Historicist: Self-Taught Naturalist

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Historicist: Self-Taught Naturalist

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Footpath across Don Valley, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1257.


As a child, Ernest Thompson escaped his rough Cabbagetown neighbourhood by hiking deep into the virgin forest of the Don River Valley, Rosedale, and Queen’s Park. Born as the youngest of ten brothers to a family with fourteen children in England, Thompson had loved the woods and wildlife since his family had immigrated to Canada when he was six and settled in Lindsay. His father, failing as a farmer, soon relocated the family to Toronto so he could seek work under his true expertise: accounting.
Upon their arrival here, the family initially had to live in one of the worst parts of town, though they eventually moved to the more distinctly middle-class addresses of 137 Mutual Street and 17 Pembroke Street. Thompson was educated in Toronto public schools, where he felt ignored by teachers, bullied by other boys, and engaged in frequent fisticuffs. Home life, however, offered no respite from these difficulties.
He felt misunderstood and oppressed by his family, particularly his father, whom he called “the most selfish person I ever heard of or read of in history or in fiction,” in his autobiography. Ironically, in the opinion of one of Thompson’s brothers, their “father thought more highly of Ernest than” any of his brothers. Even as a child, Thompson rejected his devoutly Presbyterian father’s “joyless faith” with—as Janice Fiamengo, put it in an article in the Journal of Canadian Studies (Volume 44, No 1; Winter 2010)—”its rigid moralism, authoritarianism, and emphasis on human depravity.”
Nevertheless, in seeking solace from his home life, some of the boy’s happiest times were spent exploring the wilderness in the northern end of the city, and in the (then) marshland of Toronto Island.
In his autobiography, he reminisced about his boyhood discovery of nature: “All my nature craved for knowledge of these things….When I glimpsed some new bird…I got a curious prickling in my scalp. Something clutched my throat; and when the bird flew off, leaving me dark as ever, it was like a swift blackness with a vague sense of sorrow and loss.”
Educating himself as a naturalist on these explorations, Ernest Thompson Seton—as he later legally changed his name in deference to the family’s aristocratic Scottish forebearers—wrote over fifty books and hundreds of magazine articles, and delivered countless public lectures in the service of animal conservation.


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Image of Ernest Thompson Seton from WikiMedia.


On one such tramp through the woods in the 1870s, as Greg Gatenby notes in Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur & Company, 1999), Thompson “found himself in a small heavily wooded ravine carved by one of the Don’s tributary streams.” Here, he built a cabin, constructed of discarded fence posts and brush. And, each Saturday, he played at Robinson Crusoe, or pretended to be of First Nations descent—stripping down so his skin would bronze, tracking game, or collecting feathers and shells.
“I had a mission,” Star historian Donald Jones later quoted him as saying, “I was going to be the prophet of the wilderness life.” An early effort, however, ended in heartbreak when Thompson attempted to adopt a short lark and two redpolls as pets. In his room, the disoriented lark crashed into his bedroom ceiling. As the heartbroken boy wept “with the little broken body in [his] hands,” he later recalled, he realized that wild creatures were not his to own or tame, though he might consider himself nature’s friend, and he let the other birds go free.

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Image of Silverspot from Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1900).

Instead, Thompson dedicated himself to careful observation of animals in their element, beginning in the Toronto ravines and continuing for the remainder of his life. He created voluminous journals, full of diary notes, writings, and meticulously detailed sketches.
“I have spent many days and many nights on the trail,” Manina Jones quotes Seton in the Journal of Canadian Studies (Volume 42, No. 3; Fall 2008), “following patiently, reading the life of the beast, using a notebook at every important move and change” in order to record “an accurate account of the creature’s ways, habits, changing whims, and emotions.” He felt that each animal “trail is an autobiographical chapter of the creature’s life.”
His parents also noticed artistic potential in his animal sketches and apprenticed him to a local artist’s studio; at nineteen he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art and won his class’s Gold Medal. Soon after, he left for London on a seven-year scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art.
Although he studied the British Museum’s natural history collections, and sketched animals at the London Zoo, Seton’s finances were stretched and his near-starvation lifestyle took a toll on his health. His mother ordered him back to Toronto to rejoin the family.
As soon as Seton had recovered, his father called him to his study and pulled down a thick, aged register book. “Now, my son, you are twenty-one years of age,” his father began a ponderous soliloquy. “All the duties and responsibilities which have hitherto been borne for you by your father, you must now assume for yourself.” His father continued: “You owe everything on earth, even life itself, to your father; reverent gratitude should be your only thought. While it is hopeless that you should ever discharge this debt, there is yet another to which I must call your attention at once.”
Pointing out transactions in the register—including a doctor’s bill for Seton’s birth—the father presented the twenty-one-year-old with a bill for $537.50, the sum cost of raising the son. From now on, his father added, he’d be charging 6% interest per annum. Seton was shocked, but vowed to repay the debt.

