David L. Witt – Curator, Seton Legacy Project
David L. Witt, curator of the Seton Legacy Project, oversees research, collections, exhibitions, and educational programming related to the art, writings, and philosophy of Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), the artist/naturalist who once owned the estate where the Academy now stands. David presents lectures, storytelling and art shows onsite at the Seton Gallery and Seton Castle.
David holds degrees from Kansas State University and the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of four award-winning books: Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist (2010), Modernists in Taos from Dasburg to Martin (2002), Spirit Ascendant: The Art and Life of Patrociño Barela (1996), and Taos Moderns: Art of the New (1992).
Recent e-books include a novel, The Prairie Suite, An Old World, a New Beginning (2014), and a nonfiction work, Generally True Patterns, A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature (2015). He writes two blogs: one on Seton, and a second on history and environmental topics, illustrated with his photography.
Academy for the Love of Learning
Interview with David Witt
On July 22, 2015, we sat down with David Witt, historian, author, and curator of the Seton Legacy Project, and discussed Seton’s journey to the Arctic in 1907, along with the current expedition.
What was the call to adventure for Seton and the original expedition?
David Witt: Seton was aware of a guy by the name of George Back, who had been up to Aylmer Lake in the 1820s. There were two subsequent expeditions that went there as well—all searching for a giant lake, a lake that might be the size of Great Slave Lake or Great Bear Lake. They were wrong, but that’s one thing Seton went up to establish. Along the way, he discovered two new rivers that had never been mapped before.
He went partly for geographic exploration. In addition, he wanted to see a musk ox for himself. He also wanted to see caribou. He loved caribou. It was one of his favorite animals. A third component was he wanted to reconnoiter that area to see if it had any development possibilities for agriculture. That was his three-part mission…the official part.
The unofficial part, the call to adventure, was that he had never been to the Low Arctic. As a wilderness explorer who spent a huge amount of his life exploring wilderness areas, he’d never been above the boreal forest, and so he wanted to go there for the sheer adventure of it.
I would guess of those four things, probably the sheer adventure of it may well have been the actual motivating factor.
He was accompanied by Edward Preble, a field biologist working for the Smithsonian. They went north of Great Slave Lake, crossed an area called Pike’s Portage at the northeast corner of the lake, and explored a territory that had hardly ever been seen by any people of European descent.
When they took off, they had a couple of native guides who had never been there. So, there were four people on the hardest part of this expedition, none of who had ever been in that area before. They were going into it almost completely blind. They had a couple of old maps but they were so poor that by the time they found Aylmer Lake, they didn’t realize they’d actually found it.
Seton’s story is interesting because he did a 2,000-mile canoe trip in 1907 at the age of 47. For a 47-year-old from that era to take on that kind of physical challenge is fairly extraordinary. I believe by the end of it, he was completely exhausted. They nearly starved to death at one point. The canoes would capsize occasionally and they’d all be thrown in the river. They were lucky to get out of it.
Did this expedition occur after Seton’s transformative experience with Lobo, the wolf?
David Witt: Yes. Seton had two experiences: one was the famous one with Lobo and the other with helping his wife, in his words, “assassinate a moose.” His wife became an avid hunter after he gave it up. At one point, when she was out hunting moose in Canada and couldn’t find any, he said, “Well, I can always call up a moose.” So, he called up a moose, who walked over to him, and she shot and killed it.
It’s one of the few times in his life that Seton ever had any remorse for anything. This was a guy with gigantic ego who never apologized for killing Lobo, even though he did regret it. As for the moose, he actually did apologize for that, calling himself an assassin.
The last animal he’s known to have killed was a lynx and it was on the Arctic Prairies trip. He regretted that, too. It was actually quite important because he talked about the light going out of the eyes of the lynx. Aldo Leopold, who was very familiar with Seton’s writings, read the Lobo story and the story with the lynx. 20 years later, Leopold would accidentally—or not accidentally—almost plagiarize what Seton had written when he talked about the green fire in the eyes of the dying wolf in his book Thinking Like A Mountain. Wolves don’t have green eyes, by the way, which is one reason we know that he copied Seton. Seton used it for literary effect; Leopold probably didn’t know what color eyes wolves had.
