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Ernest Thompson Seton for Adults

One Man, One Wolf, a Lifetime of Wildlife Conservation

Before Wendell Berry, before Edward Abbey, the writings of Ernest Thompson Seton galvanized a nation into looking at nature in a new, protective way. An exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum, Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton, has sparked new interest in Seton’s writings, artwork, and success in developing the youths-in-nature programs that gave birth to the Boy Scouts.

Photo: White-winged Crossbills, oil on board, 1883. Academy for the Love of Learning. Photo by James Hart.


Programming Ideas

For adults:

  • Have your adult patrons relive the books they loved in their childhood through Seton’s books. Use a few of his books as the topic for a book discussion group; use the discussion of Lifecraft by David L. Witt, curator, Academy for the Love of Learning, as a basis for conversation (see below).
  • Expand this reading program by offering discussion programs about Witt’s recent book, Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist. Witt is the guest curator of the NM History Museum’s exhibit on Seton and curator of the Seton Legacy Project at the Academy for the Love of Learning.
  • Several of Seton's books are available in their original form for free online; go to Digitzed Works by Seton to view them.
  • The text of some of Seton's works are available online (but not in their original form); go to for links.
  • Play recordings of Seton himself reading his own stories at Listen to Seton - The Master Storyteller.
  • Use Seton’s books as a starting point for community discussions on environmental and wildlife issues, including the controversy over protecting wolves.
  • Invite Chautauqua performers and speakers from the NM Humanities Council to present on related topics, including:
    • Richard Bodner, Chautauqua as: Ansel Adams, Aldo Leopold
      Starting as either Aldo Leopold or Ansel Adams (your choice), the presenter ventures beyond historical character and makes creative connections with other whole-system visionaries to expand our appreciation, understanding and practice.
    • Don Criss, Chautauqua as: Johnny Appleseed
      John Chapman was a truly eccentric American hero. He respected all forms of life and covered thousands of square miles with apple orchards. Johnny’s interactive nature stories are a delight to children (K-3) and anyone who is young at heart.
    • Steve Harris, Chautauqua Speaker: An Environmental History of the Rio Grande
      Beginning with the transformation of ancient watersheds into the present-day river, this one-hour talk traces the history of settlement, agriculture and water development in New Mexico, Colorado and the borderlands.
    • Jack Loeffler, Chautauqua Speaker: Thinking Like a Watershed
      Loeffler focuses on the importance of perceiving watersheds as complete eco-systems of which their own species is but one of many. He illustrates diverse points of view from interviews he has recorded with in the Columbia, Colorado and Rio Grande watersheds.
    • Jack Loeffler, Chautauqua Speaker: Adventures with Ed
      This talk addresses the life of environmentalist Edward Abbey and includes readings from Loeffler’s biographical memoir of his late best friend.
    • Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson, Chautauqua Speaker: A Child’s Southwest
      Horse Tales! Family Adventures! Journeys! Did you ever wonder how real life influences an author's work? In this presentation, Dr. Whitehouse Peterson talks about writing for young people, the power of story and its importance in holding families and communities together.
  • Show the PBS documentary “The Wolf that Changed America” about Seton. A partial version is available online at, or purchase the entire program on DVD at The entire show is 60 minutes.
  • Link to the website to find out more about Seton and his life in New Mexico.
  • Link to The Ernest Thompson Seton Pages on your website for a biography, bibliography, digitized and online text versions of some of his works, audio recordings by Seton and of his books by others, and much more.
  • Create a Seton display for adults, including his books, related posters or postcards, and Seton-inspired artwork that your patrons have created after reading Seton's works. 

Great for all ages:

