A Private Wilderness


Introduction, "Wild Calling"

The most iconic photograph of Sigurd Olson was taken in 1961 by Alfred Eisenstaedt, often called the father of photojournalism. “It’s more important,” Eisenstaedt maintained, “to click with people than to click the shutter.” And so when he came to Ely, Minnesota, the famous photographer of world leaders and celebrities spent time with his subject at Sigurd’s beloved Burntside Lake property known as Listening Point. There Sigurd could be himself.

In the photograph, Sigurd is sitting with his back against the cabin, legs crossed, hands resting on his lap. He is wearing his best outdoor khakis, clean and pressed. His left hand holds a folded map of part of the nearby canoe country wilderness; his right hand, resting on his left forearm, holds his ever-present pipe. A pair of binoculars hangs down at his waist. Eisenstaedt positioned the camera so Sigurd had to turn his weathered face a little to the left and gaze slightly downward. He looks poised, confident, and at peace.

This was Sigurd Olson at the height of his career. He was a best-selling author whose books were read over public radio, a leader of conservation organizations, and an adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on wilderness and national parks. He played a role in the establishment of a number of national parks, seashores, and historic sites, including Cape Cod and Padre Island National Seashores, Katmai and Wrangell–St. Elias National Parks, and, close to home, Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. In moments of crisis, such as when a transmountain road was about to be built through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or when a key section of Olympic National Park was threatened by logging, Sigurd was instrumental in stopping the threat because of his influence in the Department of the Interior and its National Park Service. He acted as what one Interior Department official called “an ambassador without portfolio” to Canada, working to get Canadians to preserve five million acres of the Yukon adjoining Alaskan wilderness.

That man in the Eisenstaedt photograph received not only the highest award in nature writing, the John Burroughs Medal, but the highest honors of four of the most important environmental groups in America: the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Izaak Walton League. No one except John Muir had achieved such recognition in his lifetime as both a nature writer and an environmental leader. As Sierra Club president Edgar Wayburn put it, “To many of us, he is the personification of the wilderness defender.”

If Eisenstaedt had come to Ely thirty years earlier, no doubt he would have taken a very different portrait. That poise, confidence, and peace were fleeting qualities in Sigurd then. This was long before the books, long before the beloved Listening Point. Sigurd was barely known beyond the borders of the little mining town of Ely, Minnesota. But Eisenstaedt, clicking with the person rather than the shutter, certainly would have spent time outdoors with Sigurd to get the best photograph. And in doing so, he might have discovered that inner light described decades later by Wilderness Society president George Marshall, who said of Sigurd, “He made wilderness and life sing.”

What was the source of that inner light? The wilderness. More broadly, all outdoor places, from little oases in large cities to backyard gardens to rural fields and woods, where he found connectedness and fulfillment by doing simple things in harmony with his surroundings and his deepest nature as a human being. His childhood in Wisconsin was an outdoor immersion school, from the wild Lake Michigan shores of the Door County Peninsula to the patchwork fields and woods of the cutover region to the backwater sloughs along the southern shore of Lake Superior. Each of those locations gave him an education far beyond what he received inside the walls of classrooms. He learned much about the ways of nature, of course, but perhaps more importantly he began intuitively to understand and appreciate intangible values at the heart of human fulfillment. Beauty, for example. Wonder. Awareness. Aliveness. Connectedness. And many more.

These stayed with him his whole life, and when he came to write about them, he found that the best way to capture their essence was through not visual metaphors but aural ones. Recalling a particularly memorable experience at an abandoned stone pier near his childhood home in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, he wrote:

A school of perch darted in and out of the rocks. They were green and gold and black, and I was fascinated by their beauty. Seagulls wheeled and cried above me. Waves crashed against the pier. I was alone in a wild and lovely place, part of the dark forest through which I had come, and of all the wild sounds and colors and feelings of the place I had found. That day I entered into a life of indescribable beauty and delight. There I believe I heard the singing wilderness for the first time.

The wilderness sings. And Sigurd heard it. And that shaped his entire life. Because the wilderness sings, Sigurd found a wealth of meaning and wholeness outdoors that he found nowhere else. He needed it. He needed to listen for the stirring, yet sometimes elusive melody that unlocked the map to his own inner wilderness. Days when he heard the wilderness sing were golden; days when he strained to catch the chords were somber. And when he was kept inside? Those days were bleak.

Sigurd’s family didn’t understand any of this. His father occasionally fished but had no real interest in the outdoors. Neither did his older brother. His younger brother learned to hunt but didn’t come close to Sigurd’s passion. His mother enjoyed picnics and walks but not exploring the woods. “Nobody in the family understood why on earth I had to be running off in the woods all the time,” he recalled decades later. His grandmother did, but she was too old to explore with him. So, he got used to keeping his deep feelings from these experiences largely to himself. “I was in a world of my own,” he later wrote, “a free and beautiful world where all was fantasy and adventure.” It was his own private wilderness, a meeting place of landscape and mind. And every time he explored the singing wilderness of water and woods, he blazed a little bit more of the trail for his soul.

As he grew, he came to realize that while he was not alone in hearing the wilderness sing, it seemed as though many had gotten so far removed from the outdoors that they had forgotten to listen. Maybe even forgotten how to listen. Or worse yet: no longer knew that the wilderness sings. His life’s calling, then, was to help people recover the ability to listen, to help them experience the emotional and spiritual uplift and healing that comes from listening, and to preserve places where deeper immersion produced more finely tuned listening and an even more profound experience of the intangible values. It was an inherently spiritual calling and an urgent one, for he believed that civilization hung in the balance. Because the wilderness sings, humans, who evolved in wilderness, need to hear it to be fully human. If there is not a critical mass of humans who regularly spend time outdoors, listen, and keep alive the intangible values that provide essential emotional and spiritual nourishment, society itself will decay. Without the power of wonder, both individuals and societies grow old and die.

