Interview with Aaron Stern: Part 2

Aaron_blue-shirt-shorterHow do we connect with the Seton Legacy as contemporary people?

Aaron: My connection with the legacy was with this land and this place, and through my encounter with the people who were his descendants. I went to them to introduce myself, to introduce the Academy, to let them know that we came only with the best intentions and the commitment to actualize those intentions.

We immediately started archiving the artwork, so I got to know the legacy quite intimately. Much as we had to clear the land, we had to clear the paintings and find out what they really looked like under the grime. You have no idea of the dirt that was on these and the art restoration necessary, so we could see the legacy and bring presence to it now, and let it have its impact on us.

That sketch of a hawk over there on the wall is the one I personally restored. This was done in 1876. He was 16. He was haunted by these animals, so he did everything he could to get close to them and to articulate them and become intimate with them. That’s what touched me. I thought, “What 16-year-old is doing that?”

There’s all the books and all of the politics and all of the errors in his ways, yet what I see in this artwork around us is that he wants to get close to those animals somehow. That really touched me. Deeply touched me. I was in wonder about it. It’s even now emotional to me; not how well he rendered them, but the deep desire he had to know them.

That is a key touch point, but I think there’s another one: following a deep calling. Because that’s what that man did. He followed it all the way from England to Canada to New York to Santa Fe. He followed something that was calling him. I do feel that it was an engagement with the natural world, and he was confused as we’ve all been about that, about what is our relationship to nature. As a white man, he had a particular confusion that had to do with whiteness and man-ness, but still he was trying to figure it out.

Say more about what you see his calling to be.

Aaron: I think his call had to do with understanding and connecting with the natural world above all. Illuminating it. Much like we’ve illuminated this castle under the rubble, and the legacy.

Seton was driven to get close to the natural world. It wasn’t just the natural world; it was the mystical world. He had a strong mystical quality to him. For example, he was very close to Manly Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Times. Isn’t that cool? He had a deep connection to the mystery: bringing presence to the mystery and learning about it. That was his bigger transformation, I’d say, White men were conquering—conquering nature and conquering the mystery rather than being in contact with it and being instructed by it.

It was a spiritual quest, I believe that. I can tell you that when I look at his animals.

I’ve asked each of the people who went on the expedition about disorientation and the potential for transformation, key themes here at the Academy. I’d love to ask you about this, too: is there anything disorienting about this expedition for you? Do you have a sense of what the transformation might be within that disorientation?

Aaron: I am always looking for how to meet my own sense of responsibility to this land and the castle. It was a gift, and with that gift comes a responsibility. I feel really obligated morally and spiritually to honor that gift and what I said I would do, which was steward this legacy and bring it forward. It was my word of honor to the Seton family.

The big disorientation for me is I have been bereft at finding ways to integrate the Seton legacy into the Academy in a way that people here understand why is it here. It’s the ground we stand on. In any piece of land in this crazily occupied land anywhere in this country, it’s broken and splintered—and stolen, frankly. So I go to the core of how about being on a piece of land that was owned by a man who at least in his heart was trying to figure that out…because we’re all trying to figure it out.

The disorientation for me is that it has taken a lot of time for people here to buy into Seton and to recognize the ground that we stand on here is a great value. Somehow that land got to us, the last remaining 86 acres of Seton’s land out of 2,500 acres. We have this little sliver.

We’re an organization that’s devoted to understanding the human capacity to transform. He’s an example of the human capacity to transform. Bringing presence to his challenges, his suffering, his confusions, and his longings, and what call to bring forth, animals, land, nature, and even to the point of being kicked out of the organization he co-founded [Boy Scouts of America] because that was more important to him than being a militant and being a patriot.

Had he lived to be alive now, or however you’d say that, he would still be working. That man died with a damn hammer in his hand building this building. I image him always at the age of 86 putting another nail in that castle. I think he’d never have stopped working. He wrote 67 books and he painted thousands of drawings and paintings and he founded major organizations.