  • Encourage your patrons of all ages to visit the Seton exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, through May 8, 2011. Call 505-476-5157 to make a reservation for a special tour. Also, check the Museum’s calendar for several Seton-related programs for children and adults.
  • Check out the Drawing on Nature exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque as well through September 12, 2010. Featuring the work of 33 female artists, including scientists, writers, photographers, designers, teachers, and wilderness guides, Drawing on Nature showcases a stunning collection of nature journals that are as unique and varied as the women themselves. There are also several related programs at the museum that may interest teens; go to for the Museum’s program calendar.
  • Invite the city of Albuquerque’s Zoo to You to your library—it’s free!—to bring its interactive educational program about wildlife conservation with animal bones, pelts, feathers and more
  • Offer nature journaling or scrapbooking workshops
  • Invite storytellers to entertain and inform kids with animal-related tales. Try your favorite local storytellers, or NM favorites such as Sunny Dooley, Nasario Garcia, and Joe Hayes (these three are presenting at the NM History Museum this summer in conjunction with the Seton exhibit)
  • Take your patrons for a nature or bird-watching walk near the library or in a local park
  • Have the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary hold a presentation in your library; they’ll bring a live wolf!
  • Have a wildlife art and/or photography contest for different age groups; all entries get displayed in the library
  • Hold a contest to design bookmarks or the next library card. For bookmarks, have winners in several age groups
  • Hire an art teacher to lead hands-on classes for different age groups on wildlife drawing or sculpture
  • Invite several local environmental and wildlife-related organizations one day/evening to your library to display brochures and information to introduce patrons to their work. 

The Stories

by David L. Witt

“Lobo, the King of Currumpaw” is the lead story in Seton’s first best-selling book, Wild Animals I Have Known (1898). It is a first-person narrative about his efforts to trap wolves in Union County, N.M., during the winter of 1893-94. The story focuses on a remarkable wolf who could not be caught until Seton uses the most extraordinary treachery against him. The wolf is the hero of the story, while Seton casts himself as the villain. It is one of the most unusual hunting stories ever written.

“Krag, the Kootenay Ram” is set in the Canadian Rockies in Lives of the Hunted (1901). In this story, Seton set out his ideas on environmental consciousness and the complexity of animal behavior. The magnificent bighorn sheep, Krag, finds himself in a lifelong battle against the degenerate hunter Scotty MacDougall. In their final encounter, Scotty’s pursuit is such that he gives Krag no time to graze, and the great animal begins to starve. The journey is equally harsh for Scotty, whose physical deterioration soon matches his mental collapse. The story is an allegory about Western civilization’s self-destructive treatment of nature.

“Badlands Billy: The Wolf that Won” is Seton’s remembrance of a wolf hunt he observed in 1897. Published in Animal Heroes (1905), Seton uses the story to explain the natural history of wolves. He invents a life history for this hero wolf who survives the greatest hardships. When the normal prey of wolves (such as bison and antelope) are killed off by human hunters, the wolves of North Dakota, like those of New Mexico, are forced to kill cattle, putting them into conflict with humans. Unlike Lobo, Billy outwits all the hunters. Seton uses Billy to demonstrate the intelligence of wildlife. In addition to instincts, animals learn behavior by watching others of their own kind and through personal experience. Although these ideas are now accepted among animal behaviorists, when Seton first suggested them, they were highly controversial.

These stories are deeply emotional: The violence in “Lobo” is unapologetic. The life of Krag is tragic. Even the triumph of Billy comes at a price; his life will never be one of security. In each case, Seton paints a picture more realistic than pretty. For him, nature must be taken on its own terms and not portrayed as less brutal or less magnificent than it is. Seton presents two radical lessons. One is that wild animals are not fundamentally different from us, only different by degree. The other is that we humans are a part of nature, and that by causing environmental destruction, it is ourselves that we attack. 

Advanced Topics in Lifecraft

by David L. Witt

“All boys [and girls!] are born good, are the children of God, and need only to be developed under sound leadership.”
                                                                                                         --Ernest Thompson Seton, Blazes on the Trail (1928)

“In our work we open to the heart of learning itself and rest upon a deep trust that the seeds of basic goodness, love and learning live within all of us.”
                                                                                         --Aaron Stern, founder and director, Academy for the Love of Learning

This section is intended for in-depth training in the meaning of Seton’s philosophy, “Woodcraft,” a term held that meaning for readers of his time, although not in ours. An Internet search for it can bring up subjects from whittling with a jackknife to felling timber for a log cabin. More meaningful for today’s students—and more in accord with the language and practice of the Academy—is Seton’s later synonym for Woodcraft, “Lifecraft,” the term we shall use here.

Seton did not provide a specific definition for Lifecraft, apparently preferring to let the notion change and develop over time, like a wild ecosystem. While we cannot say exactly what Lifecraft is, we can, based on his stories and non-fiction writing, present detail about what it includes.