Such a strong sense of calling always causes inner struggle. Those who have it often feel at least somewhat isolated. They don’t fit in. Few among their families and friends understand them at more than a superficial level. They have strong creative urges but struggle to use them, and if they have a family, these creative urges and sense of deep calling may conflict with the financial and emotional needs of those who depend on them.

Sigurd Olson experienced all of this along with the awe and wonder of wilderness. Decades before his success and fame he was haunted and driven by a calling, a sense that he had to find a means to express the deep emotions he experienced outdoors, and then share his creations with a world he believed was longing for meaning. It drove him to heights of exaltation and to fits of despair. “Only one who has experienced what I have, the longing for creation, can understand how terrible it is to find oneself inadequate,” he wrote in his journal on October 19, 1933.

He knew by the time he started his journal in 1930 that he had to write. Unfortunately, editors were not so sure. Much of his journal in those early years shows his struggles in becoming not merely a successful writer but a messenger of the spirit. He could write fishing and hunting articles, and in the 1930s he became reasonably well known among readers of the leading outdoor magazines. But that kind of writing soon bored him. His calling was deeper. So he began to write essays along the lines of what would later fill his books. In fact, some of them were early versions of essays that decades later became reader favorites, such as “Grandmother’s Trout” and “Easter on the Prairie.” But all he got for them was an occasional compliment; editors said there was no market for that kind of work.

Writer friends and literary agents encouraged Sigurd to try writing short story fiction for popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. If he wanted to be able to support his family with his writing, that’s what he needed to do. The outdoor magazines paid a pittance, and he couldn’t sell the essays. So he tried. He wrote stories about outlaws and trappers and loggers and rangers, crude pieces full of random action and not much plot or character development. He tried writing them off and on for twenty years, usually receiving scathing rejection letters.

So what was he to do? He had this urgent sense of calling. But how could he live it? He debated the possibilities endlessly. At times he thought he should go into scientific work, either as a university professor or as a field biologist for a federal agency. At least the latter would get him outdoors, in contrast to his teaching and administrative work at Ely Junior College. But every time he tried to push himself in that direction, he hated it. “I hate the very sound of the word Ecology,” he wrote on December 14, 1931, while in the middle of earning a master’s degree in it. Even so, he couldn’t just drop the idea, and it kept returning like some undead lab specimen in a horror film.

He went through a brief phase thinking he should drop writing and become an artist. If his word paintings couldn’t sell, maybe oil or watercolor ones would. He even tried to persuade himself to enjoy being a junior college professor and dean, knowing he was good at it and that he was making a difference. He told himself he should give up writing, focus on what he was good at, and let go of the angst that came with his sense of calling. However, he asked himself on April 2, 1940, “Could I forget my wanting to write?”

No. His need to write always reasserted itself. That’s the thing about callings. Move away from them, and restlessness and despair follow. Move toward them and accept them, and peace and joy follow. Not always, and maybe not even often, but enough to draw you toward their beauty and make it nearly impossible to let them go. To abandon them is to abandon yourself. And that is the one thing Sigurd Olson could not do. Because the wilderness sings, and he heard it: “I am a harp on whose sensitive strings the winds of the world blow and my task is to set to music the strains I alone can hear,” he wrote on May 2, 1940. “I must give ear forever to celestial music—each day when I go abroad, I must look for it, try and catch the strange something.”

Sigurd wrote or typed journal entries mostly when he was down, worried, or confused. When his writing was going well or when he was preoccupied with other matters, he was far less likely to dash one off. The bulk of his loose-leaf journal runs from 1930 to 1941. That’s when he got a contract from Paul Meyer to write a syndicated column called “America Out of Doors.” Sigurd thought he was finally about to achieve his dream. World War II would take that dream away, but his column helped prepare him to write books, and meanwhile he found a new career as a leading spokesperson for protecting wilderness and other wild and scenic areas in the United States and Canada. His journal, therefore, tapers off after 1941. It spikes, briefly, from December 1946 through May 1947—a period of anxiety and unhappiness that led to a final break with the junior college and the start of a new life—but then after that, very little. He was finally finding the happiness and fulfillment he had longed for.

When I describe Sigurd’s life story to people, I say it’s about far more than a beloved nature writer who became an icon in the national wilderness preservation movement. That’s like taking a quick glance at the Eisenstaedt photograph version of his life. The more inspiring version is there too, but somewhat hidden. His face is weathered not merely by the thousand suns of his wilderness travels, days marked by aliveness and wonder and physical challenges. The deep lines also contain the more fleeting joys, the days of darkness, and the ultimate peace of a man who explored the far more difficult terrain of the wilderness within. Above all else, it is a story about someone driven by a powerful sense of calling, who enjoyed occasional glimpses of tantalizing success but more often struggled through rejection and occasionally despair for thirty years. Somehow, despite tremendously long odds against him, he never gave up. He found the fulfillment he sought, helped protect beautiful wild areas all around North America, and touched a deep chord in many who read his books and heard him speak. He also paid it forward, helping numerous young people hold on to their dreams when they were close to giving up.

What you are about to read in this collection will help you better understand just how painful was his struggle, how remarkable was his perseverance, and how much hope such a journey can give to anyone today who has a dream.