Historicist: Ernest Thompson Seton, Charles Sauriol, and Discipleship in the Don Valley

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Historicist: Ernest Thompson Seton, Charles Sauriol, and Discipleship in the Don Valley

How Seton inspired Sauriol to love the Don Valley and to try to save it.

The Don Valley around 1909 as it would have appeared when Ernest Thompson Seton was writing about his childhood. Photo from Toronto Archives Fonds 1244 Item 624.

The Don Valley around 1909 as it would have appeared when Ernest Thompson Seton was writing about his childhood. Photo from Toronto Archives Fonds 1244 Item 624.

The Don Valley might look very different today, if it weren’t for the writings of Ernest Thompson Seton.

Seton was writing in the early 20th century about his idyllic boyhood retreat in the Don Valley, where he set up a small camp and soaked in the flora and fauna of one of Toronto’s most beautiful natural ravines. Years later, his work inspired a young Toronto boy who went on to make preserving the Don Valley his mission. Charles Sauriol, now remembered as a conservationist, was obsessed with the valley and with Seton and, in time, his passion for both would help shape the park we know today.

Seton’s novel Two Little Savages, which first appeared in 1903, serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal and is, remarkably, still in print, is an imaginative recounting of events that also appear in his autobiography. The book opens with the lonely figure of Yan, beset by paternal restrictions, an early adolescent loner at odds with everybody else. During an exploratory hike in the Don River Valley (at that time barely north of the city limits, a logged-out, scrub wilderness area), Yan encounters a mysterious “collarless stranger” with a Scottish accent. The stranger may seem like some Gandalf leaping out of a fairy tale, but he was probably William Brodie, the dentist, biologist, and naturalist, and the namesake of a ROM kids’ explorer’s club. The stranger befriends Yan, catalogues the valley’s flora and fauna for him, and then vanishes from the narrative. Yan surveys a new creation,

It seemed such a far and lonely place, so unspoiled by man, that Yan persuaded himself that surely he was the first human being to stand there, that it was his by right of discovery, and so he claimed it and named it after its discoverer—Glenyan.

The valley of Seton’s day was on the verge of industrial development. For example, the brick works, now the homes of the urban pastoral, was built in 1889. Just like us, Yan finds there what he wants to find.

This was his little kingdom; the Wild Geese had brought him here, as the seagulls had brought Columbus to a new world—where he could lead, for brief spells, the woodland life that was his ideal…[N]o one else should know of it, for if the secret got out, at least hosts of visitors would come and Glenyan be defiled.
This was where he would lead his ideal life—the life of an Indian with all that is bad and cruel left out.

Ernest Thompson Seton. Photo from Wikimedia.

Ernest Thompson Seton. Photo from Wikimedia.

Ernest Thompson Seton, by the end of his career as a public figure, became closely associated with one of the oldest of Euro-American sports, that of “playing Indian,” as historian Philip Deloria calls it. Garbed in his own version of Native American dress, Seton delivered many a presentation of his thoughts on woodcraft, authentic living, noble behaviour, and the intertweaving of all these. His wilderness manuals sold widely. He became a founder of the Boy Scout movement, where he played a leading role, until the American Dan Beard ousted him in favour of a more militarized ethos.

Playing Indian amidst an unspoiled nature lay at the root of Seton’s public persona, a persona whose seeds lay in the Don Valley. Already a home to a brickworks, earlier a location for various milling enterprises, the valley in Seton became a ribbon of wilderness where Man could once again meet Nature in a primal encounter.

Yan, the wilderness explorer, chews the leaves of a strange plant. When this sends him home in distress, his mother administers an emetic for his stomach, and then another for his soul as she boxes his ears. His father arrives on the scene and boxes his ears as well. Yan disregards his parents’ attempt to cast him out from his garden. This adds a new, “sinful” zest to his shelter. Driven there later by a teacher’s beating for a childish prank, he finds his refuge occupied by three tramps playing cards and drinking from a bottle. Some necklaces he fashioned from pebbles serve as their poker chips; his bow and other bits of wood lie broken up for campfire kindling. The strangers have even “defiled’ his cabin, by using a nearby creek as a toilet, as Seton’s autobiography claimed. Seton conveyed no other episode in Two Little Savages, and few elsewhere in his work, with the intensity of the Glenyan story. The rest of the book seems dull and formulaic.