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Image from Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1900).

During the 1880s, Seton travelled widely. First he went to Manitoba to homestead with his brother, then bounced back and forth between the family home (now at 86 Howard Street and later at 4 Aberdeen Avenue) in Toronto, New York City, Paris, and elsewhere.
Wherever he resided, Seton explored the wilderness whenever he could, recording his observations in prose and drawing. He also began earning money by selling sketches and short stories about the wilderness, which were published in Century and Scribner’s magazines.
Slowly, he began developing his own unique style. As he later wrote, he “had been plugging along as a naturalist of the usual type, trying merely to accumulate specimens and facts.” But he began to craft the raw, factual material into short stories.
Using the literary devices of fiction, Seton’s animal stories followed the narrative pattern of biographies. He employed the realism and detail of a naturalist to describe the actual behaviour of his animal protagonists, but used literary devices to attribute the animal characters with thoughts and feelings as the story followed their life and death struggles. To add veracity that these were true accounts based on his experiences in the Don Valley, Manitoba, and elsewhere, he reproduced the animal tracks and other sketches from his notebooks into the margins of his stories.
One story was about an old crow named Silverspot who was, for twenty years or more, the leader of a well-coordinated flock of crows that returned en masse each year to the wooded slopes of Castle Frank. Cawing out different orders—the bird calls Seton translated into musical notations in the margins—Silverspot ordered his well-coordinated flock about like a military unit. One day, however, there was a great uproar among the birds, and Silverspot was slain by a great horned owl. In all winters since, Seton wrote, without their leader, the number of crows in the pines of Castle Frank has dwindled.
In another story, Redruff, a partridge from the Don Valley, is unnecessarily hunted down by a squatter in the woods. In another, Seton recounts his expedition to hunt down a clever wolf that had been devastating livestock in New Mexico.

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Image of Raggylug, the Cottontail Rabbit, from Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1900).

These and other stories were published in 1898 as Wild Animals I Have Known. The first edition sold out in only three weeks, and the book was reprinted twenty times in eight years. Seton was an instant celebrity and in demand as a lecturer.
Some detractors would criticize Seton for anthropomorphizing his animal characters, particularly during the Nature Fakers controversy. However, over the course of his career, Seton also proved adept at more scientific depictions of animals, illustrating scientifically precise specimens for books like Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals (1896), Life-Histories of Northern Animals (1909) and The Lives of Game Animals (1925-1928), which received the prestigious John Burroughs Medal.
This latter publication also demonstrated Seton’s long-standing admiration and respect for predators, like wolves and cougars. During that era, even many of Seton’s naturalist contemporaries campaigned for the extermination of predators to turn the frontier into a domesticated grazing space for livestock. In his stories, Seton had no qualms with showing “necessary violence of the frontier,” as Fiamengo put it, whether perpetrated by animals or man.
He didn’t gloss over the often violent realities of predators and prey. Although he might be accused of humanizing animals, Fiamengo writes, Seton’s short stories and lectures contained an underlying message: “Man seeks to know and overcome the wild, which ceaselessly compels and resists him; but he achieves only an empty destruction that reminds him, uneasily, that the wild was the source of his desire all along.”
In later years, Seton helped found the Woodcraft Indians and the Boy Scouts. In the 1930s, he built a castle in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where he remained in retirement until his death in 1946 at the age of eighty-six.
Much of Toronto’s northern wilderness has been altered beyond recognition since Seton’s day. But among that which has been turned into parkland is the wooded ravine where Seton had constructed his cabin. In 1969, through the efforts of Charles Sauriol—whose boyhood inspiration from Seton’s stories prompted the lifelong career in conservation that would earn him entry into the Order of Canada—this pocket of wilderness was preserved and named in Ernest Thompson Seton’s honour in 1969.
Other sources consulted: Robert Darland, “A man ahead of his time,” National Wildlife (Vol. 38, Issue 2; February/March 2000); Bil Gilbert, “Black Wolf” Smithsonian, (Vol. 28, Issue 4; July 1997); Charles Sauriol, Tales of the Don (Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1984); Ernest Thompson Seton, Trail of an Artist-Naturalist (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948).

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