Monday, November 07, 2011

E.T. Seton's The Arctic Prairies

Ernest Thompson Seton, the writer of The Arctic Prairies, brought his own wilderness agenda with him when he travelled in Canada's Northwest Territory in 1907. His journal notes became the basis for a book that was among the first popular works of environmentalist writing, and had a great deal of lasting influence on many readers and even on government legislation in North America. Ultimately, though, The Arctic Prairies is not a work of environmental propaganda or a book meant to inspire new solutions for the problems Seton observed. Even though Seton took advantage of the prestige this book brought him when he pressured government officials to pass laws limiting hunting, the effect was not so much a change of environmental management as a firmer strategy for continuing to regulate communities and development in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Born in 1860 in South Shields, UK to Scots Loyalist parents, Ernest Evan Thompson emigrated to Canada with his parents and nine brothers when he was six years old. When he was young, he avoided his father by retreating to the woods, studying and drawing animals. A scholarship in art brought him to the Royal Academy in London, England for a couple of years. Rejecting his father, the young man changed his name to Ernest Thompson Seton, as he felt that Seton had been an important name in his father's family tree.

Drawing the natural world became not only a personal passion for Seton, but his career as he failed at farming with his brother and with friends. He was appointed the Provincial Naturalist for the province of Manitoba, and created reference works on birds and animals that are still used today. Of the 42 books that Seton wrote, his 1898 book Wild Animals I Have Known is the most acclaimed. Rudyard Kipling told Seton in a letter that he got the idea to write the Jungle Books from reading Wild Animals I have Known.

In 1907, Seton set out on a canoe trip exploring Hudson's Bay Company routes in Canada's Northwest Territory, in the areas of Athabaska River, Salt River and Thelon River. The trip lasted seven months and covered some 2,000 miles. His notes became the book The Arctic Prairies. Soon after he returned, he was elected to the Explorers Club, which included only the most celebrated adventurers like Sir Edmund Hillary and Admiral Peary.

His Own Agenda

Unlike the explorers that he admired, Seton set off on his journey simply because he wanted to. He was not appointed by the British or Canadian government nor hired by a fur trading company, though as he acknowledged, a trip of this kind simply could not have been made into Canada's Northwest Territory in 1907 without the co-operation of the Hudson's Bay Company. He paid all his own expenses and some expenses for his companion, the natural biologist Edward Alexander Preble. In his book The Arctic Prairies, Seton writes as if the younger man were his assistant, but in fact Preble was conducting his own research.

Though some of the words Seton uses in The Arctic Prairies are no longer polite idiom, they were not used as hate words by Seton. He uses the words "Indian" and "White" as if they had no more nasty connotation than calling casually someone "French" or "Scot." Seton admired many men among the First Nations, and did not hesitate to condemn men of European or First Nations descent who were lazy or venal.

Seton's sense of humour shows in wry anecdotes throughout the text, often at someone else's expense. "'Good man' means a strong, steady worker, as canoeman or portager," Seton notes on page 116. "He may be morally the vilest outcast unhung; that in no wise modifies the phrase 'he is a good man'." This comment is clearly from a city boy who can quote the words that the men of the country are saying, without really understanding the context of what is being said. "Good man" in this context is derived from the British idiom for a man of common birth who is a physically able worker and a whole man in his prime, not a boy or an elder or a tinker or a craftsman who may be willing and deft but unable to do heavy labour.

There's a note of irony here, in that a man who is not physically strong is making comments on other men's strength. By his own admission, Seton was close to a physical breakdown before leaving on this journey. While travelling, he found himself getting stronger, probably from challenging himself physically in new ways. It's significant that Seton doesn't write about taking pride in carrying the same weights his portagers do.

He also observed on page 119 that portaging was much harder than his readers might realize. "It is easily set down on paper, but the uninitiated can scarcely realise the fearful toil of portaging." The voyageurs and working men each carried 150 to 250 pounds on a portage, more than some men are willing to load on a horse. The portagers would carry a load along a very rough trail, then walk back to carry the canoes or a second or third load. Each load was not neatly bundled in packs but in various pieces and packages.

On the advice of experienced travellers, Seton carried some simple medicines with him, mostly laxatives. He was consulted by many people suffering from ailments both moderate and severe. There were many small injuries that he could wash and dress, and laxatives usually caused little or no harm. Seton was appalled to see how many people suffered from lack of medical care. The doctors and teachers promised in the treaty had not arrived, an aboriginal leader told Seton, only missionaries.

Seton gave his ersatz medical treatment to many men (and almost no women) among the First Nations communities as well as the voyageurs, traders and officers of the Hudson's Bay Company. This earned him some respect but it also reinforced the attitude that all white men were wealthy in money and knowledge and health care resources, which they hoarded.