On the Arctic prairies trip, the meat from the lynx was given to some ‘starving Indians’—that’s how Seton described them—and the pelt ended up at the Smithsonian. Seton himself didn’t know why he’d killed the animal. He realized he’d made a mistake, and never made that mistake again.
Does this complicate our understanding of Seton and how we hold him as one of the foundational pillars of the wildlife conservation movement?
David Witt: No, because you always have to think of the context of the time. After all, one of our greatest Presidents and greatest Americans, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder. Jefferson was well aware of the immorality of slaveholding. That did not keep him from holding slaves. Unlike Washington, who freed his slaves, Jefferson didn’t. We have these very complicated personalities who become, to some extent, prisoners of their own time. Jefferson at least understood two things: one that slavery was wrong, and secondly, that it was going to prove deadly for the Republic.
Seton grew up on the Canadian frontier where everybody was a hunter. That’s the culture he grew up in. If anything, the fact that Seton transcended the hunting and gun culture to become something different, that’s what’s remarkable. Every Canadian boy hunted, but he got to a different place of consciousness, and that’s really what the story is. Obviously, he was a person of his time, just as we are, but he transcended the beliefs of his time, and that’s what makes him remarkable.
Did he fulfill what he set out to do?
David Witt: He wanted to have the great adventure of a lifetime, and it did not disappoint him. He was nearly killed and nearly starves to death. He sees country that probably not more than ten other people of European descent had ever even seen, plus he got into places where no one had ever been before.
Let’s shift now. Why this journey? Why now?
David Witt: I’ve been wanting to do this trip for 42 years. When I was a young man, I immediately related to Seton, everything about him. And over time, as I know more about his life, there are definitely some similarities between us. He became sort of a mentor; obviously, at a distance since he was already long dead. But as a naturalist and explorer, as a scientist and scholar, I related to him on many different levels, including his sense of adventure and wanting to challenge himself in the wilderness. It’s important to find role models like that. Not that he’s good in every respect—he certainly was not—but he’s been a good guide into lots of things, particularly in nature.
I spent the last year poring over maps and accounts of the area, so I feel like I already know it extremely well, without having been there. For me, the adventure part of it is major, as it is for any of us who like going into wilderness areas, particularly remote wilderness areas. That’s a major thing for me: I like the sheer adventure of it.
It is a very interesting feeling to go to a place where few people have ever been. When I was on Baffin Island a few years ago, walking into recently de-glaciated areas, I was walking on ground where no human had ever trod ever because it’d been under the ice. I don’t know why that matters particularly, but I was quite excited by the fact that I could be exploring an area that no one, literally no one, had ever been.
I found it quite exciting as an adventurer. I don’t know that it changed me particularly. Like Seton facing the risks of the Arctic, and going to places no one or few people have ever been, this is exactly what explorers like to do. Both the risk and the seeing of new things are important.
What are your intentions?
David Witt: My approach to the expedition is as historian and naturalist, so my work has been to try to document what Seton did and plan a trip as closely as I can that will follow where he went and what he did. I also have a great interest in arctic/alpine botany, so I’ll be doing a little bit of citizen science, taking note of what plants are in bloom. But it’s primarily a historical trip.
I’m going to be leading us into a place where all I have is Seton and Preble’s written descriptions and Seton’s maps. Seton will be very present with us because we’re going to be relying on him and Preble and these descriptions.
In the past months, I have been able to locate every important area that Seton explored around Aylmer Lake. We have GPS coordinates for all of those areas. We’re going to use our GPS units to get to each one of those spots, and as closely as possible, follow Seton’s tracks across the tundra, 108 years later. We will be photographing and recording our impressions, and to whatever extent we can, seeing what we can learn about our time compared to his time and how conditions have changed…if they have. We’ll be looking at how we react to that environment, as well as recording data about the physical environment itself.
The Academy often works with the idea of disorientation and how disorientation can be an opportunity for transformation. As you look ahead, what do you find potentially disorienting?
David Witt: Actually, once I’m up there, I don’t think I’ll feel disoriented at all. That’s just not who I am.