In The Book of Woodcraft (1913), Seton lists nine “Principles” that include a call for ethical behavior on the part of Scouts and Woodcrafters. The Principles are best learned and practiced through a close connection to, and respect for, nature. The Principles have been reinterpreted and expanded by various authors (including Seton himself). I will present them to show how Lifecraft is relevant to our time. At the beginning of the Principles section, Seton wrote:

This is a time when the whole nation is turning toward the Outdoor Life, seeking in it the physical regeneration so needful for continued national existence—is waking to the fact long known to thoughtful men, that those live longest who live nearest to the ground—that is, who live the simple life of primitive times….

I should like to lead this whole nation into the way of living outdoors for at least a month each year, reviving and expanding a custom that as far back as Moses was deemed essential to the national well-being….it is not enough to take men [and all persons of all ages] out of doors. We must also teach them to enjoy it.

Nine Important Principles of Lifecraft

1 This movement is essentially for recreation.

Many of us, from students moving from one activity to the next (academic classes, band practice, computer study, soccer, music, etc. etc.) to adults moving through the daily routine (listening to the news, working at the office or shop, worrying about finances, transporting kids from one activity to the next, etc. etc.) forget the simpler ways of stepping back. Note: Even vacations, not to mention family reunions, can be work. Recreation is a different concept. It is an activity separate from the routine, something we create for ourselves and which doesn’t have to include (at least, not on a large scale) the consumption or purchase of material things.

2 Camp-life.

From time to time, some of us may be fortunate enough to actually go camping, traveling away from home, enjoying the scenic wonders of the wilderness or the prosaic values of a local park. We may remain out over night, but a daytime picnic will provide much the same feeling. The purpose is to renew our contact with nature.

3 Self-government with Adult Guidance.

Children (and adults, for that matter) are subjected to many a command and rule, even in their play activities. But given the chance for self-organization, individuals or groups of individuals will find their own way. Leadership does not mean command or management; it has more to do with respect and listening. Supervision is for the purpose of helping others find that path, but not ordering them onto it. Self-governance means taking personal responsibility and personal leadership. As adults, we are more effective and happier in the world if we make these into guiding values.

4 The Magic of the Campfire.

While building a campfire is not always practical (or even allowed in many public places), the experience of having sat around one is always memorable. The fire may be in the home fireplace, but one outside at night is best of all. Campfires should be intimate, a soft glow in the night, not a blazing inferno meant to defeat the night. Our earliest ancestors, whoever they may have been and whenever they may have lived, practiced their ceremonies within the glow of burning wood. The campfire may create a sense of community. Just as important is one person contemplating the embers alone, or two or three sharing their truth as the last warmth of flame is replaced by cold night. For some reason, the primitive self, the individual soul, may find a way to express itself here where all earlier efforts, in all other places, have failed.

5 Lifecraft pursuits.

The love of learning, not academics, should be the first pursuit of education. The outcome for the individual is the opportunity to become a fully realized being, finding one’s place in the world, emotionally centered and, in some sense, truly happy. Children are born with a love of nature and the outdoors and a need to engage in physical activity. By encouraging them at an early age to follow their instincts in physical exploration and experiential contact with the natural world, they can be set on a path of learning that lasts a lifetime.

6 Accomplishment by standards.

The worth or power of individuals in society is all too often measured by competition as a zero-sum game where the gain of one can only come at the expense of another. A more positive view of achievement is to measure one’s accomplishments by standards of time and space, and age and physical ability. The lesson is that the measure of our success is in line with what is physically, mentally, and morally possible. Instead of tearing down, we build up. This is an additive-sum game where success drives upward what is possible for us as individuals, and as collections of individuals.

7 Personal recognition.

It is possible to take pride in one’s achievements without being prideful. Recognition of our achievements by others serves as validation of our efforts and as incentive to continue on a path of personal fulfillment, especially where that path leads to outcomes that serve a larger purpose.

8 A Heroic Ideal.

Personal valor may take many forms. It may be the ability to take physical action or moral leadership in a crisis situation. It may mean stepping up into leadership or serving the community or taking on a problem no one else can tackle. It can also mean making personal sacrifice or facing an extreme form of suffering. This does not mean not knowing fear, but, in the face of some great task, overcoming stasis, and taking a needed action or holding to an important principle.

