeared on an American television network a few years ago. Even earlier, BBC and PBS ran slightly different versions of a Lobo documentary. Occasionally I hear a rumor that another literary or cinematic version may be in the works.

This August, the Academy for the Love of Learning releases its own graphic novel of Lobo’s story. That is a lot of attention for a wolf who died over a century ago. Seton wrote:

“Lobo lived his wild romantic life from 1889 to 1894 in the Currumpaw region, as the ranchmen know too well, and died, precisely as related, on January 31, 1894. The fact that these stories are true is the reason why all are tragic. The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end.”

This December marks the 120th anniversary of Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s story is the most popular in a collection that includes many fine works. Seton gives a first-person account of pursuing the brave and noble Lobo.

Spoiler alert: Synopsis of the story follows, including its ending.

The setting: northeastern New Mexico, October 1893 – February 1894 in the area now known as Union County. (It separated from Colfax County in January 1894.) Broad tablelands cut deep arroyos. Rising from the flanks of two volcanoes, Sierra Grande and Capulin (now a National Monument) the intermittent flow of Corrumpa Creek crosses eastward over dozens of semi-arid miles toward the town of Clayton. Seton hunted wolves here. Although somewhat embellished, Seton presents Lobo’s story much as is actually happened.

Part 1: A large gray wolf, leader of a five-wolf pack, preyed upon Currumpaw Valley cattle in the late 19th century. Known as “Old Lobo,” he gained a reputation as the largest, smartest, and loudest of his kindred. The pack included a white-coated female, Blanca.

These animals were occasionally spotted in the distance by cowboys and shepherds. The wolf pack took a terrible toll on herds and flocks. The problem was made worse by the wolves’ habit of eating only animals they freshly killed.  All attempts to hunt or poison the wolves met with failure. A thousand-dollar reward offered for Lobo’s hide brought in bounty hunters. But the hunters wore out their horses and mourned the loss of large wolf-hounds killed by the even larger wolves. All seemed hopeless from the rancher standpoint.

Part 2: The narrator of the story (Seton), formerly a wolf hunter (in Canada) had for some time made his living at a “stool and desk” as a commercial artist specializing in wildlife illustration. An acquaintance, a ranch owner on the Currumpaw, invited Seton to New Mexico to deal with the wolf problem.

Seton’s approach was to scatter poisoned meat and lay out baited traps. He made every effort to hide any hint of human scent from the traps. But Lobo seemed to taunt him, gathering up baits and scattering “filth” over them. The wolf kicked rocks onto hidden traps, springing them. When Seton hid traps in devious patterns Lobo backed out them unharmed. Nothing worked.

Part 3: After weeks of unrewarded effort, during which Seton made acute observation of wolf habits and ecological role, he noticed something important. While the wolf pack generally stayed behind Lobo, he discovered that Blanca sometimes ran heedlessly ahead. Seton changed tactics. Rather than continue his fruitless efforts to trap Lobo, he instead turned his efforts toward Blanca.

Seton came up with a devious plan. He set out six steel leg traps near a freshly killed cow knowing that Lobo would find and disable them. He removed the head and tossed it casually aside. He buried two traps under the dirt by the head, knowing that wolves would not eat it, and knowing that Lobo would not approach, but betting that one of the others might investigate while Lobo busied himself disabling the other traps.

The following morning Seton returned to find the cow head gone along with one of the traps, dragged away by a strong wolf. He followed the trail for a mile, finding poor Blanca still in the trap and hopelessly dragging the heavy steer head behind her. Despite her terrible situation, Blanca turned to fight with the last of her strength, howling for Lobo, who howled in return. But Lobo could do nothing against men with guns. Seton killed her in a manner he came to regret.

He returned to the ranch with her body. All night the cañons reverberated with the plaintive cries of the bereft Lobo. “It was sadder than I could possibly have believed.” Lobo prowled about the ranch in the dark.

Seton came up with another trick to use against Lobo. On horseback, he dragged Blanca’s body through a field to set out a chaotic pattern that Lobo would attempt to follow. Counting on Lobo’s love and loyalty for his mate, he set out many traps.

Attracted by her scent, the heartbroken wolf did indeed come looking for Blanca.

Seton found Lobo caught in three of four traps. Like Blanca, Lobo made ready to fight upon his antagonist’s approach, even biting through and severing a lasso thrown over his neck. Seton aimed at the animal with his rifle but at the last possible instant, held back, unable to carry out the execution.

Seton and a cowboy threw a stick and heavy cord to the wolf who bit into the stick and became entangled in the cord; they drew the cord tight to close his massive jaw. Unable to bite, Lobo ceased all resistance. They threw the wolf over a saddled horse and returned with him to the ranch. Now a prisoner, Lobo silently watched his passing kingdom.

