Category Archives: Prairie Suite Philosophy



Lakeside dispatch from David L. Witt/August 2, 2015

{In late July and early August I led an expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Canadian Arctic. We were following part of the route taken by Ernest Thompson Seton and his expedition of 1907. Field notes from the expedition can be found at my Seton website. This essay and others were first published by the expedition’s sponsor, the Academy for the Love of Learning, at the Seton Expedition website.}

Five blue tents are illuminated warm in the sunshine on the remote beach in northern Canada as earlier they had shown through moonlight of the night passed. Or of what constitutes night at 64° North Latitude on August 2nd. The sun sets, then the light briefly transitions to twilight before the coming of dawn again brings the full light of day to Aylmer Lake.

Hours of wind-stillness have calmed a lake so that it reflects the detail of clouds, outboard motors and Cottongrass along the shore. Nothing seems to move on the ground, although time has moved on, this is a new day. There has taken place a passage. How do we go about perceiving it?

First look to the record of the sand. There is the faint presence of Musk Ox tracks, already old. There is a recent record of a Caribou’s oddly shaped track passing west to east on the wet beach; overlaid on that is the subsequent track of an Arctic Wolf passing in the same direction. The most recent track is the huge paw prints of a Barrenland’s Grizzly, this in the dry sand, so it is indistinct. That track in the sand ends in two furrowed sand ridges, a roughly shaped: ( ) with the left part of the parenthesis no more than half the size of the right. This shape suggests that two bodies lay here hours earlier or a day earlier, sow and cub. Immediately to one side are two blueberry infused scat piles, one larger than the other.

The beach sand recorder of wildlife activity is immediately compromised by our presence, marred with an overlay of human footprints. We searched the beach for any sign of danger (i.e., bears) then looked for a temporary tent home sites, then unloaded cargo of food containers, cameras, sleeping bags and such other stuff as seems needed here for a couple of nights. Within a day the number of our imprints seem the result of hundreds of visitor’s restless pacing, although we number just five. The wild ones pass by in a single line and then are gone on. We, relentless, march back and forth grinding nature beneath our feet into ever smaller bits.

Next look to the passage of waves. The lake sleeps for now, glassy calm, but sometimes it rises and washes the beach free of the imprints of those already come and gone since the last storm. The moccasined feet of ancient Indians left impressions that must seem very careful compared to the brutal force of hiking boots. Generations of wolves have stalked generations of caribou. We know this because the wolves left behind, hidden in the short willow scrub beyond reach of waves, bones still white or if old enough, mossy. On this morning there are no new wildlife tracks overlaid on our own. No nocturnal grizzly visit, so we are at ease at breakfast. In a day or a week, or soon, waves will come to erase all that has happened here this past week since the last storm.

This place is not often visited by our kind. There were four known expeditions on this beach between 1832 and 1907, plus an unknown number of indigenous tribal visitors before and since. The earliest of these may have arrived several thousand years ago. Archaeologists made surveys here in 1951 and 1982. Diamond prospectors (mining is a major industry up here) have likely walked this shore in search of treasure.

There are five in our party, arrived in two 16’ aluminum fishing boats powered by 30hp Evenrude outboard motors, looking for the treasure of knowledge. I can sit on the sand watching outward toward the water for birds or lean against the boat and watch inland for oncoming bears. Passages may occur behind my back either way.

A mother Mallard Duck appears leading her band of ten little ones out of their Cottongrass refuge and into the deeper water just offshore. They swim with startling speed. I would not have noticed them at all except for a sudden excited fluttering of the entire group for reason unknown to me. They continue to the farther end of the beach out of our way.

Still water marked duck passage, closing behind. Fish surfacing or insects flailing wings show passages of another kind, although for only an instant before non-stormed water returns to its almost glass surface.

Beach tracks by whatever kind of creature will also be eroded by wind, one grain at a time toppled into the crater created by claw or pad or hoof or boot.

One other form of passage is absent in this season but evident as the dominant force at other times: Ice rules here seasonally. Winter ice will encroach upon the beach leaving its own mark by scraping away everything although there will be tracks in the snow for a moment. Glacial ice has in the past and will in the future, as Seton observed, churn the land itself, reorganizing (or eliminating) this beach as well as the lakes, rivers and hills of the north into a new form. Plants will be crushed, animals forced to migrate elsewhere.

The forty-meter hill north of the beach is a sand esker created by a glacier, a place of mounded ground-up rock. On its summit ancient people erected temporary shelter of caribou hide tents held up by poles. They tore rocks from the esker surface to hold down the tent edges, insuring their survival for another night during the long marches across the tundra in the hunt for Caribou. The resulting stone rings, averaging 4.5 meters in diameter, number as many as ten, several still easily discernable, others leaving only faint trace, as the malleable surface of the sandy esker shifts gradually reclaiming its component parts. The rocks are covered with black lichen, a slow growing organism that does not do well with disturbances. Which is to say that the rocks have to remain stable for a long time to support much lichen growth. The passage of the native hunters is long past, but remembered by the stones.

