Listening Point, Sigurd Olson's retreat at Burntside Lake

My First Novel, “Listening Point”

My first novel, “Listening Point,” will be published in 2023 by Riverfeet Press. Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

As the climate crisis fuels mass migration and social unrest in the 2060s, Andrew Hochevar, a young priest in northern Minnesota, has a mysterious, powerful encounter one hot August day at Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point. The experience upends his traditional understanding of God, the Church, and his own calling. It also propels him along a spiritual journey that brings healing to the sick, puts him at odds with his bishop, and threatens a growing movement of white nationalists.

It’s a fast-paced story about the importance of “listening with inward ears,” as Sigurd Olson put it.

All good story ideas begin with a “what if.” As Sigurd’s biographer and someone who has spent a lifetime writing and teaching about nature and the human spirit as well as major environmental issues, I began wondering a few years ago how Sigurd Olson’s writings might influence people decades from now and a century after his most prolific period of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Setting

In the 2060s the world will face immense challenges caused by the warming climate. Sigurd Olson warned about this as early as 1972. Speaking at an event that October, he said scientists across the world “know that if the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere gets higher, we may have a situation where the sun’s rays will be trapped, raising temperatures high enough to melt Arctic ice caps, bringing the height of oceans to the point where shorelines may be inundated all over the world.”

Not enough people have listened, and our future looks far worse than it did in Sigurd’s day. But decades from now, in a world of escalating crises, will his legacy and philosophy still hold any answers? Sigurd believed our environmental crises were essentially spiritual in nature and are a result of breaking the intimate relationship humans have had with nature since the dawn of our species. Recovery, then, requires rebuilding those connections by spending time outdoors, especially in silence and solitude, which make it much easier to “listen with inward ears,” as he put it.

Listen to Whom?

So, it starts with listening. But to whom? For Sigurd, the most important voice already is inside us, but it is easily drowned out by the voices of family, friends, teachers, clergy, politicians, pundits, and all the vast influences of popular culture.

I wanted to write a story that highlights the importance of listening during a time of escalating social and environmental crises. Therefore, I needed a protagonist for whom listening presented both a problem and a solution. I tried some what ifs. What if I made the protagonist a nature writer? A professor? An environmentalist? A journalist? A logger? A miner? The one that leaped out and excited me was a Catholic priest. At ordination, a priest makes a promise of obedience to the bishop. The root meaning of the word “obedience” is “to listen to.” A Catholic priest torn between listening to his bishop and listening to what Sigurd Olson called “the God within” provides both the necessary narrative tension and the spiritual dimension that Sigurd saw as foundational for our crises and their solutions.

With “listening” at the heart of the story, I wanted multiple key scenes to take place at Sigurd Olson’s lakeshore retreat known as Listening Point. So that made my decision to place the priest nearby an easy one. I didn’t want to cause problems for a real-world parish, however, so I invented a fictional one in a fictional town.

Sigurd Olson’s Legacy

One of the things that excited me about this project was having the opportunity to focus not on Sigurd Olson, but on someone affected by Sigurd Olson. That’s how his legacy and philosophy and value will be shaped in the decades and centuries ahead: by people whose own unique backgrounds intersect with his writings to create something new. As Sigurd himself told me long ago, everyone sees the world in at least some unique ways, no matter how much their worldview and creativity may borrow from those who have gone before.

In 2063 Fr. Andrew Hochevar, a young priest with an environmental background and a deep love for Sigurd’s works, gets thrust into that reality when he has a mystical experience at Listening Point. To whom will he listen? To whom will he be obedient? Those questions apply to each of us today in a special way, as members of the last generation that can effectively limit how much future generations will suffer.

I have heard that just one in a thousand novel manuscripts finds a publisher. I feel doubly blessed, because I have a contract for my first novel and because Riverfeet Press is ideal for this kind of book.

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