The Meaning of Wilderness

The Meaning of Wilderness

by Sigurd F. Olson


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Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) was one of the greatest environmentalists of the twentieth century. A conservation activist and popular writer, Olson introduced a generation of readers to the importance of wilderness. He served as president of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association and as a consultant to the federal government on wilderness preservation and ecological problems. He earned many honors, including the highest possible from the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and Izaak Walton League.

Olson is perhaps best known, though, for his many books that express the wonder, awe, and peace he found in the wilderness, including the nature classics The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, and Reflections from the North Country. While these books have greatly influenced subsequent environmentalist movements and writers such as Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, a major portion of Olson’s wilderness writing-much of it originating as speeches-has been relatively inaccessible, scattered in a number of magazines and obscure books over a period of more than fifty years, or never published at all.

The Meaning of Wilderness gathers together the most important of Sigurd Olson’s articles and speeches, making them available for the first time. The book also contains an introduction and chapter-by-chapter commentary by Olson’s authorized biographer, David Backes, that help the reader discover the various facets of Olson’s wilderness philosophy and their development over time. A lively look at the evolution of one of environmentalism’s greatest figures, The Meaning of Wilderness will be essential reading for Olson fans, historians, and outdoors people around the country.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780816637096
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: 08/01/2015
Series: Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 466,251
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

David Backes is the author of A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson (Minnesota, 1997), winner of the 1998 Small Press Book Award for biography. Backes is also the author of Canoe Country: An Embattled Wilderness (1991) and The Wilderness Companion (1992).

David Backes is the author of A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson (Minnesota, 1997), winner of the 1998 Small Press Book Award for biography.

Read an Excerpt

The Meaning of Wilderness

Essential Articles and Speeches

By Sigurd F. Olson, David Backes

University of Minnesota Press

Copyright © 1973 Estate of Sigurd F. Olson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8166-3709-6


Reflections of a Guide

In the summer of 1923, just a few months after Sigurd Olson and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Ely, Minnesota, Sigurd found a seasonal job as a guide for Wilderness Outfitters. A biology teacher at Ely's high school, he had been on the payroll only since February, and he needed an income to get through the summer and to save some money in preparation for the baby he and Elizabeth were expecting in September.

Sigurd's experiences during the 1920s as a guide in the Quetico-Superior canoe country of northern Minnesota and Ontario were essential to the development of his wilderness philosophy. Paddling more than a thousand miles every summer, he grew intimately familiar with several million acres of rugged and hauntingly beautiful wilderness. It was as a guide that he began to experience and then to seek the emotionally and spiritually powerful moments of communion that he would later describe as "flashes of insight." But Sigurd's work as a guide added another dimension to his deeply personal encounters with the wild: he got to observe the other guides, and witnessed time and again the reactions of his customers from cities throughout the Midwest. He came to believe that all people want contact with the wild, and that in the wilderness all but the most hardened eventually shed the false personas of their everyday lives and expose their true selves. As Sigurd developed his voice as a writer and wilderness philosopher, he labeled this instinctive reaction to nature "racial memory." (The concept is described in detail in the introduction.)

He did not use that term in "Reflections of a Guide," but this article — his third published magazine article and second in Field and Stream — was his first to apply the basic concept and to examine at some length the natural reactions of people when they spend time in the wild. His conclusions are not entirely romantic. To the twenty-nine-year-old teacher, guide, and budding writer, it is not only the silence, solitude, and beauty of wilderness that lifts the spirits of the average traveler, but also the often grueling work of paddling and portaging. Indeed, he indicates that the latter is a prerequisite for fully appreciating the former: it is after a long, physically demanding day, when wilderness travelers are fed and resting, that they most fully appreciate the beauty of the wild and are most open to experiencing a sense of connectedness to the natural world around them. And yet Sigurd is realistic enough in this article to say that the wilderness experience also depends on one's attitude: "A man's point of view determines whether or not waves are 'white-capped billows rolling in the sun' or just so much damned water to be paddled through."

