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A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson

David Backes
Copyright Date: 1997
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    A Wilderness Within
    Book Description:

    Sigurd Olson (1899–1982) was acknowledged during his lifetime as a leader of the American environmental movement, an emblematic figure for a generation of activists. A Wilderness Within is the award-winning biography of this writer, teacher, and activist who was a harbinger of the raising of America’s ecological consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8759-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. [Map]
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. One Boyhood and Youth, 1899-1916
    (pp. 1-18)

    November can be a treacherous time on the Great Lakes. Storms flare with little warning, whipping the waves, capsizing ships. Ida May Olson surely knew this as she boarded the boat in Chicago that November morning in 1906. She had reason for concern: the last time she had sailed on a ship she had nearly died. She was just nine, then, an immigrant on a small, storm-tossed vessel. Her parents and brother were with the other passengers in the ship’s deckhold, which reeked of vomit. Ida May took a bucket to get some fresh water for the sick and climbed...

  6. Two College Years, 1916-1919
    (pp. 19-35)

    Soren Jensen Uhrenholdt was not one of the wealthiest farmers in Wisconsin in 1916, but he was one of the most respected. His potato and dairy farm along the Namekagon River some fifty miles southwest of Ashland was considered a model of progressive agriculture and forestry. The University of Wisconsin publicly honored him in 1916 for his inspiring example to other farmers, and the governor appointed him to represent the state at national farmers’ conventions. He advised 4-H clubs and university professors and was quoted in agricultural and forestry journals. All of this and more, including an award presented in...

  7. Three A Rolling Stone, 1920-1923
    (pp. 36-48)

    Sigurd completed his course work at the university without any sense of direction. A summer job in 1919 with the Wisconsin Geological Survey gave him a new interest, which he pursued by taking a yearlong introductory geology course, but his major field of animal husbandry had lost its luster. In a draft ofOpen Horizons, he would recall his agricultural courses as “a far cry from what the farm had really meant, its romance and beauty, the feeling of being a pioneer.”¹ Worse for him, however, was his loss of religious identity, because with it had gone his sense of...

  8. Four Northwoods Guide, 1923-1929
    (pp. 49-69)

    Ely had been carved out of the wilderness late in the 1880s after the discovery of a band of iron ore deposits that became known as the Vermilion Range. Built next to the Chandler Mine on the south side of Shagawa Lake and incorporated as a city in 1890, Ely grew rapidly during the next decade as four new mines opened and the logging industry moved in to clear the forest of white and red pine. Immigrants who worked shifts in the mines found themselves sleeping in shifts in crowded boardinghouses.¹

    For a long time it was a rough town....

  9. Five The Reluctant Ecologist, 1930-1932
    (pp. 70-90)

    Sigurd avidly read the books Alvin Cahn sent him, but he was not eager to start graduate school. “I would much rather dream and write . . . than pin myself down to the cut and dried realm of classification and analysis,” he wrote on January 12,1930. The admission did not come easily. “My conscience bothers me when I think of the work I might be doing along zoological lines,” he wrote after receiving another letter from Cahn that same month. “I fear that I will never be able to equal his scientific ardor.”

    Feeling guilty that he might be...

  10. Six A Need for Recognition, 1932-1935
    (pp. 91-109)

    In June 1932 the Olsons returned to northern Minnesota. The house they had rented on White Street had long since been rented to others, so they located temporary quarters in Winton, in an old cottage that had neither electricity nor running water. By fall they had found a square, two-story frame house for rent on one of Ely’s nicest streets. Broad and shaded by beautiful maples, Harvey Street ran west to east, parallel to the city’s main street two blocks to the north. Ely’s central school complex—grade school, high school, junior college—faced Harvey Street one block to the...

  11. Seven Storms of Life, 1934-1938
    (pp. 110-132)

    Aldo Leopold was a persistent man. Although he stopped trying to bring Olson to Madison as a doctoral student after December 1933, he continued to push Sigurd toward a job in the game management field. During the next two years he gave Olson’s name to government officials seeking to hire someone with Sigurd’s background, and he sent job announcements to Sigurd.

    And why not? Aldo Leopold also was a logical man, and it seemed logical to him that someone who had invested his time and meager life savings during the Depression to get a master’s degree in ecology would want...