When Seton and his party arrived 108 years ago this month they borrowed (or reused) stones left by the ancient natives, taking several from two adjoining rings, building a cairn-monument to their own fleeting presence. Documented in a photograph as still standing thirty years ago, we found the cairn toppled by another of nature’s irresistible forces, the rodent. In this case, specifically, the “sic-sic” (as it is known locally), Spermophilus parryi, the Arctic Ground Squirrel. This small creature (about the size of a prairie dog but with a long tail) makes its home in burrows. Perhaps understanding the advantage of the protection of a stone castle, the squirrels built their dwelling beneath Seton’s cairn, eventually undermining the pile of ancient tent stones, altering the historical record just as Seton did when he removed them from their ancient rings. (Rodent revenge: Seton’ fellow traveler, Preble, killed several of them to take back as specimens to the Smithsonian.)

Someday the ice sheets will return erasing everything and beginning the cycle again.

<Caribou antler placement by Patty Nagle on Sandhill Bay shore, dlw photo>

Measurements of Scale

DSC_5385 Views from atop Wolf Den rock outcrop

Lakeside dispatch from David L. Witt/August 1, 2015

{In late July and early August I led an expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Canadian Arctic. We were following part of the route taken by Ernest Thompson Seton and his expedition of 1907. Field notes from the expedition can be found at my Seton website. This essay and others were first published by the expedition’s sponsor, the Academy for the Love of Learning, at the Seton Expedition website.}
When we are faced with the question of how to interpret a new place, what standards of measurement do we use to come to terms with it? In the case of Aylmer Lake this includes consideration of physical dimensions.

Aylmer Lake roughly takes the form of an inverted, although with islands, headlands, etc., lines of sight are not straight. That is, Aylmer is not a single balloon shape, but a complex series of shapes. Keeping that in mind, taking a trip from the north end (Sandhill Bay) to its unnamed south would require a journey of at least 37 miles (60k), although probably longer to account for points, narrows, shallows, etc. The same approximate distance would take you from the east (Thanakoie Narrows) to west (Lockhart River).

The maximum depth of the lake has not been measured, so that remains unknown. Its elevation is 241’ (366m). Its surface area when full (it’s a bit low at the moment) is over 327 sq. mi (827km/2). The longest straight-line distance I could measure was 30 miles (49k). At the place where the inverted is at its widest, the nearest land is over 3 miles (5k) distant. Water temperature is higher in the bays than in the main body, above freezing, but very cold by my standards.

Imagine the Seton expedition coming paddling through by canoe in 1907 without a clear idea of their progress, which is to say that could not have known where they were or what they might find. No GPS. No rescue planes. All very dangerous compared to our time. Aylmer is not even the largest lake of several around here.

All of which tells us about geography, but does not give insight into meaning. So what other standards of measurement might we apply?

I would measure wind, both natural (headwinds, tailwinds, sidewinds) and the force created by the canoe itself when it is underway. Also consider waves coming fore, aft, and broadside, some big enough to swamp a canoe or a motorized 16’ (4.8m) aluminum fishing boat.

And then there is depth: easily down as much as 400’ (122m) and up to infinity, a constant conscious presence in the wildness. I would add to this the scale of quiet: no motorized or electronic noises, no people, just nature as pristine at Aylmer in 1907 as it was a thousand years earlier. Or ten thousand. There was for them over months of travel a scale of loneliness, far from friends, family, the familiar environment of usual living.

That leads we to the creation of a final most important scale, that of absence. The absence scale is determined as a compilation of all the others – time, distance, area, wind, water, and life as it was once known before this trip. The absence of safety, of people, of familiarity was for the Seton group very high. The absence of any these can also take place in the most crowded city, and maybe there it is worse.

Here in the wilderness absence is felt on a subscale ranging from anxiety to relief. Absence can be terrifying liberating. The meaning of a journey such as the one to Aylmer comes out of where we may be positioned on that scale of measurement.

<Aylmer Lake shoreline, dlw photo>

Observations on a Place of Contrasts

DSC_4801 Blueberries

Lakeside dispatch from David L. Witt/July 27, 2015/3:00pm

{In late July and early August I led an expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Canadian Arctic. We were following part of the route taken by Ernest Thompson Seton and his expedition of 1907. Field notes from the expedition can be found at my Seton website. This essay and others were first published by the expedition’s sponsor, the Academy for the Love of Learning, at the Seton Expedition website.}

Land and water. Burned forests and ice floes. Endless shore-lines, tiny birds. Mosquitoes, mosquito head nets. Grizzly shattering glass and lunging through a cabin door, grizzly shot dead. A vast bay of the lake, a tiny canoe touching the water-shore horizon line on the other side. This last view, a wolf’s eye view as it might have beheld Seton and Preble on their visit 108 years ago when they met the wind silence of Aylmer Lake.

