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Ernest Thompson Seton, the pathetic fallacy, and Paul L. Errington's Of Preelection and Life.

One of the most influential biologists of his day, Paul L. Errington (1902-1962) has since become known as a visionary environmental writer who counted Aldo Leopold as a steady correspondent and mutual influence. It is, however, another literary environmentalist, Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), who stands as one of Errington's earliest literary influences. In characterizing her husband's rural South Dakota boyhood, Carolyn Errington writes:

There were many influences in his growing up years to reinforce his interest in the out of doors and surely the books and magazines he read influenced him. Ernest Thompson Seton was a favorite writer and Paul must have read his Two Little Savages. He must also have read Jack London's The Call of the Wild. There were bird books and outdoor magazines and pictures. Paul went regularly to the Brookings Public Library.... (C. Errington to R. Kohler, 8 February 2000, Errington Papers, Special Collections, Iowa State U,box 35/8)

Seton's influence continued into Errington's adult years, as evidenced by his citing of a passage on muskrats from Seton's 1925, Lives of Game Animals (Of Men and Marshes. Ames, IA: Iowa State UP, 1996 [1957], 2). Errington's interest in Seton sheds light on his approach to his own popular nature writing and on his biological thinking.

Seton's tendency to incorporate the pathetic fallacy into his descriptions of animals at first seems at odds with Errington's sound biological principles. Seton's work nevertheless draws attention to the complex relationships between animals, and, by demonstrating the idea of interdependencies between humans and animals, it likely helped Errington develop a more ecological literary imagination. Errington, too, sometimes describes the natural world in a figurative manner, such as in the opening sentence of Of Predation and Life, where he refers to predation as "that dramatic climax of seeking and pursuing" (Ames, IA: Iowa State UP, 1967, 3). Though Errington certainly witnessed the drama of predation during his early years as a trapper of muskrats and minks, Seton's writing further invokes the idea of an almost theatrical conflict between predator and prey. Consider this passage from Seton's Two Little Savages in which a mink enters the predatory stage just as a muskrat makes a timely exit:

The Muskrat had not gone more than twenty minutes before another deep-brown animal appeared.... there was no mistaking it; this was a Mink, the deadly enemy of the Muskrat, and now on the track of its prey. It rapidly turned the corner, nosing the trail like a Hound. If it overtook the Muskrat before it got to the pond there would be a tragedy. If the Muskrat reached the deep water it might possibly escape. But just as sure as the pond became a gathering place for Muskrats it would also become a gathering place for Mink (Two Little Savages [NY: Doubleday, 1903]: 341-342).

Though the passage does, through terms like "deadly enemy" and "tragedy," imply a moralistic undercurrent, it is only mildly anthropomorphic when compared to other works of animal fiction, such as London's The Call of the Wild. Seton also largely avoids portraying the mink as a villain, and in the final sentence gestures toward the amoral reality of predator-prey interaction.

Errington, who spent his life studying these very species, probably paid close attention to Seton's portrayals of minks and muskrats. Note, for example, how Seton's passage compares with Errington's description of the mink in Of Predation and Life: "Let us consider predation from the standpoint of the mink. The mink is a 'real pro' among our native predators, a good 'general practitioner.' It can climb, range overland by the mile, swim and dive expertly, enter rather small holes or into icy muskrat lodges, and it is proficient at locating prey or edible carrion by smell" (23). Errington applauds the biological fitness of the mink for its ecological niche, but like Seton he also incorporates the pathetic fallacy: where Seton's mink was a "Hound," Errington's becomes a "real pro" and "general practitioner."

Though Errington does at times employ figurative language, as he concludes Of Predation and Life, he also addresses the dangers of taking such metaphors too far. In a passage Carolyn altered significantly in her posthumous publication of the book, Errington specifically addresses the human tendency to impose an artificial morality onto predation and warns us not to confuse ecological processes with human ideas of good and evil:

Fictionalized wild animal characters about which one reads may behave like fiends or like domestic vassals, drawing epithets of disgust or being symbols of courageous faithfulness. They may be compared with man at his worst or his best.... they may bear so much the imprint of man's moral imagery or motivations as to reflect little of what is natural. This is especially the case with respect to predatory creatures. Nor is it the fiction writer alone who imputes animal ethics to wild predators or sees depravity in predaceous [sic] acts--this seems to me almost a general characteristic of humankind. (Errington Papers, Special Collections, Iowa State U, box 30/2, 308)

Errington's reference to "fictionalized wild animals" indicates that his reading of writers such as Seton and London figured into both his popular writing and his biological theories. As this passage reveals, he recognized that while portrayals of animals in popular culture can help foster environmental consciousness, they also risk promoting misconceptions about the values we should place on animals and habitat.

Matthew Wynn Sivils, Iowa State University
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Author:Sivils, Matthew Wynn
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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