At the ranch, they secured Lobo with a collar and strong chain, removing the stick and cord from his mouth. Seton offered the wolf water and meat which Lobo ignored. Seton closely examined the wolf, looking into Lobo’s eyes, reaching out and touching him. The wolf just stared out onto the prairie where he and Blanca had roamed free.

During the night Lobo died, the spirit gone out of him. He could not tolerate the loss of strength, the loss of his freedom, and the loss of his beloved mate. Seton placed his body next to the remains of Blanca, reuniting them.

I will not be giving too much away by mentioning that Seton never killed another wolf. Lobo’s death changed Seton, directly influencing much he would accomplish in the world.

The King of Currumpaw exhibition opens at the Academy for the Love of Learning on Sunday August 12 from 2 to 4 pm.

Lobo, Life and Death of a Gray Wolf

Lobo and Blanca, Courtesy National Scouting Museum-Seton Memorial Library
Lobo and Blanca, Courtesy National Scouting Museum-Seton Memorial Library

The “Lobo” story (as it is often called) is a quintessential American tale. It captures the grandeur and tragedy of the American West. Ernest Thompson Seton’s account of hunting and environmental ethics was first published in the November 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. On August 12, 2018, the Academy for the Love of Learning will premier our publication Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, Seton’s story re-imagined as a graphic novel, illustrated by artists commissioned by the Academy.

“Lobo,” the hero of this story, died at the end of January in the same year as the publication of his biography. The story mattered (and still matters) because the protagonist lived and died much as chronicled by Seton. Ultimately, the rest of his subspecies, either Canis lupus nubilus, the Plains Gray Wolf, or Canis lupus monstrabilis, the Texas Gray Wolf (both lived in northern New Mexico) became extinct a few decades later.

In this year, the 158thafter Seton’s birth, and the 124thafter Lobo’s death, two more wolf subspecies, baileyi (named for biologist and wolf killer Vernon Bailey) and rufus, may soon move from Wikipedia’s still-here list to its now-gone (extinction list). As I will explain in the following series of essays, Seton—Lobo’s killer—came to understand the immorality of his own actions, and in a larger sense, the insanity of our civilization’s war on nature. Seton came to believe that our entire society was headed for the now-gone list. Heady stuff to come from the death of a particular wolf.

(The artists’ reception for “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” an exhibition with graphic novel, will take place at the Academy’s Seton Gallery on Sunday August 12 from 2:00 to 4:00pm. Free admission. Everyone is invited. Up to date schedule found at www.aloveoflearning.org)

Ernest Thompson Seton Legacy Project

Seton Castle
Seton Castle

The essays to be presented on this site are about the life and legacy of the writer, artist, educator, and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton. Sponsored by the Academy for the Love of Learning, the Seton Legacy Project came about due to a fortuitous meeting between Aaron Stern, founder and president of the Academy, and Dee Seton Barber, Ernest’s daughter. Dee, inheritor of her father’s property not far out of Santa Fe, found in the Academy an institution to care for that property (including an art collection). The Academy found at Seton Village a physical location on which to build its educational programs.

“In our work, we open to the heart of learning itself and rest upon a deep trust that the seeds of basic goodness, love and learning live within all of us.”
Aaron Stern, Founder and President, Academy for the Love of Learning

Seton, as we will come to see through exploring his creative and scientific writings, his art, and the accomplishments of his life generally, would have been in complete agreement with Aaron’s statement about learning. Having myself lived with (and often by) Seton philosophy for several decades now, I feel that he would have been mighty pleased that his home had become a center for learning as a goal in and of itself during these challenging times.

Seton’s interests were dizzyingly broad. He wrote about subjects from the coloration of birds to American Indian sign language, and from the education of youth to stories about wolves.

It is to that latter subject which we will turn in coming weeks. Seton gained notoriety and set the foundations for later critical success with a story about wolf hunting in New Mexico. Published in the November 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, readers were confronted with a hero (the wolf) who exhibited moral dimensions, particularly a capacity for love-loyalty then believed mostly (or entirely) absent from wild animals. For the next half century Seton would expand the notion of what is encompassed by wild nature, and how that informs (or at least should inform) the way we humans live in this world.

In my view, the world shifted a bit with the publication of “Lobo, The King of Currumpaw,” for thereafter, making the argument that animals are senseless things or objects, became much more difficult. That particular fight is not over, given the destructiveness with which our civilization treats its physical environment.

All the more reason, then, that we should review the pro-nature message in “Lobo.” The Academy for the Love of Learning is publishing a graphic novel of the story (August 2018)—Seton’s words with commissioned artwork.

More than a century after the death of the great wolf, his spirit lives on.