One more observation: Sigurd clearly approves of wilderness travelers dressing and acting like the fur-trading voyageurs or other characters from the presettlement past. He does not come right out and say it yet, but later he will make the point that part of the wilderness experience is connecting with the human history of the area. This means that learning about that history is important, and perhaps a bit of role-playing, too, even if it is nothing more than singing a stanza or two of "En Roulant Ma Boule."

* * *

Guides have been classified, pawed over, and discussed so thoroughly that readers of modern fiction have cause to feel reasonably well acquainted with them. As a breed, they are blessed of men, for they live a life more appealing to them than any other occupation on the face of the earth.

The hermit-like existence they are commonly supposed to enjoy is largely imaginative. True, they do live alone for long periods; but then again, they meet and mingle for months at a time with a variety of people of every class and calling that would be the envy of any social aspirant. In the woods, the bars of social position are let down, and your poor lonesome guide becomes a brother to lawyers, professors, millionaires, and royalty. Fortunate is he who can count among his friends and acquaintances so diversified a list. No wonder, then, that by the time a guide has spent a lifetime living in the close association with people that camp life makes inevitable, he becomes a fair judge of human nature in the raw.

However, it has always been the viewpoint of the man being guided that has been aired. How the guide sees his party and their reactions to camp life is a subject sadly neglected.

In the cities, where discomforts and the ordinary physical struggle for existence have been reduced to the minimum, a man can cover up his normal feelings so well that even the most intimate of his friends know him not. Up in the brush, however, a hundred times a day a man has reason to open up and show what he is really like. Whatever he has been holding in leash will crop out then, be it good or bad.

The longer he lives away from civilization the more natural he becomes. Gone is the smooth veneer that makes him acceptable in society, and he is at last an individual with the God-given right to exercise his own free will. He realizes that civilization has cramped his spirit too long in its effort to mold and make him live his life like millions of other human machines, with no outlet for his pent-up nature.

His new-found personality is often a revelation to him, and he revels in his freedom. Life opens up in a thousand different ways, and every hour spent in the wilderness is packed to the brim with the joyous fulfillment of long dormant desires.

We all have a pronounced streak of the primitive set deep within us, an instinctive longing that compels us to leave the confines of civilization and bury ourselves periodically in the most inaccessible spots we can penetrate. Here we gulp huge lungfuls of sun-washed air, lie on our bellies and drink from rivers and lakes, work, sweat, curse, and sing with the sheer joy of being alive. And what makes guiding the sport of kings is just that. No two men react alike. There is always variety in human nature.

Tenderfoot or old-timer, it makes little difference, for both come into the wild for the same purpose. To the guide, both are adventures in friendship. From the man who has roughed it before he often learns secrets of the woods and waters that he has perhaps been blind to all of his life, and it is always a joy to initiate the tenderfoot into the countless mysteries of the out-of-doors. Both types are a pleasurable experience, and little does the average man know the value his guide places on his friendship.

The man who has lived long in the open is content to drink it in calmly and enjoy himself in the mellow light of life-long experience and understanding. His is the serene enjoyment of the man who has weighed his values and retained only those worth while. He is through with experimenting and knows that in his kinship with the wild he is deriving all those things that to him make living complete.

On the other hand, the man who is new cannot get his fill of violent gratification. The long hours of bending to the paddle, oftentimes in the teeth of a gale, and the heart-wrenching work on swampy portages and steep rocky trails are more than compensated for by the feeling that for once he is really alive and living as a man should live. To him there is no joy quite so complete, or content quite so blissful, as that which comes at the end of a killing portage, when he can flop down to rest, half dead of exhaustion.

He feels then, more than at any other time, that the void created by too much city life is gradually being filled up. Worry is a thing of the past, and all that matters is the glorious present. At night, after a long day of cruising through lakes, running rapids, and making portages, his bodily wants satisfied, with nothing ahead but rest and peace under the stars, the full realization comes to him, and then he understands why men go into the wilderness.

Whether he is a woodsman or not, the average man likes at least to act like one and give to his guide and the members of his party that "been there feeling." When the last outposts of civilization have faded away, your city man begins to shed his air of reserve and adopts instead the sangfroid of the Canadian voyageur. He sings songs he hasn't sung since boyhood and college days, tells stories and laughs uproariously at his own jokes, smokes and curses to his heart's content, and feels like the toughest sourdough in the north.