Seton's sketch from Two Little Savages shows Yan coming across the men in his hideout. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Seton’s sketch from Two Little Savages shows Yan coming across the men in his hideout. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

That same imagining of disaster marks his best-known work, Wild Animals I have Known. In another Don Valley moment, “Redruff: The Story of the Don Valley Partridge” concludes Wild Animals I Have Known. Redruff is a partridge and his mission in the story is to die. He does so at the claws of an owl after he has been trapped in a snare set by Cuddy, a human squatter.

Seton's drawing of an owl in Wild Animals I Have Known.  Image via Wikimedia.

Seton’s drawing of an owl in Wild Animals I Have Known. Image via Wikimedia.

Redruff has been the chieftain of the valley’s dwindling flock, supervising the rearing of the “fools” and the “lazy ones” in his charge. Cuddy, who lives in a “wretched shanty near the Don,” and “murders” partridges in season seems like a dark, Edward Hyde-ish version of the youthful Seton who built his own shanty there. Cuddy ensnares Redruff, completing the flock’s extinction. “Who can tell,” Seton wonders “what [Redruff’s] horror and his mourning were?” Like James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans, Redruff leaves “the last trace of the last of the of the Don Valley race.”

But what if Redruff had not, in fact, been quite the last trace of a vanished race? What if the Don Valley were not quite the abattoir that Seton had thought it? By the 1950s, the Don Valley was about to sustain another assault from the city that now encircled it. If Seton thought that the tramps had desecrated his scene, he had no idea what was in store for it a few years after his death. Mordor had plans for the Shire, in the form of a parkway project that would travel through the heart of the valley.

Even so, if you want to believe that a devolution took place substituting the Don Valley Parkway for the Don Valley partridge, you still have to consider the life of Charles Sauriol.

Seton's drawing of partridges in Wild Animals I Have Known.

Seton’s drawing of partridges in Wild Animals I Have Known.

The death of Redruff, Seton’s marker for the extinction of partridges in the valley wasn’t the finale. Charles Sauriol hailed the birds’ return in his diary entry of August 12, 1936. That sighting happened because Sauriol was investigating the actual contours of the Don Valley that Seton had mapped imaginatively. Sauriol, in time, became a prominent public figure in his own right: a leading conservationist, instrumental in the founding of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, founder of the Don Valley Conservation Association, and recipient of the Order of Canada. Five natural area projects now bear his name. But, in 1936, Sauriol was a Toronto advertising man whose father had operated a dredge in the project that had reshaped—and urbanized—the mouth of the Don River. Sauriol was a tireless walker and antiquarian, fascinated by the Don Valley and its history. He had bought a property from the Canadian National Railway (near the Forks of the Lower Don), and built a cottage there, where he kept bees and where he and his family summered. Maybe Sauriol’s conservationist efforts worked as a penance for his father’s dredging. We don’t know. But, the fact is that Sauriol and the Don became inextricably linked. Sauriol idolized Seton; one of the conservation trails named after Sauriol runs along an offshoot of Ernest Thompson Seton Park, near the Forks where Sauriol’s cottage once stood.

E.T. Seton Park in Toronto in early fall 2014. Photo by Phil Marion in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

E.T. Seton Park in Toronto in early fall 2014. Photo by Phil Marion in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

In that summer of 1936, like a disciple, Sauriol wanted to set his foot upon the actual sites Seton used in Wild Animals and Two Little Savages. “If only for the reason of Seton’s Glenyan, the Don Valley could claim some right to distinction,” Sauriol wrote in 1995. He took a shot of the rock on which the crow Silverspot stood in one of Seton’s stories in Wild Animals. Sauriol later scrawled “doubtful if this is the rock” on the album containing the photo, but its existence alone demonstrates how seriously Sauriol took his quest to find traces of the man he called “his hero of the Valley.” He took pictures of what he assumed had been the Glenyan site, which he had been looking for since Christmas of 1934, at least. He wrote to Seton himself about his find in April 1935, to be told that “you have got pretty well down to the facts of Glenyan.” According to Sauriol, a nephew of Seton recalled that during a later, undated visit to Toronto, his uncle pointed in the rain to a spot below the Governor’s Bridge to a site southward, and muttered that “It was over there.”

