A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson


Olson is best known for his many essays that express the wonder, awe, and peace he found in the wilderness. Olson's popular books, including The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, and Reflections from the North Country, are beloved by generations of readers, and frequently appeared on best-seller lists across the nation. The lyricism and evocative beauty of his prose became a model for nature writers like Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard. Olson was a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in ...
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Olson is best known for his many essays that express the wonder, awe, and peace he found in the wilderness. Olson's popular books, including The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, and Reflections from the North Country, are beloved by generations of readers, and frequently appeared on best-seller lists across the nation. The lyricism and evocative beauty of his prose became a model for nature writers like Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard. Olson was a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing. A Wilderness Within looks beyond the environmental battles and books to reveal the inner forces that drove Sigurd Olson. Backes details Olson's painful path to becoming a writer, and the physical and emotional toll that his activism and writing took from him. For this biography, Backes conducted interviews with Olson's family and had complete access to Olson's papers, diaries, correspondence, and photographs.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Olson (1899-1982) was more than simply a nature writer, he was an activist who became president of the Wilderness Society and of the National Parks Association and helped lead the fight to preserve Dinosaur National Monument, the Florida Everglades, Voyageurs National Park and many other prized territories. This first biography is notable particularly for the illumination Backes (Canoe Country) brings to Olson's early influences. Reared by an exuberant Baptist preacher, Olson favored saving wild places to saving souls, but his sermonizing borrowed the absolutes of his fire-and-brimstone father. In 1956, when his first book, The Singing Wilderness became a New York Times bestseller, Olson gave up his careers in teaching and geology, opting instead to spread the word of Thoreau, John Burroughs and W.H. Hudson. In his new guise as a professional conservationist, he was inspired by or inspired the likes of Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and his good friend, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Olson believed that sin consisted of an underlying separation from God or nature, and was greatly influenced by Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the noosphere, an evolutionary "thought spectrum" surrounding the earth. Olson, who died outdoors while snowshoeing, had left in his typewriter the first words of a new book: "A new adventure is coming up and I'm sure it will be a good one." This smoothly written, congenial biography will engage readers through its compelling parallel narrative of a man's unfolding commitment to his own enlightenment and to the public good. (Sept.) FYI: To coincide with A Wilderness Within, Minnesota is publishing paperback editions of Olson's The Singing Wilderness ($14.95 ISBN 0-8166-2992-7) and Listening Point ($14.95 -2996-X)
Library Journal
Sigurd Olson, winner of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest award for nature writing, enjoyed continued success as an author after the publication in 1956 of his first book of nature essays, The Singing Wilderness. But his dream of recognition was realized only after years of frustration and an agonizing search for meaning. In this first and only biography of the icon of the 1960s and 1970s conservation movement, Backes (Canoe Country, Northwood, 1991. pap.) provides a surprising portrait of a man whose early conventional life, first as a teacher and dean of Ely Junior College, followed much later by a highly successful public life, belied his inner struggles. The abundance of anecdotes and quotes gleaned from Olson's letters and journals, as well as family interviews, make this a fascinating and highly readable book. Essential for any collection with works by Olson and recommended for general collections as well.Maureen Delaney-Lehman, Lake Superior State Univ. Lib., Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
Kirkus Reviews
Backes (Canoe Country: An Embattled Wilderness, not reviewed) knits together a yeomanly portrait of Olson, a force in the mid-20th-century environmental movement, but someone today's readers may find a bit of a dinosaur.

Olson will best be remembered for authoring such conservationist hymnals as The Singing Wilderness and Reflections from the North Country, where he vented his land aesthetics and spiritual beliefs. His ego was such that, after reading Thoreau, he felt "no one has as yet developed a philosophy of the wilderness. That is up to me." And it is to the credit of Backes—an unabashed Olson fan who treats his papers and diaries as if they were sacred relics—that he includes such nuggets. The son of a strong-willed Swedish Baptist minister, Olson evolved a kind of wilderness theology—a love of all life in God's cosmic adventure—that found "ritualistic significance" in the uncivilized world. These days, Olson's writing feels by turns overly manly ("My work must be strong and hard and masculine") and overly sentimental; readers may well agree with the Houghton Mifflin editor who rejected Olson's first collection: "Essays . . . have to be superbly written to have a chance, and Sig Olson's prose is not on that level." Thus Backes wisely devotes significant space to Olson's championing such then-crazy notions as roadless areas and air reservations (patches over which no flights are allowed) and to making sense of a man who bridled at the thought of being behind a desk, who would rather have been in a canoe, yet accepted numerous administrative posts, from college dean to president of the Wilderness Society, with many a bureaucratic stop between, hating them all the while.

Impeccably researched, near-claustrophobically detailed, evenhanded—Backes's volume gives a sense of the Olson behind the legend.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816628438
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 8/15/1999
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 1,479,855
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface ix
1. Boyhood and Youth, 1899-1916 1
2. College Years, 1916-1919 19
3. A Rolling Stone, 1920-1923 36
4. Northwoods Guide, 1923-1929 49
5. The Reluctant Ecologist, 1930-1932 70
6. A Need for Recognition, 1932-1935 91
7. Storms of Life, 1934-1938 110
8. The Hidden Life of a Dean, 1936-1940 133
9. The War Years, 1940-1946 158
10. A Professional Conservationist, 1946-1949 181
11. Widening Horizons, 1950-1954 208
12. The Singing Wilderness, 1950-1956 234
13. The Search for Balance, 1956-1960 259
14. From Contemplation to Action: Sigurd Olson's Wilderness Theology, 1959-1964 286
15. The Making of a Myth, 1960-1982 314
Notes 343
Index 377
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2001

    An Honest Look at an Icon

    Much more than a biography of one of America's most beloved nature writers and conservationists, 'A Wilderness Within' details Olson's struggles with balancing a desire to write with the realities of life. As a first time novelist ('The Legacy', Savage Press, October 2000) and essayist for the Hermantown Star who, like Sigurd, became a published author later in life (Olson was 57 when his first book came out), I found the depiction of Olson's battle to place pen to page an uplifting vindication of the human spirit. The book drags a bit when it recounts Mr. Olson's involvement in various conservation groups from the 1930's to his death in 1982. However, on balance, the book serves as an excellent portrait of the writer, and the man, who helped preserve American wilderness for future generations.

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