Patty Nagle: Coming Home

IMG_0525When the opportunity presented itself to join the expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Northwest Territory in Northern Canada, I was giddy with anticipation because I knew this was going to be a “homecoming” for me. It had been quite some time since I had spent any significant time out in the natural world, which I discovered in my mid-thirties was my true home. I could feel it in my body. It was a feeling of “belonging” – something came alive inside of me and I was fed on a soul level. It’s hard to articulate in words. Because for me, it’s all about how coming home makes me feel.

Sure enough, my time out in the vast, unoccupied landscape of the arctic tundra reminded me that home for me is out in the wilderness – any wilderness.

I distinctly remember moments throughout the trip when a smile would come over my face – it happened when I looked out the window of the float plane, when we took our first excursion out in the boat to the east end of the lake, and again when we landed on shore for our first night out – there was nothing as far as the eyes could see but the undisturbed beauty of the natural world. I could feel everything in my being let go and a contractedness that I normally carry with me begin to loosen. After about two days removed from the rigors of daily life I noticed how all of the anxiety and angst that I usually carry was gone. All of the responsibilities and “shoulds” that seem to weigh on me day in and day out had dropped away and were replaced by a vastness that just opened me up. The external vastness that was so evident in the landscape was being mirrored on the inside. This was my experience for the entire week – I was truly in my element.IMG_2323

Since returning I’ve been sitting with so many questions around this idea of “home.” Where do other people find home? What are the characteristics of “coming home?” Are they the same for everyone? How does “home” make other people feel? How do we know when we’ve “come home?”

I think everyone has a place that is “home.” Some people may not have found it, yet, but it’s somewhere out there. For some it might be at the piano, in the kitchen creating a beautiful meal, teaching, at the canvas with a palette of beautiful colors, working with your hands, being with children, or sitting, with pen in hand, writing. I believe when you find it you will know it.   For me, it feeds a longing that resides deep inside of me. It transcends the constraints of time and space. It brings all of me alive in a way that nothing else can. There is no place I’d rather be.

The world needs us to find our “home” because it’s where we find ourselves, the core of who we are, and it’s from this place that we have the most to offer the world. So if you don’t know where “home” is for you, search for it as if your life depends on it. Because on some level it does. And once you find it, visit as often and for as long as you can because the world will be a better place if you do.

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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.

 

 

 

 

David L. Witt: Passages

Five blue tents are illuminated warm in the sunshine on the remote beach in northern Canada as earlier they had shown through moonlight of the night passed. Or of what constitutes night at 64° North Latitude on August 2nd. The sun sets, then the light briefly transitions to twilight before the coming of dawn again brings the full light of day to Aylmer Lake.

Hours of wind-stillness have calmed a lake so that it reflects the detail of clouds, outboard motors and cottongrass along the shore. Nothing seems to move on the ground, although time has moved on, this is a new day. There has taken place a passage. How do we go about perceiving it?

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First look to the record of the sand. There is the faint presence of Musk Ox tracks, already old. There is a recent record of a Caribou’s oddly shaped track passing west to east on the wet beach; overlaid on that is the subsequent track of an Arctic Wolf passing in the same direction. The most recent track is the huge paw prints of a Barrenland’s Grizzly, this in the dry sand, so it is indistinct. That track in the sand ends in two furrowed sand ridges, a roughly shaped: ( ) with the left part of the parenthesis no more than half the size of the right. This shape suggests that two bodies lay here hours earlier or a day earlier, sow and cub. Immediately to one side are two blueberry infused scat piles, one larger than the other.

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The beach sand recorder of wildlife activity is immediately compromised by our presence, marred with an overlay of human footprints. We searched the beach for any sign of danger (i.e., bears) then looked for a temporary tent home sites, then unloaded cargo of food containers, cameras, sleeping bags and such other stuff as seems needed here for a couple of nights. Within a day the number of our imprints seem the result of hundreds of visitor’s restless pacing, although we number just five. The wild ones pass by in a single line and then are gone on. We, relentless, march back and forth grinding nature beneath our feet into ever smaller bits.