Seton found a follower in Sauriol, who continued his work in unexpected ways. Sauriol witnessed the start of the Don Valley Parkway in the 1950s. As early as September 6, 1937, he was convinced that “Rumors of impending tragedy hang over the valley,” and that “the Don valley as I earlier knew it is doomed” when a second bridge—the Bloor Viaduct was the first—was built over the valley. The partridge that he had earlier sighted eventually disappeared, presumably nesting elsewhere. Sauriol experienced a wistful regret, writing, “[P]erhaps in a century hence, the thing we will most regret, is the destruction of Toronto’s one time magnificent ravine system.”

This footpath as it appeared in 1908, looking west, is where the Bloor Viaduct was later built. Toronto Archives Fonds 1244 Item 1257.

This footpath as it appeared in 1908, looking west, is where the Bloor Viaduct was later built. Toronto Archives Fonds 1244 Item 1257.

Construction of the Don Valley Parkway began in 1954, probably around the time Sauriol penned those words. The road was then 15km long and six lanes wide and swept away the valley (including Sauriol’s cottage at the Forks) as Seton and Sauriol had once known it.
Yet the cultural despair that Seton felt, Sauriol in turn rejected. Sauriol threw himself into the preservationist fight with the unrelenting energy that saved what the highway left untouched, and that added new parkland to Toronto’s system. He died of a heart attack at the age of 91, seated at his home office, as he usually was, while writing another book.

Sauriol slogged his way through the system for years in pursuit of conservation. For example, the Toronto Star’s record of his engagements during the period of 1954–60 show him speaking about the history and treasures of the Don Valley to the Women’s Canadian History Society and to an I.O.D.E. (Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire) chapter. In news stories and letters to the editor alike, he warns against illegal hunting in the valley, about the inadequate flood control systems, the need for more parks and recreation areas, and the folly of allowing university residences to encroach upon nearby ravines.

Boys fishing in the Don Valley in 1916. Photo from the Toronto Archives Fonds 1231 Item 1193.

Boys fishing in the Don Valley in 1916, when Sauriol was a boy. Photo from the Toronto Archives Fonds 1231 Item 1193.

The 1957 minute books of the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority show Sauriol serving on advisory boards for the Don Watershed and for historical sites. He sat on other committees for conservation areas and education, and on the executive committee. He spoke on the “Role of Flood Precautions Officer” and on the placement of historical plaques. Sauriol proved an effective fundraiser, “a hard person to say no to,” as a friend wrote. Surveyors of Sauriol’s institutional record evaluated it highly. According to the Don Valley Conservation Association in 1954, “chiefly through the aggressive leadership of Mr. C.S.” had achieved some success at preserving the Don Valley and felt it was the group best able to present public opinion to the conservation authority. In his 2000 book, Toronto’s Ravines: Walking the Hidden Country, Murray Seymour notes about the valley, “Much is gone, but a host of joys remains…Sauriol did much to ensure that at least this much land was preserved.” A later reviewer called Sauriol “the Jane Jacobs of the Canadian natural world,” noting “the breadth of Charlie Sauriol’s vision, and his corresponding practical ability to make that vision a reality.” If “[Toronto’s] park systems run like green arteries through the concrete…Sauriol can take a good deal of the credit,” as another commentator wrote.

