SIGURD F. OLSON
by DAVID BACKES, biographer
Sigurd F. Olson was one of America’s most beloved nature writers and most influential conservationists of the 20th century. Best known as the author of “The Singing Wilderness” and eight other books, Olson also played an important role in the preservation of a number of national parks, seashores, and wilderness areas.
As an author and speaker, Olson was unsurpassed in capturing the sense of awe and wonder and connectedness that close contact with nature can bring to people. Beyond that, his ideas about the meaning of wilderness had a power and uniqueness that are not only relevant in the twenty-first century, but needed. The biological underpinning to his philosophy comes from a theory he developed and called “racial memory”–the idea that humans have a biological attachment to nature that arises from our long evolutionary heritage. This theory, which has ties to the romantics and primitivists and to the “collective unconscious” described by psychologist Carl Jung, did not receive much scholarly attention or support during his lifetime, but in recent years it has become the cornerstone of the emerging scholarly discipline of evolutionary psychology.
Olson incorporated the theory of racial memory with a spiritual perspective steeped in evolutionary humanism–the idea (promoted by Aldous and Julian Huxley, Lewis Mumford, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, among others) that evolution is proceeding along a spiritual path toward union with God. Olson agreed with the basic arguments of Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and other leading wilderness activists of his generation, but his “land aesthetic” (what makes a place beautiful and gives it meaning) went farther than that of Leopold’s by incorporating humans as part of, not separate from, the land, and this perspective informed his unique wilderness philosophy that ultimately became a theology. To Olson, because visitors to a wilderness area experience a high degree of silence and solitude amid noncivilized surroundings, they can easily reconnect to their evolutionary heritage as humans, and by sensing the grandeur of the eternal mystery of creation and their own participation in this mystery–their own connectedness to all things–they will come to sense the sacredness of all creation. If, as Olson believed, evolution is proceeding toward union with God, and if, as he also believed, individual spiritual growth plays an essential role in this evolutionary process, then a wilderness experience can be considered a sacramental experience, of benefit not just to the individual or to humanity at large but to all of creation.
Olson was a tremendously inspiring writer and speaker, and yet he also played a vital role as a wilderness activist. From 1948 until his death in 1982, he was the wilderness ecologist for the Izaak Walton League of America. In the 1950s he was vice president and then president of the National Parks Association, and built friendships and influence within the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, leading to a number of years of service as an advisor to the interior secretary and park service director. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Olson helped scout out, advocate and present plans for preserving a number of national park system lands, from Cape Cod in the East, to Padre Island in the South, Point Reyes in the West, and Voyageurs National Park in the North. He was a vital member of the Alaska Task Force team whose research and work in the 1960s ultimately bore fruition in the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, the largest single act of wilderness preservation in the history of the world. Olson also was influential in Canada, especially in his efforts to protect the Quetico-Superior wilderness of Ontario and Minnesota, and in his efforts to protect the portions of the Yukon adjoining preserved areas in arctic Alaska. Finally, from 1956 until the late 1970s, Olson was active in governing the Wilderness Society. As vice president and president of the organization from 1963-1971, he helped modernize the group’s approach in an age of public relations and litigation.
One measure of his importance and uniqueness is this: Sigurd Olson is the only person to have received the highest honors of four leading citizen organizations that focus on the nation’s public lands: the Izaak Walton League, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society. That accomplishment is even more extraordinary in light of the fact that he also received the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing. Of the dozens of winners of the medal since it was first awarded in 1926, only a handful have played major leadership roles in national conservation organizations; only two others (Aldo Leopold and Paul Brooks) had received even one of the major conservation group awards by the time I completed Olson’s biography in 1997.
At the same time, to focus too closely on the question of his originality or influence, as scholars tend to do, is to miss a key point. A theology or a philosophy is worthless if it cannot be expressed in a way that touches people’s hearts. Olson wanted to bring his message of wilderness salvation to people who would never think of reading Teilhard de Chardin or Lewis Mumford or even a more popular but still intellectual writer such as Loren Eiseley. In August 1960, for example, he said in a note to himself, “I must bridge the gap between Eiseley and my audience of common people, the non-intellectuals…who feel deeply but are groping for ideas.” And he found tremendous success. His collected papers at the Minnesota Historical Society are full of letters from men and women who said they had finally found someone who had put into words the feelings they had experienced in the outdoors, either in their backyards or in the wilderness. Olson’s special gift was his ability to express his deep message about the spiritual values of nature by writing about simple things–the sound of wings over a marsh, the smell of a bog, the memories stirred by a campfire, the movement of a canoe–in a way that captured the emotions they stirred. Sigurd Olson may not have become the Baptist missionary his father once hoped for, but a missionary he was, a wilderness evangelist with legions of followers. He was an apostle of awe, a witness for wonder, and an icon of the modern wilderness movement whose words will continue to stir hearts and souls for generations to come.
– March 2005
- For more extensive information about Sigurd Olson, an archive of unpublished writings, photographs, and much more, please visit David’s Sigurd F. Olson homepage. And please read his deeply engaging, multi-dimensional biography of Olson, A Wilderness Within, winner of the 1998 Small Press Book Award for best biography.
- Also check out his books Spirit of the North – The Quotable Sigurd Olson, and The Meaning of Wilderness – Essential Articles and Speeches.