On the northwestern side of the Great Lakes, at the border between the United States and Canada, there is a lake country called Quetico-Superior, known for its unsurpassed beauty and wilderness. This is the home of the influential environmentalist and writer Sigurd Olson (1899-1982). He served as President of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association, working also as a consultant to the government on wilderness preservation and ecological problems. At the same time, he earned popular acclaim for his books which brought him the highest achievement for the genre of nature writing, the John Burroughs Medal. Sigurd Olson merged his two passions so effortlessly that it is possible to view his lyricism as a form of—or a significant aspect of—his activism.
To my mind, Olson was able to write the story of the self in nature in the same way the greatest writers were able to write the story of the self in history. He relied on primitive methods of exploring the wilderness, gaining a spiritual and ethical perspective of his own place in the vastness of nature. The sense of reverence and the knowledge that one should not possess and subdue define his relationship with the wilderness and permeate his work. The following passage, about trying to get close to snow geese, from his memoir The Singing Wilderness, speaks to this:
Then they were directly above and I could see the outstretched necks with their white chin straps, the snowy undersides of the wings. …
They were much bigger than I had ever imagined. I could not only hear the beat of their wings and the rush of air through them, but could actually feel it. At that moment they seemed almost close enough to touch and I could see their eyes, the wary turning of their heads, their outstretched feet. …
As I look back, I could comfort the boy I was. I could tell him that one should never try to capture something as wild and beautiful as the calling of geese.
The Singing Wilderness celebrates the feelings of stability, peace, and joy nature brings to Olson’s life, and the ways in which unspoiled places create a closer relationship between him and other people. While he grieves the damage inflicted by industry, his writing maintains a tranquil tone. The memoir is structured symphonically, in four parts, corresponding to the seasons—each season a movement as Olson hears it and records it in short chapters. The book opens with the winds of March carrying the sounds of cracking ice as the earth begins to breathe deeply again, the “drumming” of the grouse, the frogs “tuning up in the little pond,” the hermit thrush with its “clear violin notes”; and ends with the timber wolf’s “long-drawn quavering howl from over the hills…wilderness music, something as free and untamed as there is on this earth.”
But before he sets out along the canyons, down the rivers, up the ridges, deep into forests, and across frozen lakes that mirror the Aurora Borealis, Olson tells us about his childhood encounter with the wilderness on the shores of Lake Michigan. This was an encounter that was to mark his life from the age of seven, till his death, while snowshoeing, late in life. He writes of that experience:
One day, all alone, I started out through woods I had never traversed. … I ran most of the long, winding trail, and when I burst at last out of the gloom I was frightened and breathless. Before me were space and a sparkling blue horizon, with no land as far as I could see. …
A school of perch darted in and out of the rocks. They were green and gold and black, and I was fascinated by their beauty. Seagulls wheeled and cried above me. Waves crashed against the pier. I was alone in a wild and lovely place, part at last of the wind and the water, part of the dark forest through which I had come, and of all the wild sounds and colors and feelings of the place I had found. That day I entered into a life of indescribable beauty and delight. There I believe I heard the singing wilderness for the first time.
I kept the pier a secret and stole away there as often as I could. It was the answer to all of my childish desires, a place of magic and wonder which belonged to me alone. My perceptions were uncluttered, my impressions were pure and uninfluenced, my feelings of closeness to nature and of sympathy with the creatures of the wild were true feelings. In them, I know now, was the ancient realization of oneness so hard to know or recognize as life becomes more involved.
The book takes us on a journey that sharpens the glimpsed “ancient realization of oneness” into clarity. The young boy who brings home to his grandmother a fresh-caught trout nestled on a bed of succulent leaves of cowslips at a breathless run, rehearses the memory as a man who tells us how to “winnow the morning air” and sense the scent “of pine and spruce and balsam when you can catch the wind blowing over a thousand miles of them.” There, away from it all, his “thoughts were long and undisturbed” as he drifted quietly in his canoe “along the shores, being a part of the rocks and the trees and every living thing.”
Olson evokes the purity and the restorative quality of time spent in the wilderness, watching “the smoky gold of the tamaracks,” and deciphering the “soft nasal twang” of the nuthatch or the calls of the loons. His approach to narrative is expressive and heuristic, rather than polemical. His employment of the visual, olfactive, and other sensory attributes of language help him to resuscitate the experience of being fully awake to all the life around. His writing sets every rustle in motion, every scent upon our senses, imprints every variation of color in our mind’s eye so that we discover for ourselves the profound joys of the natural world. The result is a restorative engagement with language. In reading, we perceive a profound gesture of tenderness and protective instinct toward nature, because Olson makes a gesture of tenderness in language.
The writing is intellectually moving. The experiences Olson revives for us serve to orient us as creatures of this earth: the green eyes of the wolves in the night only 50 feet away; the golden flash of the trout jumping up the river; the clam at the bottom of an ice hole that becomes mesmerizing while Olson and his friend wait for fish; the field mouse that slides again and again over the side of the tent for the simple purpose of playing; the heavy breath of the moose in a pool; the eighty years old beatific man fishing alone on his birthday; Olson’s son frolicking in the river; Olson’s wife praising his catch; and skating in the midst of the Northern lights that appear like Indians making wartime dances. There, in his words, we encounter him as a guide who knows the fulfillment of silence and how, in that silence, one can hear the mellifluous voice of wilderness, where the voice of the self comes alive spiritually.
Placing the reader in this poetic and ethical space is the first step toward direct action that affects the larger human community: a step toward activism. Activism formalizes the values that inspire and ultimately direct our will—and action—to preserve and protect. The values are gratitude, respect, and generosity. By opening new worlds, other spaces, and creating experiences for the reader—and, crucially, letting the reader explore those worlds for herself or for himself—the lyric writer has an opportunity to create a protected zone for significant communication. We are creatures of language.
I offer here a recent (unpublished) poem that speaks to the relationship between people and nature in uncertain times, and perhaps to the sense of sustenance that nature offers even in places where there is so little of it:
Morning in the garden
Today’s sky glows in the distance
like a child waking up from restful sleep,
the snow on tree crowns has a rosy hue.
Now the sun is changing ink as I walk
from room to room, looking
through curtains; the bright light
of day turns the shoveled road to silver,
making mountains out of mounds.
Overnight, the snow on the cherry tree
grew into round petals, opaline almost.
A cardinal, blood red, royal,
sings at the very top of the pitch pine,
the melody unfurls in the pure air,
reaches to the roofs of houses
warm under the snow, down
to the opened window, where I stand
to receive his ancient, thrilling language
that sounds me through and through.
The cardinal’s song is now a river,
the ice film on the maple trees glistens.
This winter the snow in the garden
rises like soft bread dough.
Out there in the city a cellist plays
her instrument in a shop window,
a violinist tunes her violin in another;
ambulances wail, life seeps out past
canisters of air, adrenaline injected in the heart,
the intravenous needles meant to rescue
that one final breath. How does the world go on,
how will it live past this gruesome year
of death that stamped its syllable on us,
who receive the music through thick glass?
8 February 2021, written on the one-year anniversary of the first deaths from Covid.
All quotations in this blog post come from Olson’s The Singing Wilderness, illustrated by Francis Lee Jaques (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997/ first ed. Knopf, 1956).