Next look to the passage of waves. The lake sleeps for now, glassy calm, but sometimes it rises and washes the beach free of the imprints of those already come and gone since the last storm. The moccasined feet of ancient Indians left impressions that must seem very careful compared to the brutal force of hiking boots. Generations of wolves have stalked generations of caribou. We know this because the wolves left behind, hidden in the short willow scrub beyond reach of waves, bones still white or if old enough, mossy. On this morning there are no new wildlife tracks overlaid on our own. No nocturnal grizzly visit, so we are at ease at breakfast. In a day or a week, or soon, waves will come to erase all that has happened here this past week since the last storm.

This place is not often visited by our kind. There were four known expeditions on this beach between 1832 and 1907, plus an unknown number of indigenous tribal visitors before and since. The earliest of these may have arrived several thousand years ago. Archaeologists made surveys here in 1951 and 1982. Diamond prospectors (mining is a major industry up here) have likely walked this shore in search of treasure.

There are five in our party, arrived in two 16’ aluminum fishing boats powered by 30hp Evenrude outboard motors, looking for the treasure of knowledge. I can sit on the sand watching outward toward the water for birds or lean against the boat and watch inland for oncoming bears. Passages may occur behind my back either way.

A mother Mallard Duck appears leading her band of ten little ones out of their cottongrass refuge and into the deeper water just offshore. They swim with startling speed. I would not have noticed them at all except for a sudden excited fluttering of the entire group for reason unknown to me. They continue to the farther end of the beach out of our way.

Still water marked duck passage, closing behind. Fish surfacing or insects flailing wings show passages of another kind, although for only an instant before non-stormed water returns to its almost glass surface.

Beach tracks by whatever kind of creature will also be eroded by wind, one grain at a time toppled into the crater created by claw or pad or hoof or boot.

One other form of passage is absent in this season but evident as the dominant force at other times: Ice rules here seasonally. Winter ice will encroach upon the beach leaving its own mark by scraping away everything although there will be tracks in the snow for a moment. Glacial ice has in the past and will in the future, as Seton observed, churn the land itself, reorganizing (or eliminating) this beach as well as the lakes, rivers and hills of the north into a new form. Plants will be crushed, animals forced to migrate elsewhere.

The forty-meter hill north of the beach is a sand esker created by a glacier, a place of mounded ground-up rock. On its summit ancient people erected temporary shelter of caribou hide tents held up by poles. They tore rocks from the esker surface to hold down the tent edges, insuring their survival for another night during the long marches across the tundra in the hunt for Caribou. The resulting stone rings, averaging 4.5 meters in diameter, number as many as ten, several still easily discernable, others leaving only faint trace, as the malleable surface of the sandy esker shifts gradually reclaiming its component parts. The rocks are covered with black lichen, a slow growing organism that does not do well with disturbances. Which is to say that the rocks have to remain stable for a long time to support much lichen growth. The passage of the native hunters is long past, but remembered by the stones.

When Seton and his party arrived 108 years ago this month they borrowed (or reused) stones left by the ancient natives, taking several from two adjoining rings, building a cairn-monument to their own fleeting presence. Documented in a photograph as still standing thirty years ago, we found the cairn toppled by another of nature’s irresistible forces, the rodent. In this case, specifically, the “sic-sic” (as it is known locally), Spermophilus parryi, the Arctic Ground Squirrel. This small creature (about the size of a prairie dog but with a long tail) makes its home in burrows. Perhaps understanding the advantage of the protection of a stone castle, the squirrels built their dwelling beneath Seton’s cairn, eventually undermining the pile of ancient tent stones, altering the historical record just as Seton did when he removed them from their ancient rings. (Rodent revenge: Seton’ fellow traveler, Preble, killed several of them to take back as specimens to the Smithsonian.)