He lost his temper when this attitude surfaced early in the journey. "Just below the Cascade rapids was a famous sucker pool, and after we had camped three Indians came..." Seton wrote on page 22. The visitors borrowed Seton's canoe, and clubbed the fish with his maple paddles. Two of the thin blades broke as they caught a load of three and four pound suckers. Seton was horrified that two of his fine paddles were damaged, and that though the Indians shared the suckers with their friends, Seton was asked to buy a fish for twenty-five cents. He could afford new paddles. He could afford to pay for his fish, and he hadn't yet shared enough to make these men confident about sharing with him. Seton realized again that all white men were seen as wealthy and hoarding, and he resented that impression. As his journey went on, he did share his provisions, including flour and beans, as far as possible. Seton's supplies and provisions included flour and beans in amounts that may have given his portagers the wrong impression that he was much more wealthy than the fur traders and officers of the Hudson's Bay Company.

The same kind of conversation appears in later works by other authors, most notably by a writer who was familiar with The Arctic Prairies, Jack Douglas, comedian and TV writer for Laugh-In and Johnny Carson. Douglas wrote a similar scene in his book Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes. He also made reference to the Northern idiom of saying "Good man" about a man who might in fact be a lazy scoundrel.

A Real Buffalo Hunt

It was the thrill of a lifetime when Seton planned to track wood bison, which he called buffalo as many people do, so that he could photograph them. His guide assured him one day that buffalo were near and would be found the next day. "That night, as I sat by the fire musing, I went over my life when I was a boy in Manitoba, just too late to see the Buffalo," Seton wrote on page 43. He recalled how he "used to lie in some old Buffalo wallow and peer out over the prairie through the fringe of spring anemones and long to see the big brown forms on the plains. Once in those days I got a sensation, for I did see them. They turned out to be a herd of common cattle, but still I got the thrill."

"Now I was on a real Buffalo hunt, some twenty-five years too late. Will it come? Am I really to see the Wild Buffalo on its native plains? It is too good to be true; too much like tipping back the sands of time."

When he did see a small herd of buffalo the next day, Seton camouflaged his head with vines. He crept forward without disturbing the animals and took photographs. His guide moved to shoot, but Seton wouldn't allow it. Seeing a closer place to approach the animals, Seton crept away and circled round. The new hiding place was a hollow, a low place in the ground where buffalo could have wallowed in the past. He peered through spring anemones and took his photographs.

This sequence is an example of what Misao Dean calls "the retrospective construction of a narrative arc." If Seton were writing a plain recitation of the events of his journey, he wouldn't have made a point of recounting his boyhood wishes. If Seton were writing an absolutely factual account of the events of his journey in chronological order, the night he mused by the fire might not be written as occurring just before the day of the buffalo hunt. It's also possible that Seton might not have thought about the name of the flowers he peered through as a boy playing in a buffalo wallow, until as a man he lay in a similar wallow photographing the real animals behind the thin veil of a few anemones. This sequence isn't telling just the bare facts of where Seton went and what he did, it tells what he thought and felt at each stage of the story, and it puts his actions on the day of the hunt in context with his boyhood wishes and his lasting sense of fulfillment.

It's not a "just the facts" police report, and it's not necessarily 100% absolutely true, but it's certainly the way to tell the story, and the order in which to tell it. Seton has gone back after the fact and constructed a narrative arc in a work of creative non-fiction. It's a story, but Seton seems to believe it's a true story, about being a youth in a natural place, attracted to wild buffalo, who grows up to be a man who goes canoeing in the wilderness in the company of Indians and fur traders, and takes photographs of the buffalo instead of destroying what he believes are the last few.


During his journey, Seton made a point of collecting photographs and skins of many mammals for scientific study. The only animal he mentions shooting was a starving lynx that was hanging around a community of children, and he gave the meat to an elderly couple. Among the many small animal hides collected by Seton and his associate Preble was a weasel that leapt onto Preble's chest in camp one day. It took several minutes of wrestling for Preble to overcome the weasel, and Seton had to pry its dead jaws apart to release Preble's hand. "The weasel may now be seen in the American Museum," Seton reported on page 305, "and Preble in the Agricultural Department at Washington, the latter none the worse."

He wrote on page 65 of the mosquitoes in June and July becoming so numerous that they were a plague. "This country has, for 6 months, the finest climate in the world, but 2 1/2 of these are ruined by the malignancy of the fly plague. Yet it is certain that knowledge will confer on man the power to wipe them out." Like many, Seton believed that ploughing the land and developing agriculture would eliminate the mosquito plagues. He was not correct. Land in that country that has been under the plough for a hundred years still raises a fine crop of mosquitos and gnats.