9 Picturesqueness in Everything.

Aesthetics means sensitivity to beauty. This is the sense we use in our appreciation of the natural world or works of art. It can be a sense of awe. Beauty resides also in mathematical equations and in the logic of philosophy. And, it is also found in the way we see ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly. Without this sense, we are little more than shadows.

Fourfold Path

A Seton drawing on the website of the Ernest Thompson Seton Institute shows the Fourfold path, or Lifecraft Way. Seton’s directional graph was inspired by the worldview of American Indians and First Nations Peoples with whom he studied and from whom he learned the outdoors skills, natural history, and ethics that comprise the core values of Lifecraft.

This is its directional organization: Service Way (north), Spirit Way (east), Body Way (south), Mind Way (west). At its core are the words, “Symbol of Great Spirit,” although not the symbol itself. From the four Ways issue the twelve “Laws.” The graph represents a non-linear complex system, one open to receiving, processing, and expending energy. Because it is not static, but in a constant state of flux, it changes from moment to moment and millennium and millennium. There is no one entry nor any one place of exit; all of the direction-ways are equally important.

The Fourfold Path calls for an integration of body, mind, spirit, and service: A fully lived life is holistic and ecological, in connection with nature, society, and other individuals. Lifecraft considers the individual (child or adult) part of a larger system of male and female, of family, of community (to which service is owed), of spirituality, and of the natural world. It stands against rigid standardization. Each of us should be inspired and enabled to follow our chosen life path. The competition that pits us against each other is morally wrong; the competition that matches us to a high, but achievable standard should be encouraged. The beauty we find in nature, or in our own creations (artistic or hand-crafted of whatever kind) is the highest good. Seton felt that the values he espoused were essential to the survival of our country and our civilization.

For each direction, I will begin with a short description of my understanding of the Lifecraft path, then follow with related thoughts from the Academy’s learning field model. (Seton’s graphic is from the 1927 Birch Bark Roll.)

North. Service of Love: Kind. Helpful. Glad Alive

The heartfelt intention of kindness begins with those with whom we may be in closest contact and extends to all other persons and all other living beings. Helpfulness grows from the work we do, from freely sharing what we know, to making what we have available for the benefit of others. A sense of joy comes from the mere fact of being alive, at least if we remain conscious of it. In terms of the Academy, we should develop the underlying intention to wake up to a greater degree of consciousness.

East. Sprit of Fortitude: Brave. Silent. Obey

Bravery and valor is the great measurement of who we are in the world, the fountain of empathy, and the counterweight to fear, the font of hate. Our embrace of silence serves the purpose of allowing time for inward thought and outward listening. Obedience has nothing to do with blind, unthinking subservience, but is an inward following of personal principle. In terms of the Academy, we would say, be conscious of presence and spaciousness in listening. And, that one should develop the capacity for self-reflection and the ability to enter into periods of disorientation.

South. Body of Beauty: Clean. Strong. Wildlife

Cleanliness of person may seem self-evident, but this too is a continuum encompassing the space immediately around us, and continuing outward into the world so that we may all walk in beauty. Physical well-being grows from choice of sustenance, attitudes towards exercise, body image, sex, and a commitment to being as strong as our life circumstances may allow. Appreciating, celebrating, and preserving the beauty of nature is essential to the preservation of our own bodies in this life, but also a practice critical to the survival and prosperity of all life.

West. Mind of Truth: Speak True. Reverent. Play Fair.

Honesty is the foundation on which all else rests, beginning with taking awareness and responsibility for all our actions. Reverence is being centered within to find a personal definition of the sacred, and an outward private or public expression of belief. The way we behave, our degree of reasonableness, governs our extension of fairness to others.

In terms of the Academy, an ability to speak the truth is another aspect of being able to hear the truth, and to be able to sit with each other in difficult conversation. This requires a willingness to be changed by the experience. But also coming to an awareness that what one learns benefits the other as well as oneself.

Note: It is important to understand that the system described by Seton is without boundaries; we perceive each of these attributes as coming, firstly, from within, then extending outward past our own physicality, through our place of living and work, then into the community, and into the world. At the same time, we must be open to acting as the receiver of these things as well as acting as the giver. These concepts are neither static in direction nor in definition, but work in concert, shifting, blending, changing.