Someday the ice sheets will return erasing everything and beginning the cycle again.

David L. Witt

Interview with Aaron Stern: Part 1

Aaron_blue-shirt-shorterAaron: There’s such a mystery in how I came to Seton Castle—and how I found my way to Seton. Or really, how Seton found his way to me. From where I stand in my particular role as the founder of the Academy, this arctic expedition is part of a journey that I started, an expedition to this place—out of which we’re growing here at the Academy. I feel we picked up a certain thread of Seton’s life and have taken it further.

Why did I do it? Because it called to me and I answered the call.

It was through a serendipitous set of experiences that I found my way to this place. I was in the car driving here with David Gordon (director of Academy Center Development) after actually saying ‘No.’ to the invitation for about a year and a half. I kept saying “No! Castles? 100 acres of land? No!”

When I finally found the property, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this place is gorgeous!’ I was so excited. And then we came around the corner and there sitting up on this hill, was a horrible looking house. It looked like it was going to collapse. Like it was from the Munsters. David and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ It just looked so broken and fractured and dilapidated. And the garbage! Just terrible. Nevertheless, we were compelled to keep going.

Sometimes we do things that we don’t understand why. This was the most counter-intuitive thing for me to do but there was something in me that said, “I am going to restore this.” There was a beauty sitting here and I didn’t want to walk away from it. I saw something and said ‘yes’ to the restoration of this place and the stewarding of a legacy that I didn’t understand then.

I had to clear the land so I could see it. I couldn’t even see this place. Literally, it had a haze about it. Everything about the place was fractured. It was hard to find coherence. The first thing we had to do was pick up the garbage on the land. We did that for months. I think it was a total of 8 months, maybe. On the land, crawling around on our hands and knees, picking up garbage. We picked up over 280,000 pounds of garbage. We began with broken glass, first, then wood with nails, then metal. All of this was towards the question, “How do we get to see what’s here?”

There was so much trash littering our view. And I think that’s true of Seton.

Thomas Jaggers: August 1, 2015

In his book, The Arctic Prairies, Seton dedicated a whole chapter to the plagues of mosquitoes and blackfly that infest this area, so permit me one blog entry to do the same.

Mosquitoes are one of the few forms of life on this planet in which I see no good, especially as I seem to be one of those people to whom they are particularly attracted. Wikipedia tells me that this may be because I have type O blood, am a heavy breather, have a lot of skin bacteria, a lot of body heat, or am pregnant – though I am not sure which one of those applies!

Either way they are the one blight on this beautiful area in the summer months of June and July. Every time you step outside you are almost immediately surrounded by insects, the female of which are the ones that bite, who proceed to attack any bare skin, or failing that, attempt to pierce through your layers of clothes. My shoulders have been bitten through a (admittedly thin) fleece jacket and long-sleeve t-shirt. As we walk across the land here – attempting to find places where Seton, variously, left a cairn, had lunch one day, or shot a musk ox – walking through the low bushes and along caribou trails, we raise clouds of insects into the air, eager for a meal. We are all protected, wearing gloves and head nets, but even so a few find their way inside the nets or underneath gloves and pants. How Seton and his colleagues managed here without such protective gear, I do not know!

At one point two days ago, as I made my way down to a point on the Thonokied River from where Seton took a photograph, I turned the camcorder on myself and took a video-selfie (a velfie?) of myself in head net with mosquitoes and blackfly buzzing around – there must have been 15-20 mosquitoes in front of my face landed on my net and another 20-30 buzzing around in front of me.

Aylmer Lake is about 30 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south at its longest parts, and has an area of about 986 square miles, and it seems that every square foot of land around the lake and on the islands is similarly infested. And yet so far we have seen hardly any wildlife – a few gulls, a few smaller birds, and a couple of Arctic ground squirrels but no larger animals such as caribou, wolf, musk ox, fox – and so it seems hardly believable that there should be so many mosquitoes. They have an adult lifespan of about two weeks here in the wild, and so I can only imagine that the vast, vast majority of the mosquitoes never get to feed at all. Some types of mosquito have to get a blood meal before laying eggs, but alas, it seems that those here do not need such a luxury – the females lay eggs after one or two days, and so continue the population, wait in vain for a meal for a few more days and then die. How strange life can be!