I couldn’t stand without saying thank you to him and to his family. Really, this broken place is just so beautiful now.

It seems like understanding what Seton has to do with the Academy is related to Jung’s concept of the shadow or to what is difficult…

Aaron: It is related to embracing the whole story.

Like in all of us, there are these haunts and schisms that live as the sort of simultaneous paradoxes that seem irreconcilable, but in Seton, we see a man who wrote Lobo, which was out of his own reconciliation. If I understand correctly, he moved from killer of animals to no longer killing animals. Whatever he came to find out about that, he found out, and then he was different from that moment forward. I don’t know if you know this, but up until the time he wrote Lobo, the animals {he worked with} all had numbers like in a concentration camp. They were dehumanized completely. Tags and numbers.

It was only through his encounter with Blanca and Lobo that he changed, and they got names after that. When you give things names, everything changes. They become something. They elevate in stature. They are imbued with human qualities in a certain way from a human point of view. You can see in that story some profound shift in him.

David Witt pointed to that and said, “Look, that is the connection to the Academy.” I think it was Hayley Horowitz (Academy communications coordinator) who had the observation that we’re carrying forward Seton’s transformation. I believe that. That thread is a beautiful thread to follow.

It seems that the struggle for each of us, as we encounter Seton’s legacy in new ways, is about connecting to the brokenness or to the aspects in Seton and in ourselves that we would rather push away or distance ourselves from.

Aaron: As I told you earlier, Seton said to me, “You don’t belong here.” Really, that was me saying, ‘I don’t belong here’ or ‘I don’t want to be here.’ And that’s when I knew I was taking this legacy on. It’s mine to do. Because you see, Bernstein equally had his own ghosts and shadows, and I took that on. It was all about love, so we can see all of our fracturedness. There’s no silver bullet, no bypass.

It’s my responsibility to heal my brokenness and come into the world in more whole ways. I don’t know how to do it without doing it. I can’t delegate that or hope that it’s going to happen. I have to enter into the fears and the darknesses and the brokennesses. The part of me that goes there is the part that brings beauty to that brokenness and fashions a life.

I think that’s what Seton was doing. He killed as many animals as he had to until he stopped and realized what he was doing, and that he couldn’t do that anymore. Not one animal more and not one animal less. That’s part of the mystery.

If there’s anything that I could say is that there’s a solemn responsibility, I think, of the Academy to understand and bring forth the cultivation and capacities to noble transformative experiences like this. Both so that they reach their potential in the broader sense of consciousness in communities, and also so that we can become better and more effective in transforming our actions and practices. So that we can be more graceful and less damaging.

If we can see that that’s what we’re doing, maybe we don’t have to shoot as many animals because we can say, “Wait a minute, that’s not really what we want to be doing or what we really try to do.” There are other ways to get close to the mystery that are less violent to all concerned. That’s the potential here, and that’s the redemption of the Seton story or the Bernstein story or the Aaron story. Can we take the seeds of our stories and ennoble them and get better at being human beings?

In wrapping up, is there anything more you would like to say about the expedition?

Aaron: When David came to me and he said, “I’m thinking about going to the Arctic prairie. What do you think of that idea?” I had a big yes.

I continued though to be in a place of disorientation as the founder of the Academy in how this organization still didn’t know what to make of Seton. It’s heartbreaking for me and it’s also a massively lost opportunity to bring something of a healing restoration, a healing corrective to our relationship to the natural world culturally.

I made up the story that if they, David and the others, went on this journey and we as a community can feel how deeply touched they are in bearing witness to that place, it’ll lift the veils a bit so we can feel the call to restoration of our relationships to the natural world. This journey has the potential of illuminating that through story. Being moved and present to the wilderness…maybe that will be the story. But I’m not sure what the story will be. Something about what’s at stake, here and now?

We’re on the man’s land. His castle burned down and we are now built into the side of a hill. There’s a story here that holds our story, and it holds the human story of transforming from castles on the hills to feminine gestures in the world.






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