Writers series: Today begins an occasional series of stories, profiling celebrated -- and sometimes not so well-known -- nature writers with Minnesota connections.
Famed author and wilderness advocate Sigurd Olson put a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter at his home in Ely, Minn., and tapped out a thought.
Written in three lines, centered, like a poem, were these words:
A New Adventure is coming up
And I’m sure it will be
A good one.
One of his sons discovered those final typewritten words the day after the 82-year-old Olson was found alone, face down, in his snowshoes, near a small creek by his home in Ely. His died later that day, Jan. 13, 1982, after a lifetime of activism for and descriptions of wild places that led him to become the most well-known and influential in Minnesota’s rich heritage of nature writers.
Did he know what was to come? Olson’s biographer, David Backes, said that both of Olson’s sons saw those last words as in character, “just in case.”
“But, while I doubt he had a strong premonition, I know he had a strong sense of intuition and acted upon it,” Backes said.
His last words ended a career marked by a lifelong search for meaning. A constant theme in his nine books and numerous speeches and articles was that an answer may be found through connecting with nature.
“Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium,” he wrote in 1946.
Olson himself was filled with doubts about his writing. For years, his ambition was to leave his job as a teacher and administrator at Ely Junior College and be a full-time nature writer. Spirituality was a major influence in his journey, represented by his pinning an inspirational verse on a Duluth Pack to be pondered while paddling.
But Olson was more than a nature writer; as a political organizer and charismatic influence in the wilderness world he had few peers. He was president of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association. His role in establishing Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where he co-owned an outfitting business, is well-known. Outside of Minnesota, he was credited with helping create Point Reyes National Seashore in California and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
These efforts were not without controversy. In northern Minnesota, feelings, then as now, ran high about the proper use of the land. In the successful late 1970s campaign to give further protection to canoe country as a federally protected wilderness, Olson was by then frail and not up to taking a major part. But he offered counsel to the pro-wilderness activists, and his testimony was disrupted by protesters who hung him in effigy from the back of a pickup truck during congressional field hearings in 1977 in Ely.
Decades after his passing, Olson still inspires. An elementary school in the Twin Cities, a foundation based in Ely, an institute at Northland College in Wisconsin and scores of writers to whom he offered encouragement carry on his legacy. Among those writers was Annie Dillard, who wrote to Olson for advice on parts of a manuscript that would become the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
“It is an undreamed-of pleasure for me that you (Sigurd Olson!) should have taken the time to read a chapter of my first book of prose, let alone that you should write me personally about it,” Dillard replied.
Sales of his books continue at a steady pace, with his first, “The Singing Wilderness,” the most popular. In late May 1956, nine years after leaving a steady job, Olson’s first book entered the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 16th place, alongside such works as “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale and “Profiles in Courage” by John F. Kennedy. Olson had worked on some of the essays for more than 20 years.
Mark Neuzil is chair of the journalism program at the University of St. Thomas and the co-author of “Canoes: A Natural History in North America.”