David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Book Helps Put Seton’s Westman Roots on Display

Brandon Sun, December 5, 2010 - David McConkey

How many of us remember that a world renowned naturalist, wildlife illustrator, and co-founder of the Boy Scouts once lived in Western Manitoba?

Fortunately, a wonderful new book can help reacquaint us: Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist by David L. Witt.

Ernest Thompson Seton was born in England in 1860 and died in New Mexico in 1946. From childhood, Seton enjoyed being out-of-doors, illustrating, and learning. These interests become his life-long pursuits.

When he was five, his parents moved to southern Ontario: first to a farm and later to Toronto.

As a young man, he went to live with his brother on a farm near Carberry. Although Seton then took art courses in London and Paris and worked as an illustrator in New York City, he continued to visit the Carberry area for most of his life.

Writing about hunting in Western Manitoba in The Trail of the Sandhill Stag, Seton noted, “These are the best days of my life. These are my golden days.”

In his autobiography, Seton called this region “the land of my dreams.”

In his early 30s, he went to New Mexico to hunt wolves that were killing the livestock of a friend. As most of the wildlife there had already been wiped out, the few remaining wolves had to eat farm animals to survive.

In tracking one majestic wolf, whom he named Lobo (Spanish for wolf), Seton came to a deeper respect for wild animals.

He eventually was able to kill Lobo. This act profoundly affected Seton, and later – through his stories and pictures – affected the entire society.

Seton became famous as an author of scores of fiction and non-fiction books and magazine articles, as an illustrator, and as an international speaker who gave thousands of public lectures.
One of his best known books, published in 1898 and still in print, was Wild Animals I Have Known. One of those wild animals was Lobo.

That book, Witt says, “reached millions of readers and set off a revolution in the way we perceive nature. Seton gave his readers a new way to think about animals. They were brave, honourable, and intelligent.” 

Seton embraced a philosophy of people living more in harmony with each other and with nature. His ideas grew out of his extended periods in the wild and from his understandings of aboriginal cultures.    

Seton first met aboriginal people in Western Manitoba. He continued to learn from them and be inspired by them throughout the rest of his life.

Seton put his thoughts into practice in the early 1900s when he set up “Woodcraft” activities for boys to promote outdoor recreation, aboriginal customs, co-operation, and personal development.  

Seton's writings influenced Robert Baden-Powell, the British lord, general, and hero of the Boer War.

Baden-Powell was then establishing “Scouting” in the U.K., which aimed to prepare boys to be future soldiers. Baden-Powell got his idea after using boys as young as 12 in battle as messengers and lookouts; in other words as “scouts.”

Seton became a co-founder of the Boy Scouts in the U.S., its first Chief Scout, and writer of much of the original “Boy Scout Handbook.”

Seton infused Scouting with his notions of conservation, wildlife protection, camping, aboriginal lore, and environmental education.

Although Seton had a falling out with the Boy Scouts, he reconciled with some of its leaders later in his life.

After his death, Seton's daughter linked up with the organization by donating many of his works of art to a museum at a major Scout centre in New Mexico.

She also arranged for the Seton house and estate in New Mexico to become the new home for an organization in line with Seton’s approach to life: the Academy for the Love of Learning.

The book Ernest Thompson Seton is a great description of his life and legacy, and a colourful collection of many of his paintings and drawings.

This handsome book should be in every public and school library in Westman. And it would make a thoughtful gift for anyone interested in history and nature.

The book also serves as a catalogue for “Wild at Heart,” an exhibit of Seton’s art that runs until May 2011 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Closer to home, you can reflect on the land where Seton actually roamed by visiting Spruce Woods Provincial Park.

There is also a wayside park on the Trans-Canada Highway east of Carberry. The historical plaque there honours Seton as Naturalist for the Province of Manitoba from 1892 until his death.

Another excellent way to connect with the Seton legacy is to browse the books and artifacts at the Seton Centre in Carberry. The Centre is open during the summer and by special arrangement – phone 204-834-2056.
* * * *
See also:  

Ernest Thompson Seton on Amazon.com     (on Amazon.ca)

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Can We Nurture and Retain Famous People in Westman?

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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