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“A Wilderness Within” 25 Years Later

“A Wilderness Within” is 25 years old.

I’m not sure I can wrap my mind around that. Nevertheless, it was 25 years ago today that a package arrived in the mail containing my first copy of Sigurd Olson’s biography.

August 14, 1997, seven years almost to the day since Elizabeth Olson gave me permission to write it.

I hadn’t even planned on asking, because I assumed she’d say no. I knew she had turned down others. But Tom Klein, a former director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, called me in the summer of 1990 to say he had visited with her recently and she had said such nice things about me he thought I was perhaps the one person she might accept as her husband’s biographer. I wasn’t surprised she said nice things about me, as by then she was like a grandmother to me, but I thought Tom likely was wrong. I was going up to Ely for a vacation soon, though, and told him I’d ask her.

To my surprise she said yes. Her only concern was that my putting so much time and energy into writing the book might be hard on my family. She was speaking from experience, as I came to learn. Sigurd’s strong need to write and his years of trying to find success came at a cost. “You’re a lot like him,” she said, which was at least as much a warning as a compliment.

It took three years of research and three years of writing and one year of waiting for the University of Minnesota Press to get it ready and send it out into the world. I felt good about it. I certainly didn’t expect it would get great reviews in the New York Times and Audubon and other prominent media. I was amazed when at book events in St. Paul and Duluth the line of people wanting me to autograph it was more than an hour long. I was shocked on several occasions in Madison and Ashland and Ely when someone approached and asked if I was David Backes. And I was dumbstruck and grateful when my book won the Small Press Book Award for biography.

Twenty-five years ago today, when I held the book and thumbed through it for the first time, enjoying the cover and the layout and the photo spread and the overall feel of the finished product, I had no idea of the impact it would have on my life. How it would connect me with so many people, including some who became dear friends. How it would lead to decades of writing and talking about Sigurd. I have read about and spoken to some biographers who ended up feeling hemmed in by their subject, like a young actor forever typecast in one prominent role. I have never felt that way. I feel only gratitude and joy.

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