Reading Sigurd F. Olson

December 13, 2012

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager

I enjoy reading, but don’t consider myself a voracious reader.  Recently I have been reading works of Sigurd F. Olson.  Olson was a prolific environmental writer and 20th Century conservation icon .  He lived in Northern Minnesota near what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  Amongst canoe travelers, Olson is referenced as a must read, and often quoted.  While I realized he was very instrumental in the conservation movement, I had never read any of his works.  With the winter solstice approaching, I figured it was time to find one of his books and curl up in the chair by the woodstove.

I started with one of Olson’s earlier books:  The Singing Wilderness.  What a great read.  His writing really captures the sights, sounds, smells and inner reflections of spending time in the back country.  For me it reinforced my avocation (and recreation).  The Singing Wilderness is a series of reminiscences and essays that guide the reader through the seasons, and in the process brings the North Country to life.  Olson takes the reader along as he canoes through the vast waterways of Minnesota and Canada.  His descriptions of the plants and smells will trigger instant recognition if you have spent any time in the north.  He takes us along on a night time cross country skiing jaunt outside of Ely, Minnesota.  I could hear the swishing of the skis and felt my lungs burn in the cold air.  We stand beside him as he watches squirrels hiding nuts, and ermine hunting for food.  Olsen covers all of these things in a well written, easy reading style.

Before finishing The Singing Wilderness I had already procured a copy of Reflections From the North Country, which I am presently reading.  This is one of his later works and a collection of essays about protecting wilderness for the health and preservation of our own species.  Olson was one of the early writers that reasoned that wilderness is so ingrained in our DNA, that if we eliminate wild places, we could ultimately eliminate ourselves.  I could have said that these were “thought provoking essays”, but really they are just “common sense”.  Unfortunately for some reason, this nation’s leaders are not endowed with common sense.  As we helplessly watch the erosion of the environmental enlightenment of the last century, we should all sit down with an Olson book this winter.  And pray for another inspirational voice to step forward and help lead this century’s environmental renaissance – sooner better than later.