One thought about disorientation—and I draw on my Baffin experience, since I haven’t been to Aylmer Lake yet. Baffin was almost like going to another planet. It was that different. There’s no landing strips, there’s no roads, there’s no electricity, there’s hardly any people.
We landed on a riverbank inside of a canyon, which is the wildest airplane ride I’ve ever been on. Fortunately, I was prepared for it because I was being sent by a scientist who’d been through this before. He said, “What’s going to happen is they’re going to take this plane down into a canyon. The pilot is going to look for a place to land. He’s going to be 15 feet off the ground at full speed and every once in a while, he’s going to zoom up and do a sharp bank. You’re going to turn sideways in the plane as he turns the plane around and tries not to run into the canyon walls, goes back, and looks for a place to land again. He’ll do this several times.”
That’s exactly what happened. It was incredible being in an acrobatic airplane, but that was not what was challenging about it. What was challenging was after the airplane left. Five people dropped off a couple hundred miles from anybody else. That plane disappears over the horizon and you suddenly look at this vast landscape, which is entirely hostile, and there you are, five people. Whatever you have is what you have. Plane is gone. Because of weather conditions, the plane may not be able to show up again.
One of the things that strikes you once the plane leaves is that you are actually in true wilderness. If you go into the Pecos Wilderness, it’s big enough to get lost in, it’s big enough to get killed in, but the fact is if you’re in reasonably good physical shape, you can walk out of it. You could lose all of your gear and you can still walk out of it and be fine.
Up there, if anything goes wrong, you’re not fine at all. You may be dead. To be in actual wilderness where for hundreds of miles in any direction there’s no help, no person. Maybe some hunters somewhere, but they’re so far away, it doesn’t make any difference anyway.
It will probably be something similar on Aylmer, particularly when we get out into the wilderness. Suddenly you realize that’s it. You have only your own little group to depend on and your own little cache of supplies and that’s it. We actually will have a phone, but that doesn’t mean anybody can come get you if something goes wrong. In that respect, it feels different than anything we could do around here. It’s an immersion into wildness that you cannot get in any other way unless you go to one of the most remote corners of the world: parts of the Amazon, parts of Canada, Siberia. There are a few places where you can have that experience, but there’s fewer and fewer of them all the time.
Most people, even avid backpackers, don’t get into places like that. There’s lots of big wilderness in the United States, and as I say, plenty big enough to get lost in, but there is a physiological impact. As Seton put it, when he was at Aylmer Lake, “You can go 1,000 miles in any direction and you still don’t get anywhere. You’re still in the wilderness.” It’s not quite like that now, but it’s still big.
That sounds pretty disorienting.
David Witt: Getting used to the bigness of it could be disorienting—maybe that’s where I was going with this. Particularly in a place like Aylmer where it’s not mountainous. That far north, there could be the occasional jetliner going over. That’s it, probably; otherwise it would just be us—our own voices, and whatever sounds of nature happen to be around us.
It seems like this could be a profound learning experience. Do you want to take a few guesses about what could get transformed in the course of the journey?
David Witt: No. I have no idea because I don’t know what’s going to happen. We could have clear weather and no problems of any kind, in which case, we’ll just come back and talk about how terrible the mosquitoes were. We could face terrible storms. We could have encounters with grizzlies, although, probably not, but we could. Somebody could get injured. I’ll be the oldest person, as I usually am on these things, so I could drop dead of a heart attack or something, or just drop.
It’s impossible to know what might happen. We want adventure and we like the risk, but it’s easier to say that when you’re sitting here in the Seton art gallery than if somebody gets catastrophically injured 200 miles away from an airport and the airport is fogged in and nobody can come get you.
It seems that we might encounter a more nuanced or more complex sense of Seton through this expedition.
David Witt: It’s certainly possible. There’s no trails up there as such; it’s mostly water with a little bit of land in between so the places Seton walked will, inevitably, be the places we will be walking.
We’ve already been walking in his footsteps, but we’ll be doing it in a different kind of place. Certainly, if I can come back thinking that I understand Seton in some better way than before I went, I would be very happy with that. I feel like he’s very much part of this adventure still.
Are you willing for his legacy to transform? For there to be surprises along the way?
Davit Witt: Historians always want to find something new or some new way of looking at something that’s already known. That’s what we do as scholars