The Don Valley in fall 2014. Photo by David Dang in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Don Valley in fall 2014. Photo by David Dang in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The parklands and conservation areas named for him were chosen because he devoted his considerable energies to preserving them, so others could get some of the pleasure he had enjoyed there. His many diaries and the close observations on wildlife filling them no longer seem sedate, private memories of solitary pastimes. A reader might instead consider them as field notes and reconnaissance reports, part of an action manual for his fellow citizens. Finally, Sauriol brought about a fitting memorialization of the figure who had so inspired him: “It was through my efforts that a section of the Don Valley Metropolitan Toronto Parks System was named ‘Ernest Thompson Seton Park,’” he wrote.

Sauriol grew into a master at finding the glass half full rather than half empty—a way of seeing that seems to have enabled his work: “My dream of a wilderness at Toronto’s doorstep was not practical, although some of it came true. Whereas I had so often gone to bed at night full of the bitterness of some defeat, I lived to enjoy new aspects of a Valley system I helped to preserve”. What began in anxiety—the loss of a dream—concluded with Sauriol’s understanding the benefits that his own efforts had wrought.

He kept writing the same delightful book about the Don over and over. Near the end of his life, when Sauriol veered as close as ever he came to writing an explicitly personal memoir he set his life out in three acts. The first section of Trails of the Don deals with his introduction to the Don Valley through Scout camping trips. The roots of those trips lay in a movement that Seton helped originate, as one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. Then follows “The Halcyon Years,” the time of Sauriol’s growth into the Don’s genius of the shore. It is his face, rather than that of some mythical river god, that belongs on the façade of the old Don Jail. His last book repeats his distant contacts with Seton and the reverence in which he held the man. The memoir concludes with “The End of an Era,” in which he recalls the onset of the Don Valley Parkway and the expropriation of his property.

“In the long run,” Sauriol remarks, the entire process leading up to the vanishing of the halcyon times “worked out very well.” In a moment that recalls, but does not repeat, Seton’s final viewing from the bridge at the Glenyan area, Sauriol revisits the land on which his cottage stood and later finishes with a recollection of the 1989 opening of the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve.

Charles Sauriol  at the conservation reserve named for him. Photo courtesy of ©Toronto and Region Conservation (TRCA).

Charles Sauriol at the conservation reserve named for him. Photo courtesy of ©Toronto and Region Conservation (TRCA).

What began as Charles Sauriol’s response to Seton and his writings, that wide-ranging concern for the outdoors and its preservation, had a notable result. Seton’s biographers often try to link him to the environmentalism of today, but in fact he was far more concerned with lecturing and building an audience for his written work than preserving actual natural areas.

Sauriol worked tirelessly for the park system adjoining the DVP. The alternative could well have been a series of high rises filling up the vacant, immensely valuable ravine land that Sauriol wrote about and worked to protect.

People pass along their legacies in strange ways; their heirs are people they never even knew. Through his writing, Seton inspired Sauriol’s love of the Don Valley, that he worked so hard to preserve and protect.

Additional material from Betty Keller Black Wolf. The Life of Ernest Thompson Seton. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1984. Madgalene Redekop. Ernest Thompson Seton. The Canadians. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1979.
Charles Sauriol.
The Cardinal 1951-56;Diaries. Charles Sauriol fonds, City of Toronto Archives. Series 292, boxes 123689 and following; Pioneers of the Don, 1995; Remembering the Don: A rare record of earlier times within the Don River Valley, Toronto: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, 1981;Tales of the Don. Ed. Vivian Webb. Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History 1984; Trails of the Don. Orillia, ON: Hemlock Press, 1992. Ernest Thompson Seton, The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore;The Gospel of the Redman London: Methuen, 193;Trail of an Artist Naturalist: The Autobiography of Ernest Thompson Seton. New York: Scribner’s 1940. Julia M. Seton, By a Thousand Campfires: Nature Notes and Extracts from the Life and Unpublished Journals of Ernest Thompson Seton. New York: Doubleday, 1967.John Henry Wadland, Ernest Thompson Seton: Man in Nature and the Progressive Era 1880-1915. York University diss, 1976. Rptd New York: Arno Press, 1978.

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


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