Open Horizons is autobiographical, yet not like any other autobiography I’ve ever read. In Sigurd Olson’s early notes to himself while planning the book, he wrote that “the details of my life are unimportant.” His focus, he said, would be “the development of an idea which I happen to have done.” He wanted to explore themes experienced by all, and the “evolution of vision and perspective.”
He started writing ideas for the book early in 1963. This was the busiest time of his life, though, and he didn’t have a draft ready until April 1967. His agent, Marie Rodell, liked it but thought it needed far more detail about his life. Sigurd disagreed, saying “that is not the purpose of this book.”
Open Horizons and the singing wilderness way
When Alfred Knopf published the book in 1969, Sigurd had largely won out. In the introduction he described (defended?) this sweeping view of even his own life:
Life is a series of open horizons, with one no sooner completed than another looms ahead….More than physical features, they are horizons of mind and spirit, and when one looks backward, we find they have blended into the whole panorama of our lives…
What a man finally becomes, how he adjusts himself to his world, is a composite of all the horizons he has explored, for they have marked him and left indelible imprints on his attitude and convictions and given his life direction and meaning. What one remembers of any expedition are not the details of rapids, camps, or miles of travel, but rather a montage of major headlands passed, and the sweep of the land.
The chapters in Open Horizons, therefore, follow themes in the development of what I call his “singing wilderness way.” They are roughly chronological, but he was willing to place events out of order if doing so better advanced his real goal. And that was easy enough to do, for–again, unique among autobiographies–he used no dates. The book is really a landscape of memory, full of his own “horizons of mind and spirit” while hoping to spark similar reflection in his readers.
example: nature’s impact on children persists into adulthood
I want to highlight one example I think everyone will be able to relate to in some way: how the nature we encountered as children shapes our perspectives about nature as adults. On p. 32, Sigurd writes:
it can drive adult passions, even careers
These outdoor experiences and many more helped shape his ideas about beauty, and about the kinds of landscapes and living things that especially attracted him. But there is more. He describes his early duck hunting as an older child in Ashland, Wisconsin, which was a natural outgrowth of his long exploration of the Kakagon Slough and the creatures that lived there. Then he reflects on a visit to the same spot half a century later:
my landscape of memory yields similar conclusions
Sigurd’s observations in Open Horizons are similar to mine. I have already posted a few things related to my neighborhood and beautiful Grant Park. This is where I grew up, and this little corner of the Lake Michigan shoreline profoundly affected me. It provided the vast majority of my natural sensory experiences as a child, and I’m sure those experiences affected how I perceive nature to this day. I believe my love of wide open spaces, big views, and big water (oceans and large lakes) is shaped by my love of Lake Michigan and all those formative childhood experiences along its shores. Same for my love of beaches.
not just where I lived, but also where I visited
Then there’s the vast forested lakeland of northern Minnesota, which has had perhaps as profound an effect on me as the Lake Michigan shore. I have gone there nearly every year starting 1963, when I was six years old. The major difference is that my Minnesota experience has been mostly a summer one, while I intimately know Grant Park and Lake Michigan in all their variations throughout the year. Even so, the rock formations of the canoe country, the scent of spruce and fir in the air, the calls of loons and wolves, the crackle of campfires, the profound depth of the night sky and the occasional shifting streamers of northern lights have been formative in my life.
These two places, then—Grant Park / Lake Michigan, and the canoe country of northern Minnesota—are very much a part of me. I doubt I fully understand the ways in which they have shaped my perceptions of other places. But I know they have.
This may explain, for example, why I love Alaska so much. There is the big water of the ocean, the wide open space of the subalpine tundra, the views from high up in mountains. There is the sound of gulls, the scent of spruce in the air, the sight of moose and eagles and wolves and black bears and some of the same wildflowers I know from the canoe country. I have joked with family and friends that Alaska is like northern Minnesota, only with mountains and oceans. Only, haha. It is like everything I have known and loved, all together.
In the same way, my childhood experiences of nature led directly to my adult interests, passions and career. They also provided the nurturing soil of my spiritual journey.
How about you? Do you see a similar pattern in your own life? A variation? Or nothing at all that describes your experience? Let me know in the comments, either below or on the Singing Wilderness Facebook page.
Photo: Kakagon Slough. Creative Commons license, courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The landscape of memory connects direct experiences of nature from the past into present views and actions. Therefore, it spans both the teal and gold portions of the singing wilderness spiritual map.