Retracing Seton’s Arctic Expedition: The Call to Transformation
I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. — John Muir
In 1907, Ernest Thompson Seton—a forty-six year old artist, naturalist, and co-creator of the wildlife conservation and Scouting movements—began the greatest wilderness adventure of his extraordinary life. He led a six-month, 2000-mile canoe voyage into the Barren Lands northeast of Great Slave Lake (Northwest Territories). In The Arctic Prairies, published in 1911, he chronicled the people and environment he encountered along the way, as well as his destination, the fabled Aylmer Lake.
On July 26, 2015, a small team set out to retrace Seton’s route for 10 days over the tundra and along the shores of Aylmer Lake. Key staff members from the Academy for the Love of Learning have answered the call to adventure: Patty Nagle, director of programs; Thomas Jaggers, Academy faculty member; and David Witt, historian and curator of the Seton Legacy Project.
Relying upon Seton’s maps, photographs, drawings and journals, the expedition will follow his footsteps and map the current landscape through the lens of transformation. What has changed? What is no longer here? Who are we in this exploration? How do we relate to Seton and his legacy? They will document their experiences in still photography, video and online storytelling. These will form the basis for a forthcoming traveling exhibition and an accompanying publication.
Why this journey? Why now?
As a learning organization, we’re tracking Seton’s ghost, drawing closer to a complex legacy. In addition to his artwork and writings, the Academy stewards Seton’s land. These 86 acres outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, literally are the ground we stand upon and the living landscape in which we learn.
Seton made significant contributions to ecology, ethology and youth outdoor education, creating important foundations for today’s environmentalism. He raised perceptive concerns about the problematic human relationship to wild nature. Our disconnection from nature, he believed, threatened the very survival of our civilization.
Yet, we know from The Arctic Prairies, that Seton also looked upon the Arctic wilderness with an eye to exploitation and responded to the First Nations peoples of that place in a racist way that is deeply troubling.
The expedition takes place within broader changes and reckonings: In the late spring, Canada released its Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, urgently calling the nation to reconciliation as a step towards supporting Aboriginal Peoples to heal from the destructive legacies of colonization. In recent weeks, Pope Francis published Laudeto Si, his encyclical on the degradation of the environment, our “throwaway” culture, and climate change.
How do we relate to Seton and his legacy as contemporary people? Can we hearken to a greater call and reckon with our collective history of colonization and our fractured relationship with nature? What can we learn by walking, step by step, in his footsteps, rather than turning away? Can we evolve Seton’s relationship with the wild and restore right relationship with nature?
This blog will explore these questions and more, feature the experiences of the expeditioners, and highlight the learning of the Academy community.