A Private Wilderness: The Journals of Sigurd F. Olson arrived at the University of Minnesota Press warehouse earlier this week, and my editor immediately rushed one off to me. I have so many variations of gratitude flowing through my emotions right now.
This is a most personal book. That’s true in the literal sense, of course, as it contains the most personal thoughts and observations of Sigurd Olson as he struggled to find his way in life. But recently I have come to realize how personal it is for me as his biographer.
I have been writing about him since 1982, the year he died, when Elizabeth gave me permission to use his papers to write my master’s thesis about his role in getting airplanes banned from the northeastern Minnesota wilderness area known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
When I finished that at the end of 1983, I went on for my doctorate and made my dissertation a history of that wilderness. It wasn’t focused on Sigurd, but of course it included quite a bit about him because of his major role in that history.
When I finished that degree and began my career as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I worked at turning that dissertation into my first book, Canoe Country: An Embattled Wilderness, published in 1991 by NorthWord Press.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Olson gave me permission to write her husband’s biography. That occupied me from 1990 to 1997, when the University of Minnesota Press published it.
I had three other books in mind as follow-ups. In 2001, UMP published my compilation of Sigurd’s most important speeches and articles about The Meaning of Wilderness. And in 2004, UMP published my collection of Sigurd Olson quotes, Spirit of the North.
But always in the back of my mind was the hope of being able to published a collection of his journals. That wouldn’t be possible, however, for quite a while. When Robert K. Olson donated the vast majority of his journals along with other papers to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1998, he put a restriction on their use that made publication impossible. It made sense at the time. Their experience with the biography was very positive, but there was so much publicity in that first year that I think they wanted a bit of a breather. I had copies of the journals from my work on the biography, so I just held on to them and figured one day maybe I’d get to do the book.
Eventually, I thought about it less and less. My children grew up, got married. I became a grandfather. And in 2015 I retired after a great career. I didn’t rush into new projects in retirement, but the writing bug came crawling back and I began to think about a book of essays and a series of novels. I even began some of the preliminary background reading.
Then one day I got a phone call from Matt Blessing, Wisconsin’s state archivist and director of collections for the state historical society. He told me Bob Olson had lifted the restrictions. Matt wondered if I might be interested in making a book collection of Sigurd’s journals.
I dropped everything else and jumped right into it. It was the perfect way for me to get back into the writing habit, but it also marked the final installment in a series I had dreamed of for several decades.
And now, I have in front of me my own copy.
It is the most personal of books. In my biography of Sigurd, you get my interpretation of his life story. But in this book, you get to see his own immediate interpretation of life events. That makes this new book a perfect companion to the biography.
But it’s personal for me, too. While I didn’t know Sigurd well–we visited maybe half a dozen times in his last five years of life, and exchanged a number of letters–in the years afterward Elizabeth became like a grandmother to me. Sig Jr., who lived in Alaska, became a dear old friend. Bob and Vonnie, who I often stayed with on trips to and from northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, became like a second set of parents. My own had died when I was in my thirties. In fact, when my mom died, the first people I called weren’t relatives, but Bob and Vonnie.
And now all of them are gone. And my series on Sigurd is complete. And my heart is full.