I chose today to launch this website because it is the 120th anniversary of Sigurd Olson’s birth.
I’ll tell you lots about him in bits and pieces over time. Today, though, in honor of his 120th birthday, I wanted to post a straightforward overview of his life.
Here’s what I wrote for The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature in 2005. I wrote it for the public, not solely for academics, so the only change I’ll make here is to replace his last name with his first, because this is a less formal setting:
Sigurd F. Olson was one of America’s most beloved nature writers and most influential conservationists of the 20th century. Best known as the author of The Singing Wilderness and eight other books, Olson also played an important role in the preservation of a number of national parks, seashores, and wilderness areas.
Born in Chicago on April 4, 1899, Sigurd spent most of his childhood and youth in northern Wisconsin, where he discovered a love of nature. He was the second of three sons raised by the Reverend Lawrence and Ida May Olson, Swedish immigrants who met and married in the United States. His parents were devout Swedish Baptists, and Olson was raised in a strict household. One time, for example, Lawrence Olson discovered Sigurd and another son playing with a chess set, and he threw it into the fire.
While attending college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison at the end of World War I, Sigurd nearly committed himself to becoming a missionary. The night before he was to publicly declare his intent, however, he climbed the roof of the YMCA building where he lived, stared out over Lake Mendota, and struggled with his decision. He realized that his interest in becoming a missionary had more to do with exploring wild places that with saving souls; in the morning he resigned from the church organization he had been chosen to lead, and in effect broke from the faith of his parents.
For years afterward, Sigurd was obsessed with discovering a sense of meaning and mission to replace what he had lost. Eventually, he found what he was looking for in the wilderness canoe country of northern Minnesota and Ontario. He moved to Ely, Minnesota in 1923, and taught in the local high school and junior college, eventually becoming dean of the college. During the summers he guided canoe parties through the wilderness, and he noticed that the wilderness often had as profound an effect on his clients as it did on him. They laughed more, sang songs, played practical jokes. They watched the sun set and the moon rise, and listened to the roar of rapids and the soft sighs of wind in the trees. Like Sigurd, they became re-connected to the grand, eternal mystery of creation.
Sigurd came to believe his mission in life was to share with others what he had found in the wilderness, and to help lead the fight to preserve it. Science, technology and materialism were turning many people away from the religious truths and practices that had given spiritual sustenance, he argued, and offered nothing in their place. The result was a widespread, if often vague, discontent, partially hidden underneath fast-paced lives, yet also nourished by that same fast pace that left little time for reflection. Sigurd believed that the silence and solitude and noncivilized surroundings of wilderness provide a physical context in which people can more easily rediscover their inner selves. Just as important, wilderness gives people a chance to feel the presence of a universal power that science can never explain, but that brings meaning to their lives. “Wilderness offers [a] sense of cosmic purpose if we open our hearts and minds to its possibilities,” he said at a national wilderness conference in 1965:
“It may come in…burning instants of truth when everything stands clear. It may come as a slow realization after long periods of waiting. Whenever it comes, life is suddenly illumined, beautiful, and transcendent, and we are filled with awe and happiness.”
Sigurd spread his philosophy in nine books, in many magazine and newspaper articles, and in countless speeches and conversations across the United States and Canada. He read and thought deeply about the works of others who were searching for meaning in the modern world—such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Lewis Mumford, Aldous Huxley, Josef Pieper, and Pierre Lecomte du Noüy—but was able to get across his deep message about the spiritual values of wilderness mostly by writing about simple things: the sound of wings over a marsh, the smell of a bog, the memories stirred by a campfire, the movement of a canoe.
By the 1970s Sigurd was a beloved environmental figurehead whose name and image invoked strong feelings. Often photographed with a pipe in his hand and a warm, reflective expression on his weathered face, he was not just a hero but an icon. His books were read on public radio, his portrait was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, he received the John Burrough’s award for nature writing, and earned the highest honors of four of the major national environmental groups for his leadership role in preserving wilderness across the United States and Canada. He died of a heart attack on January 13, 1982, while snowshoeing near his home.
Photo: Sigurd Olson in 1978. Courtesy of the Olson family.
This post belongs to the gold section of the singing wilderness spiritual map. (Biographical posts emphasize knowledge / truth.)