When the waves are rolling high, he grits his teeth and plows into them fearlessly. What does it matter if water is being shipped and the waves are piling high? Today he's an adventurer in the land of romance, ready to die with his boots on.

At the portages he singles out the heaviest packs, buckles down like a Hudson Bay packer, and delights in showing up his guide. No matter if he is half dead at the end, he can glory in his strength and bay his prowess at the moon. A guide can't help but have a warm spot in his heart for men of that caliber, and he can't help but feel that most men are brothers under their skins when once they come down to earth.

The same spirit that makes a man want to act like a woodsman when he is up in the big sticks makes him also want to look like one. If he is imaginative at all, the more he looks like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett the more he enjoys himself. I don't mean that men go to any extremes in the matter of dress, but most of them affect some article or other that for some reason appeals strongly to them.

When a man is trying to live another life entirely, he naturally wants to appear as romantic as his conscience will let him. It may be an old checkered shirt or battered hat. Whatever it is, it is usually something in which he thinks he looks or feels particularly well. If it has once become part and parcel of his outdoors life, he will wear it till it falls apart, rather than get a more serviceable garment.

I have an old army hat that I should have thrown away years ago. It is as full of holes and as disreputable as any old hat can be that has knocked around the woods for over a decade. Yet if I sally forth without it, there is a feeling of loss and incompleteness. I will probably have to wear it another ten years before I have the heart to discard it.

Of all the examples of masculine vanity, an old red shirt worn by my friend Donald Hough occupies the most prominent place in my memory. Years ago, when Don was still cruising for the Forest Service, the old red homespun was a familiar landmark in the border country. It was even then long past its prime.

Several years after, on a trip we took together, the old relic was still very much in evidence, though sadly faded and patched together. At the end of this cruise, I thought it was high time, if Don was to preserve his self-esteem, that some one take the matter in hand. Knowing it would be a delicate proceeding at best, I postponed it till the time came to say goodbye.

I felt that, as a result of my interference in a matter as vital to any man as doing away with an old shirt, our friendship might hang in the balance. Nevertheless I solemnly pleaded with him to put it quietly out of the way and give it a decent interment. He promised faithfully to do what he could, and I left him, assured that I had gazed on the old red homespun for the very last time.

A year later, when in from a trip, what should I see but a familiar splotch of red come wandering down the street. Sure as life, it was Don Hough setting out on a snow-shoe trip through the Superior National Forest. He saw me at about the same time I saw him and approached warily. At about ten paces we both stopped. The moment was tense.

"Don," I said slowly, "can you explain why that thing is up here again?"

For a moment he said nothing, but our eyes met, and in that instant the great realization came to me — "It was the love that passeth all understanding." I promised Don then that as far as I was concerned, he could wear it until it rotted on his back. So the chances are that it is still doing valiant service and will for many a year to come.

Though the men who come into the Canadian border country react as a rule much the same to camp life, nevertheless they vary so widely that a rough classification would not be amiss. The guides group them usually as fishermen, long-distance record-breakers, and true woodsmen. Of course, all three are fishermen, but when I classified one type as purely fishermen, I had in mind those who come up for the fishing alone.

This type is perhaps the hardest problem for the guide. When the fish are not striking, the cruise is a failure; and when they are, it soon becomes monotonous. After about three days of wonderful fishing, the excitement of pulling out more fish than the camp has any use for palls, and discontentment prevails. In vain are the beauties of the scenery extolled, but nothing can satisfy. The fishing for fishing's sake alone soon becomes mechanical; and no matter how ideal other conditions may be, the fisherman leaves dissatisfied.

The long-distance record-breaker is the busiest man of the season. To him the cruise means a wonderful chance for a work-out and nothing else. Going from dawn till dusk, he stops for nothing. He fishes for meat, not for sport, and travels through beautiful lakes at breakneck speed.