As we travel the length and breadth of the lake in the Lodge’s motorboats, we have spent hours on the water, motoring along at anything up to 30 mph. There, in the middle of the water, blown by the wind and sprayed by the water, we are mercifully free of mosquitoes and blackfly. Those are my favorite times of the day!

-Thomas

Patty Nagle: July 31, 2015

We spent the last two nights out, over 30 miles from the Lodge, exploring Seton sites and soaking up more of the immense spaciousness of the landscape.  We have seen little wildlife aside from fish and birds. I noticed today how easy I can fall into a place of complacency with my surroundings and yet in this setting that could cost me my life. It made me think, how often do I become complacent in my life? And because my life doesn’t literally depend on “staying awake” the risk is that I fall prey to a permanent state of complacency. That’s what an experience like this does – it provides me with a relative experience and reminds me what it feels like to be to be truly alive.

Attached is a photo of a Muskox track (with a GPS the size of a walkie-talkie to provide a scale of the size of the hoof print) – one of many reminders that I need to stay alert.

Heading back out into the wild tomorrow,

-Patty

David L. Witt: Measurements of Scale- August 1, 2015

When we are faced with the question of how to interpret a new place, what standards of measurement do we use to come to terms with it? In the case of Aylmer Lake this includes consideration of physical dimensions.

Aylmer Lake roughly takes the form of an inverted, although with islands, headlands, etc., lines of sight are not straight. That is, Aylmer is not a single balloon shape, but a complex series of shapes. Keeping that in mind, taking a trip from the north end (Sandhill Bay) to its unnamed south would require a journey of at least 37 miles (60k), although probably longer to account for points, narrows, shallows, etc. The same approximate distance would take you from the east (Thanakoie Narrows) to west (Lockhart River).

The maximum depth of the lake has not been measured, so that remains unknown. Its elevation is 241’ (366m). Its surface area when full (it’s a bit low at the moment) is 986 sq. mi (1586k). The longest straight-line distance I could measure was 30 miles (49k). At the place where the inverted is at its widest, the nearest land is over 3 miles (5k) distant. Water temperature is higher in the bays than in the main body, above freezing, but very cold by my standards.

Imagine the Seton expedition coming paddling through by canoe in 1907 without a clear idea of their progress, which is to say that could not have known where they were or what they might find. No GPS. No rescue planes. All very dangerous compared to our time. Aylmer is not even the largest lake of several around here.

All of which tells us about geography, but does not give insight into meaning. So what other standards of measurement might we apply?

I would measure wind, both natural (headwinds, tailwinds, sidewinds) and the force created by the canoe itself when it is underway. Also consider waves coming fore, aft, and broadside, some big enough to swamp a canoe or a motorized 16’ (4.8m) aluminum fishing boat.

And then there is depth: easily down as much as 400’ (122m) and up to infinity, a constant conscious presence in the wildness. I would add to this the scale of quiet: no motorized or electronic noises, no people, just nature as pristine at Aylmer in 1907 as it was a thousand years earlier. Or ten thousand. There was for them over months of travel a scale of loneliness, far from friends, family, the familiar environment of usual living.

That leads we to the creation of a final most important scale, that of absence. The absence scale is determined as a compilation of all the others – time, distance, area, wind, water, and life as it was once known before this trip. The absence of safety, of people, of familiarity was for the Seton group very high. The absence of any these can also take place in the most crowded city, and maybe there it is worse.

Here in the wilderness absence is felt on a subscale ranging from anxiety to relief. Absence can be terrifying liberating. The meaning of a journey such as the one to Aylmer comes out of where we may be positioned on that scale of measurement.