A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson

A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson

by David Backes
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780816628438
Publisher:
University of Minnesota Press
Publication date:
08/15/1999
Pages:
408
Sales rank:
1,253,063
Product dimensions:
5.88(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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