In 2014 the Northwest Territories experienced, at the same time, its coldest and driest summer in memory. One could have seen from the frozen shores of Aylmer Lake in the third week of July the smoke of unprecedented and ruinous fires in the Boreal forest 90 miles south. This year warmer, with the major fires still to come.

The late summer of Seton’s visit to the lake may have been a cold one; there was no mention of fires; it was certainly storm-ridden, gray-clouded over desolate shore, but also with the tundra’s reddish carpet of grasses, specs of wildflower yellows and blues, the last white remnants of cotton grass. Here on a windy day the human voice is washed away as thoroughly as the clear water wave cleaning the sculpted shoreline rocks.

Of all these contrasts, the one I find particularly interesting is that of talk, no talk. For the four men on that long 1907 trip, endlessly paddling every day week after week (except when in even closer quarters when storm-bound) I imagine there was limited talk. What else could have been left to say after such a long time together? What might have the two white men and two Indians to say to one another that could possibly have been interesting to the others?

I believe they must have gone through long periods when their thoughts were accompanied by nothing beyond the natural silence of a land of contrasts.

<Tundra blueberries, Northwest Territories, dlw photo>

Understanding Consequences of the Unpredictable

SAM_3442     I subtitled my book on generally true patterns “A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature.” I used that phrase to express the combination of my observations of wild nature with the useful analysis of systems philosophy. Maybe instead I should have instead used the title of this essay as a better way to describe what the book is about. “Natural history” is an increasingly antique term to a contemporary audience; the very notion of philosophy (systems or otherwise) seems quaint or irrelevant in an age where political ideology (sometimes masquerading as religion) operates as a more powerful force in the world.

Actually, ideology is more often a description of transient ideas, subject to whim and fad and expediency.

Pattern-recognition philosophy is altogether different for being based in deep layers of physics and biology. The problem is that whether it be the hopeless romanticism of white supremacy or the insane fanaticism of the misnamed “Islamic State” (or Da’ish as it should be called by the U.S. government) ideology is as temporary and passing as the summer leaves confronting the reality of autumn’s coming.

Understanding the consequences of the unpredictable requires a deeper focus, a higher concentration of physic energy than most of us are capable of in the day-to-day rush of contemporary life. As examples, the American middle class struggles to maintain its economic position in an era of wealth concentration into the hands of a few; the former Syrian middle class struggles just to physically survive one more nightmarish day. Finding the time for finding meaning is not easy.

The way we interpret and understand the world depends in large measure upon the questions we ask. This is made manifest for me from time to time by simple observation. I recently visited the idyllic, somewhat other-worldly village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. (Carmel, California and my home of Taos, New Mexico are both located at Latitude 36° north—if you walk directly west from Taos Plaza you will end up crossing Ocean Avenue in Carmel.) We were driving very slowly along the crazily beautiful and aptly named Scenic Drive, million dollar homes and rocky Pacific shore. Three young resident teen-aged girls (white, very, very privileged) halted their march to the beach to let us pass along the narrow street crowded with the pickups of construction workers imported for the endless home remodeling that characterizes this town.

One of the girls, speaking in a nasty stage whisper exclaimed (about us), “What are these people doing? They don’t even know where they are going.” Her companions concurred. As usual in such moments, even from the mouths of brats, there was an element of truth in this, although not a truth they would have recognized.

The surface interpretation: “What are these people doing?”: We were riding in a car. “They don’t even know where they are going.”: Except that Scenic Drive is one way, west to east, our direction of travel, so we were going from one end to the other (knowingly). So much for literal truth.

But what about this question seen through the filter of “understanding consequences of the unpredictable?” Where are we going? What are we doing? What might be the outcome? Although unknown to us, minutes or years from now there will be an outcome based on the choices or chances of this event. This speaks to the main theme of my book: actions have consequences, although these cannot be known in advance. What we do and where we go with our lives does matter. These are essential questions, even when issued from the mouths of the clueless.

For more, see the section of this site entitled Generally True Patterns.

<Fog, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, dlw photo July 8, 2015>

The Role of Noise

_1DW1724 Willow Lake and San Luis Valley series looking west from top of waterfall   The Prairie Suite, blog and novel, takes its title from a philosophy of integrating humans with the natural world from which we have been estranged. (Actually, we have always been a part of it; recognizing that connection is the problem.) A source of estrangement as writer/naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton expressed in the 1930s is greed. (For more on this, see Seton Legacy Project blog.) Greed for money (most obviously), but also for power, and ultimately, for space. We expand in absolute numbers, but also in our footprint, going beyond the boundaries of individual bodies to and into all parts of air, earth and water. Which is to say that the space taken up by any individual is multiplied by where and how we effect that space (e.g. consumption, pollution, etc.) The destruction we create is proof of our integration with nature.

That integration is missed due to noise, the chaos of our things and processes that drown out the sounds of nature. The philosophy of the Prairie Suite emphasizes listening to the sounds of wild nature and finding meaning  by cutting through our own noise.

{Willow Lake, Crestone Range, Colorado, September 13, 2013. DLW photo.}