Friday, December 4, 2009

The Seton Spot

Way back in time, some 21 years ago, I embarked on a path that led to a career as a naturalist. It was my first job out of college: an internship at Beaver Lake Nature Center. That summer found us interns (Judi, Dave, and yours truly) working primarily as summer camp counselors.

Camp Beaver Lake ran in several week-long sessions. Judi, who had worked there the previous summer and had extensive experience working at (and later being director of) a 4-H Camp in the Adirondacks, filled the spot as our fearless leader. She set up the weekly schedule and developed most of the activities.

One day was spent fishing. We caught bullheads using canned corn as bait. Yours truly was the designated dispatcher of caught fish - I learned quickly how to skin and fillet the bullheads without damaging their heart-shaped air bladders (I still have a couple of them floating around the house somewhere). The fish were then fried on hobo stoves we made from coffee cans, fueled by burning newspapers and twigs.

Another day might be spent learning about the bog, or maybe learning about reptiles and amphibians with a special guest speaker from SUNY ESF.

At the end of the week, the kids had a sleepover on the far side of the lake. We paddled over in the afternoon, set up camp at the lean-tos, and prepared dinner. Judi and I were in charge of cooking, which required the placement of a large square castiron griddle over the hot coals of a fire. This was especially important in the morning when pancakes were on the menu. When darkness fell, a night hike was in order - we looked for foxfire (bioluminescent fungi), juvenile barred owls (easily discovered as they made their "monkey" calls), and went stargazing.

One week was dedicated to older campers, and these lucky individuals joined us on a slog through the swamp. It was a bushwhack that found us sometimes on dry land, often in mud and shallow water, but ultimately in a stream that had us well over our waists in slow-moving water. It was here the yellowjackets found us.

But one of my favorite camp "activities" was the quiet time after lunch. This was set aside to give the kids a chance to slow down, digest their lunches, and learn the art of quietness (it didn't always work). We called this activity Seton Spots,after the famous nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton. Each camper was assigned a specific spot somewhere along one of the trails and had a Seton Spot booklet with a different observational activity for each day of the week. The goal was to have the kids sit quietly in their spots and observe the things that were happening around them. The longer you can sit quietly in one location, the more you will see.

Today you can find the concept of Seton Spots in the teachings of many outdoor awareness programs. Many simply call them Sit Spots, or Secret Spots. Whatever the name, the concept is the same. When you enter the woods, wildlife flees, seeking to either hide or put distance between themselves and the perceived threat (you). Studies have shown that if you stay put, things return to normal in about twenty minutes. So, the longer you can sit still in one place, the more you are likely to see.

When I do journaling programs (like yesterday), or outdoor awareness programs, I still like to use the idea of the Seton Spot. If I find I don't have time with a school group to have them sit in individual locations for 20 minutes or so, I pose it as a challenge at the end of the program before they leave. I'll share it with you here and dare you to give it a try.

The Seton Spot Challenge

Find a secluded spot somewhere that you can call your own. It could be in your back yard, it could be in the woods, it could be on the shore...the location doesn't matter as long as it is some place you can get to regularly and with little difficulty. If your spot is near water, great, for water attracts all sorts of wildlife. If you don't have water nearby, it's no big deal - it's just a nice perk if you do have it.

Next, you want to find a comfortable spot and have a seat. You want to sit quietly. Comfort is important, because you're going to be there a while. Give yourself at least twenty minutes, although thirty or more is better: the longer you can sit, the more you will see (and hear).

As you sit, you want to observe. Look around you. Listen. At first, things might seem awfully quiet and dull, but as time passes, your focus will change. You'll start to notice insects moving on the ground and in the vegetation nearby. Eventually a bird might fly in - watch what it does. Maybe you'll hear a rustle behind you. It could be a could be something else.

This is the easy part of the challenge. The hard part is to come back every day. If you can't make it every day, then try for at least a couple times a week. Visit your spot at dawn, at dusk, at 2AM. The more often you can visit your spot, the greater the chance are that the wildlife will get used to, and eventually ignore, you.

You will likely find a progression over time in how you feel about your spot. At first it is exciting. New things come to your attention. But then you enter a period where going there becomes a chore: it's the same thing every day. Same trees, same flowers, same midden pile. It is during this period that maintaining your interest in your Seton Spot may flag. If you keep at it, however, you will eventually break through that invisible wall and find yourself on a new plane of observation. Your mind and senses will now be tuned in to every little change: a couple hairs caught on a branch that show a deer passed by; the subtle indentation in the leaves where a fox lay down; the alert calls of birds that indicate a house cat is hunting nearby. When you reach this level, you'll find the world to be a larger, yet more intimate, place.

Give it a try. You might be surprised to discover just who (or what) is sharing your neighborhood.


  1. Yay for Seton Spots! I still occasionally visit my old one at BLNC. In the years since I wrote in it it's changed a great deal. Oddly enough, trees grow. I still have my old journal from it, too, somewhere. Creating a new one is a great idea, although I question my resolve to sit still for 1/2 hour at a time in the winter.

    I remember the swamp walk, but can't recall the yellow jackets. I must not have been too traumatized.

  2. I also interned at BL the summer of 82 those memories I hold close to my heart.I choose the canopy of a Quaking Aspen as my “seton spot”.