Seton was pleased to meet at Fort Smith several of the men he had learned of in explorer's accounts: Roderick MacFarlane, who founded Fort Anderson, John Schott, a guide, the head man of Hanbury's expedition, Murdo McKay, who "travelled with Warburton Pike in the Barrens and starved with him on Peace river," wrote Seton on page 87. "Very few of these men had any idea of the interest attaching to their observations. Their notion of values centers chiefly on things remote from their dayly life. It was very surprising to see how completely one may be outside of the country he lives in."

Several of the Hudson's Bay officers didn't recognise a spray of uva-ursi (bearberry) that Seton brought into the fort to sketch. Others made similar remarks about a phoebe-bird. Their tunnel vision was shocking to Seton, and it would be to modern people familiar with that part of Canada. These officers were completely detached from their location, as if a modern corporate executive officer in Toronto were unable to recognise either a coffee-room refrigerator or the sound of a doorbell. Bearberry is not only very common, it has edible berries that are available for many months of the year and can be found under snow. The phoebe's distinctive call is common during much of the day in winter, hushing when large animals or people approach. These facts are useful knowledge for people who walk in this part of the world.

Attitude and Ridicule

Seton also got to meet his opposite number, his counterpart among the First Nations. This doppleganger of sorts was a First Nations or mixed-race woman near Fort Smith who put on airs that she lived like a white woman. This woman made much of having two cooking pots, one for coffee and one for tea (page 86). She prided herself on speaking English and straining to wear a corset over her clothes when shopping at the Fort store. Seton describes her (page 92-3) more thoroughly than anyone he meets, and quotes more of her rough speech than of his trusted Indian guides. Without laughing in her face, Seton nonetheless makes it clear in his text that he thought she was making herself ridiculous over and over with her false vanity.

It is a significant thing when a traveller meets his or her double among a different nation. Seton apparently did not consciously recognise this prideful woman as his doppleganger. In this book and his work in the Woodcraft League, he seemed unaware that he was similarly imitative and possibly just as much of a laughing-stock, adopting some of the clothes and manners of the First Nations people he had met. He also apparently did not consciously acknowledge whether his attitude towards her was mirrored by the attitudes toward him held by his associates among the Hudson's Bay Company and his Indian guides. It's a safe bet that these hard-living men were very aware that Seton was an artist and scholar who couldn't carry a full load over the portages. Though he was a wanna-be explorer, playing at following the footsteps of the first white men through that land, Seton proved his mettle. He kept up his journey for seven months and 2,000 gruelling miles, creating detailed maps with no more equipment than a compass.

It's possible that like George Mercer Dawson, Seton was not scorned by his associates as a weakling, but admired by some for his scholarship (even if he wasn't writing in Cree syllabics) and for the willing use of what strength he had. Seton did have the respect of at least two of his guides. Near the end of their journey, the canoe was wrecked and all Seton's journals floated downstream in a bag. Two of the guides risked their lives going after the journals, running for miles along the rough shore, one man in particular reaching over and over into the rough river. "And I did not forget him or the others;" Seton wrote on page 295, "and Robillard said afterward, 'By Gar, dat de best day's work I ever done, by Gar, de time I run down dat hell river after dem dam books!'"

Was Seton someone to be condemned by modern readers as a self-appointed White Indian whose cultural appropriation of voice silenced the First Nations people he felt he could out-perform? The final word on that score belongs to the Sioux who in 1917, gave Seton the name Black Wolf in recognition of his work among the Boy Scouts and the Woodcraft League of America. Seton preferred to use that name ever since, until his death in 1946.

Some references

Dean, Misao. "The Mania for Killing: Hunting and Collecting in Seton's The Arctic Prairies." Janice Fiamengo, ed. Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press (Reappraisals: Canadian Writers), 2007.

Douglas, Jack. Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1972.

Edmonds, Ron. Blue Sky! The Ernest Thompson Seton Pages. Posted 2010. Retrieved September 24, 2011.

Seton, Ernest Thomspon. The Arctic Prairies. Toronto, ON: William Briggs, 1911. OpenLibrary. Web. Posted April 1. 2008. Retrieved September 23, 2011.

Turner, Kate and Bill Freedman. “Nature as a theme in Canadian Literature.” Environmental Reviews. Ottawa: 2005. Vol. 13, Iss. 4, p 169, 29 pp. Posted on the NRC Research Press website at November 8, 2005. Retrieved Sept 26, 2011.

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