Learning as Transformation
Academy for the Love of Learning (

“…we can be free from the past only when we have so changed ourselves as to be no longer the same person who performed the action. A dishonest man [sic] does not become honest simply by ceasing to act dishonestly, but by an inward change that makes it impossible for him to act dishonestly.”
~ John Bennett
Seton hunted wolves, and eventually trapped Lobo. He came to see the nobility and intelligence of the wolf and, as he watched Lobo’s dignity in dying, was profoundly touched.  His understanding of animals was forever changed.
Can you recall an experience that was transformative for you?
Seton spent much of his time alone while he was in New Mexico trapping wolves. He kept a journal of his experience, and thought deeply about what he was seeing and feeling. Writing Lobo’s story was a powerful form of reflection.
When you reflect back on your transformative experience, what do you remember most clearly? What were the details, including feelings and emotions, that seem particularly meaningful to you now?
To find meaning from his experiences in New Mexico, Seton made an extensive study of birds and animals as an artist and naturalist, and also learned from Native American friends and mentors. Over time, Seton formulated an understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world, including the role and impact of humanity.
What meaning does your experience hold for you? What did you learn from it about yourself, and about the world?
Seton’s life of activism as a conservationist, naturalist, and educator, grew out of his experience with Lobo, and the resulting transformation of his understanding of the natural world.
How were you changed by that moment in your life? What actions, or new ways of being in the world, resulted from your experience?

The Academy’s Learning Model

The following components create the ‘spine’ of all programs offered through the Academy. Even in the simplest form, this model around which we design our programs brings personal engagement to the learning process, invites creativity and insight, and the potential for deep learning.
Begin with the experience – either an experience in the moment, or one that can be remembered…
  • Experience could come in many forms: drawing or painting, storytelling, movement, group activity, time in nature, going for an outing
  • Pretty much anything you give full attention to could be called an experience
Take some time to think and feel into the experience…
  • Reflection can be alone, or with another – can include journaling, drawing, going for a walk
  • Tell the story of the experience to a partner
  • Include feelings, emotions, memories that were evoked
Meaning Making
Explore learning from the experience, what meaning can be made from it?
  • What personal or shared learning came from the experience?
  • What other sources of information can add insight?
  • How can this learning be applied in life? How can it be explored further?
Try out the learning…
  • Follow curiosity, see where this learning leads
  • See if it invites another cycle of learning…
An example of this model used in relation to Seton’s work:

Four Ways to Support the Learning Process
1. This way of learning involves the whole person:
Thinking is only a small part of the picture. Invite the whole of each person into the inquiry.
  • Physical movement – can you dance your experience, or explore it with your body?
  • Sensations – what textures, tastes, tones are in your experience?
  • Emotions – how do you feel? What do your feelings want to tell you about your experience?
  • Imagination – what colors are in your experience – what could you name your experience
2. Slowing down helps bring awareness to reflection:
Often our need to reach completion overwhelms the richness that comes with savoring the journey.
  • Invite participants to stop for a moment and listen, or feel, what is happening inside them selves, and in the group.
  • Encourage participants to relish their stories, take time to speak, and really get into the telling.
  • Listen slowly, too. As a facilitator, listen with depth, and experiment with reflecting back what you hear when a participant says something that touches you. Let him or her know how you were affected.
  • If things are going too fast, suggest everyone takes a breath, feels their weight on the chair, looks around the room.
3. Follow your curiosity:
What catches your attention can bring guidance as you work with the group.
  • Ask questions that deepen and invite feeling: “Can you say more…?”
  • Invite the unexpected: “What might happen if…?”
  • Allow yourself to be transparent at times: “When you said that, I felt very moved. Thank you for being so open.”
  • When strong feelings come up for you, as facilitator, can you follow the thread internally – what is being evoked in your own story? Be curious about that, too.
4. Attend to what goes on in the ‘field’:
When the unexpected happens, it may bring a key insight to the group.
  • Notice the tone of the group – is it alive, sleepy, all over the place.  Can you play with that, and make it part of the experience? “Let’s get up and run around the room.” “How about a five-minute nap?” or, “What do you think our sleepiness is trying to say to us?”
  • Are there themes coming into the group through reflections? Stories?
  • What’s happening outside the group? Are there interruptions? What’s the weather doing? Was there a powerful headline on the news?

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