With all the recent news about havoc created by armed men, it is comforting to be reminded how we benefited from the spiritual awakening of a young man with a rifle back in 1894.
Ernest Thompson Seton was the name of the young man, and I have written about him before. However, the context of this blog is different. This post will focus on how Seton’s spiritual experience with a wolf helped catalyze a sea change in attitude toward the natural world in this country. And such a sea change—as opposed to legal intervention–seems to be our best hope of stemming the violence that is spreading here like an epidemic.
But back to Seton, and I will summarize the background that I gleaned from David L. Witt’s wonderful biography. Seton, born in the United Kingdom, was living in New York as an outdoorsman, naturalist, writer, artist and student of Indian lore when his life-altering journey to New Mexico began.
Seton had been working as an illustrator when his doctor advised him at age 33 to take a break from his job to save his eyesight. Hired by an absentee ranch owner, he set off to do some wolf-hunting. His destination was the tiny town of Clayton in the far northeastern part of New Mexico. His mission was to kill 15 wolves in the Currumpaw, a watershed east of Clayton where they were ravaging herds of cattle.
Seton had become an expert hunter of timber wolves in Canada, but New Mexican gray wolves, he would soon learn, were a different creature. They had become very canny in their effort to survive in a habitat where ranching had eliminated most of their natural prey. Pack leaders knew about traps and poison, and one that would become famous as “Lobo” was so skillful in leading and protecting his pack that he was known as “a giant among wolves.”
Seton was expert in reading tracks and soon realized that a smaller wolf often preceded Lobo on trails. This was his small white mate who would become known as Blanca. Seton’s strategy was to kill her first and use her body as bait. When Lobo discovered where she had died, he reacted in a way that Seton had never experienced before. He wrote that Lobo’s “heart-broken wailing was piteous to hear. It was sadder than I could possibly have believed.” Even the cowboys who had been working with him noticed it and said they had “never heard a wolf carrying on like that before.”
Still determined to kill the “King of the Currumpaw,” Seton dragged Blanca’s body around to lure Lobo into traps. It worked. The next day Lobo was caught in a series of four traps that he could not escape. Seton loaded him up on his horse and took him back to the ranch to stake him out to attract more wolves. He set out food and water, but Lobo ignored them and did not move when Seton touched him. He simply gazed fixedly across the prairie. The next morning, Seton found him “still in his position of calm repose, but his spirit was gone–the old King-wolf was dead.”
Seton kept meticulous records of his killing of mammals, and Lobo was #677. His journal recorded Lobo’s death, but afterward in dark ink was the question “Why?” The significance of that question remains ambiguous.
Lobo died on January 31, 1984, and two days later Seton left the ranch and returned to Clayton to catch a train heading north. He had killed only six wolves of the targeted 15, and he would never hunt them again. Instead, he sat down to write the story of “Lobo, King of the Currumpaw.” It was the first in a series of stories (Wild Animals I have Known) that would sell in the millions. They awakened Americans to the realization that animals are basically sentient beings of individuality, intelligence, purpose, and value.
Lobo’s Relevance Today
In his book, David Witt quotes psychologist William James with regard to Seton’s conversion from being a killer of wildlife to its champion. He paraphrases James in writing that such a transformation signifies “the uniting of a divided self.”
One wonders if the concept of the divided self is relevant to the massacres, one after the other, that have happened here over the last few years. It seems as though this time in history has become a canvas on which rage, fear, and hatred paint in blood victims as devoid of humanity in the minds of killers as a different and devalued species.
For these massacres to cease, it will be necessary for a critical mass of us all to begin to “see” in each other, no matter how different, the same Source. In a way, that was what Seton saw in Lobo. In the hours in which the grieving wolf lay dying by his own will, he was the hero, and Seton, as he said, was the villain. For the rest of his life, Seton’s awareness of his error would drive him to achieve in a way he would probably never have otherwise imagined.
Seton’s ability to see Lobo’s nobility enabled him to tap into his own larger self. He began to write, to draw, to speak, to study and lead as never before. He became a co-founder of the Boy Scouts and also of the conservation movement in the United States. He was in illustrious company that included, among others, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs , John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Seton, who died in 1946 at age 86, built a 32-room “castle” outside of Santa Fe that burned in 2005 while being remodeled. It is now owned by the Academy for the Love of Learning and includes a gallery and archives that preserve some of Seton’s art and works. The effect of his history and his writing ripples on and on, a reminder that a great story–a true story–can change the world for the better.