“All boys [and girls!] are born good, are the children of God, and need only to be developed under sound leadership.” – Ernest Thompson Seton, Blazes on the Trail (1928)
“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
Beginning in 1902, Seton set forth his ideas on outdoor education for youth through magazine articles, codifying them in the 1913 The Book of Woodcraft. “Lifecraft” became the expression of Seton’s philosophy, the promotion of which is the goal of the Seton Legacy Project, a program of the Academy for the Love of Learning.
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.”
Following each of the Principles (including Seton’s comments from the 1923 edition of The Book of Woodcraft), I have added my own 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. (Seton quotes are presented with tighter margins to distinguish them from my commentary.)
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.