I well remember a doctor from Missouri, a record-breaker of the first degree. We had been out two weeks and had covered a stretch of country in that time that usually took a month of steady traveling. Our route one day led within a mile of Curtain Falls, one of the most wonderful spots in the border country. Parties traveled great distances to reach it and often camped near for days to take pictures and satisfy their craving for natural beauty. From where we were we could hear distinctly the roar of falling water. It was growing dark; and as we had cruised since dawn, I suggested that we go the half mile out of our way, view the falls, and perhaps camp there.

Not stopping to take his paddle out of the water, the doctor answered hurriedly: "Don't think we'd better. Got to keep on paddling if we're going to make our thirty miles."

I knew there was no decent camp site within ten miles or so, but said nothing and dug in my paddle. It grew steadily darker, but instead of looking for a landing I kept right on as though we had all the time in the world. About 8:30 the doctor turned around and asked wonderingly, "Well, aren't we going to pitch camp and eat pretty soon?"

Without missing a stroke I answered: "I'm not hungry yet. Let's make her thirty-five before we quit."

He said nothing, but kept on paddling. We finally did land about 10:30P.M., made a miserable camp in the dark, and ate a cold cheerless supper of cheese and hardtack. At the end of three weeks we had made a wonderful record of distance covered, but we had missed all of the beauty and restful peace that can only come when one takes time to let the wilderness soak in.

The man who gets the utmost in enjoyment out of his cruise is never in a hurry or too busy. He never has a goal he must reach at a certain time. Beauty he sees in everything and knows that to do anything merely for its own sake is a waste of time. He never keeps on fishing until he is tired of it and never keeps more than he can use. If the fish are not biting, he takes the fact for granted, does not blame the guide or the country, and proceeds to enjoy himself in other ways.

He swears by the seven gods that the scenery is the most wonderful he has ever seen. Though the guide is not responsible, as a good many seem to think, he nevertheless feels an inborn pride in the country and a sense of ownership that makes him extremely sensitive about it. A man who makes depreciatory remarks and comes with the attitude of "Is this all there is to see?" will never get next to the inner workings of his guide and never learn the countless secrets of wild life and wilderness legend that are woven in with the character of every country.

Contrary to popular opinion, scenery hunting is perhaps the most fickle of enjoyments. To the man steeped in wilderness life, it is always enjoyable; but to those whose sensibilities and values are still governed by their physical natures, it is a variable entity. Plainly speaking, in order to be appreciated, scenery must be viewed against a background of physical comfort and mental relaxation.

Under ideal conditions, I have seen tourists entranced at the beauty of a heavily timbered rock point jutting out into a wilderness lake. Again, I have seen them curse roundly at the same point and at the waves breaking over it. A man's point of view determines whether or not waves are "white-capped billows rolling in the sun" or just so much damned water to be paddled through.

The most beautiful scenery is always seen after a meal. Then, more than at any other time, is a man at peace with the world and most receptive to all its wonders. This truth was brought strikingly home to me on a trip taken two years ago. It was late afternoon and we were up against it for a camp site. We had bucked the wind since morning on Big Saganaga, hoping to camp that night in Seagull Lake.


Excerpted from The Meaning of Wilderness by Sigurd F. Olson, David Backes. Copyright © 1973 Estate of Sigurd F. Olson. Excerpted by permission of University of Minnesota Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Chronology of Sigurd Olson’s Life

Introduction David Backes

Reflections of a Guide (1928)
Search for the Wild (1932)
The Romance of Portages (1936)
Let’s Go Exploring (1937)
Why Wilderness? (1938)
Flying In (1945)
We Need Wilderness (1946)
The Preservation of Wilderness (1948)
The Quetico-Superior Wilderness Laboratory (1951)
Those Intangible Things (1954)
Our Need of Breathing Space (1958)
Beauty Belongs to All (1959)
The Spiritual Aspects of Wilderness (1961)
The Wilderness Concept (1962)
The Spiritual Need (1966)
Remarks to National Park Service Master Plan Team Members (mid-1960s)
What Is Wilderness? (1968)
A Longing for Wilderness (1973)
Writings by Sigurd F. Olson


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