A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olsonby David Backes
From opposing the building of roads in
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was acknowledged during his lifetime as a leader of the American environmental movement, an emblematic figure for an entire generation of activists. A Wilderness Within is the first biography of this writer, teacher, and activist who was a harbinger of the opening of America's ecological consciousness.
From opposing the building of roads in the wilderness to preserving America's most treasured wild rivers, Olson was involved in fierce battles over the environment throughout his life. tie testified before Congress, spoke at town meetings, and was once even hanged in effigy.
But Olson is best known for his many essays that express the wonder, awe, and peace he found in the wilderness. The lyricism and evocative beauty of his prose became a model for nature writers like Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard. Olson's popular books, including The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, and Reflections from the North Country, are beloved by generations of readers, with over 300,000 copies sold.
A Wilderness Within looks beyond the environmental battles and books to expose the inner forces that drove Sigurd Olson. He rejected his father's path as a minister and agonized over his own spiritual life, struggled with school and work. Backes details Olson's painful path to becoming a writer, and the physical and emotional tolls that his activism and writing took of him.
For this biography, Backes conducted interviews with Olson's family and had complete access to Olson's papers, diaries, correspondence, and photographs. This research is what makes A Wilderness Within the authoritative portrait of one of the greatest environmentalists of the twentieth century.
A stunning lookat a man with a vision for the natural world and a vision for himself, A Wilderness Within will be essential reading for Olson fans, historians, and outdoors people around the country.
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 Backesan unabashed Olson fan who treats his papers and diaries as if they were sacred relicsthat he includes such nuggets. The son of a strong-willed Swedish Baptist minister, Olson evolved a kind of wilderness theologya love of all life in God's cosmic adventurethat 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, evenhandedBackes's volume gives a sense of the Olson behind the legend.
- University of Minnesota Press
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