  12. Eight The Hidden Life of a Dean, 1936-1940
    (pp. 133-157)

    Sigurd Olson was the kind of dean who is accessible to students, a welcome quality at any college but a critical one in a small school such as Ely Junior College, where the annual enrollment was around one hundred and fifty. And he prodded good students to see beyond the two-year degree. Before he became dean, perhaps three or four students finishing their second year at the junior college would go on to the state university or a liberal arts college to complete a bachelor’s degree; not long after he took over, the number continuing their education grew to fifty...

  13. Nine The War Years, 1940-1946
    (pp. 158-180)

    Sigurd Olson never was particularly interested in the goings-on of the world. He was not especially well read in history or economics or philosophy or any other branch of the humanities. He tended to vote for Republicans but was not a party loyalist like his friends on the Quetico-Superior Council. He wrote in his journal that when he read theReader’s Digesthe skipped the political articles and turned to the fiction and personal experience stories.

    Sigurd was driven by his passion for the outdoors, his obsession with writing, and his personal search for meaning, and rarely did his journal...

  14. Ten A Professional Conservationist, 1946-1949
    (pp. 181-207)

    Sigurd Olson may have written fondly about living in a small city “out of the flow” of high-pressured modern society, but he was referring only to the proper setting from which he could regularly launch himself into the major currents of American life. As much as his firsthand experience of war-torn Europe had increased his appreciation of the physical comforts of life in Ely, it had diminished neither his need nor his desire to achieve recognition beyond what any small town could provide. Quite the contrary. For nearly a year Olson had been treated as a man of rank and...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. Eleven Widening Horizons, 1950-1954
    (pp. 208-233)

    During the first few months of 1950, in the wake of the successful campaign to create an airspace reservation over the Superior Roadless Areas, Sigurd Olson received a number of tangible signs of his rising status in the national conservation movement. There were invitations to speak before the Sierra Club and the American Wildlife Institute, and requests to investigate the management of a primitive area in California and to testify at a Department of the Interior hearing in Washington, D.C. He also was inducted into the capital’s prestigious Cosmos Club, where he could share a drink or a meal with...

  17. Twelve The Singing Wilderness, 1950-1956
    (pp. 234-258)

    At first, Sigurd Olson’s professional conservation career dovetailed quite well with his desire to write. In 1948 and 1949 magazines published fifteen of his articles, more than in his last six years as dean of Ely Junior College. Nearly all of them were about the current battles over the Quetico-Superior and so were not in the essay style he most enjoyed, but he was able at times to slip in some of his feeling for wilderness, and the articles had given him new contacts and greater visibility as a writer.

    After December 1949, when President Truman signed the order creating...

  18. Thirteen The Search for Balance, 1956-1960
    (pp. 259-285)

    Sigurd Olson was president of the National Parks Association during three landmark events in conservation history. The first of them, the fight to save Dinosaur National Monument, came to a successful conclusion in April 1956, just asThe Singing Wildernesswas making it onto the shelves of the nation’s bookstores. By then the other two events were just beginning to take shape. One was a massive infusion of funds into the National Park Service under a program called Mission 66. The other was the introduction of legislation to create a national wilderness preservation system. Both campaigns were controversial. Between 1956...

  19. Fourteen From Contemplation to Action: Sigurd Olson’s Wilderness Theology, 1959-1964
    (pp. 286-313)

    Late in 1959, Sigurd Olson was ready to begin a new writing project. He had just completed a draft of a book about his 1955 Churchill River expedition with the Voyageurs (Knopf would publish it in 1961 asThe Lonely Land) and felt that, at the age of sixty, it was time for him to write a book that described the underpinnings of his philosophy. He planned to base the title on a line from the Finnish epic poemKalevala: “The frost squeaked out verses to me, and the rain chanted runes.” Writing to himself in an undated journal entry,...

  20. Fifteen The Making of a Myth, 1960-1982
    (pp. 314-342)

    Sigurd Olson once told a friend that despite his growing reputation as an author in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and despite his role in battles over the canoe country, many people in his hometown had little idea of how he spent his days. Sometimes a former student or another Ely acquaintance would come up to him at Zup’s grocery store or the First Presbyterian Church or somewhere else downtown and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, would ask, “By the way, Mr. Olson, what do you do with your time now that you’re retired from the junior college? You...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 343-376)
  22. Index
    (pp. 377-388)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 389-389)