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The Meaning of Wilderness: Essential Articles and Speeches

Sigurd F. Olson
Edited and with an Introduction by David Backes
Copyright Date: 1973
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Meaning of Wilderness
    Book Description:

    Despite the enduring popularity of The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, Reflections from the North Country, and his other books, a major portion of Sigurd F. 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 Olson’s articles and speeches, making them available in one place 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9231-6
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Chronology of Sigurd Olson’s Life
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xix-2)
    David Backes

    Sigurd olson was not the first American to discuss the spiritual values of wilderness, nor was he the most scholarly. He simply was the most beloved wilderness advocate of his generation.

    Something in his bearing had a strong effect on people. It was a combination of gracefulness, poise, confidence, and an engaging voice. His wife, Elizabeth, recalled times when Sigurd entered a room and everyone rose as if on cue, heads straining to see him. And when he spoke, people hung on to his words.

    “Sig conveyed a religious fervor and a depth of conviction that no one else I...

  6. Reflections of a Guide (1928)
    (pp. 3-13)

    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...

  7. Search for the Wild (1932)
    (pp. 14-21)

    Those who go forth into wild, unsettled regions, if asked the reason for their travels will give a variety of answers. For some it will be fishing, others hunting and the securing of trophies, still others to photograph, explore, or conduct scientific investigations. Most men believe that they “go in” for some definite, concrete purpose. If they are made to admit the true motive behind their wilderness journeys they will, with few farflung exceptions, agree that it is something entirely different, a purpose for which the very evident ulterior motive is only an excuse.

    It is very true that when...

  8. The Romance of Portages (1936)
    (pp. 22-28)

    Portagein the original french means a carry between two lakes or rivers, a place of labor in the transportation of supplies and equipment, a break in the monotony of paddling, and perhaps a meeting ground for voyageurs. To all of those who have travelled the wilderness lake country of our own north, it means all of that and more: to those who know the story of the past, portages spell romance. In a country whose hinterlands are difficult of access, where the building of roads and highways borders on the verge of the impossible, rivers and lakes and the...

  9. Let’s Go Exploring (1937)
    (pp. 29-38)

    There is one thrill that never grows old—the thrill of seeing for the first time new land or water. If it happens to be water and you are a fisherman, then the thrill is doubly keen. By “new water,” I do not mean water that is new to you only, but new to everyone; a spot of blue that has never been on a fisherman’s map, something untried and untouched.

    Who has not dreamed of some day finding just that sort of paradise and of joining the ranks of the explorers that have gone before him? What is more...

  10. Why Wilderness? (1938)
    (pp. 39-47)

    In some men, the need of unbroken country, primitive conditions, and intimate contact with the earth is a deeply rooted cancer gnawing forever at the illusion of contentment with things as they are. For months or years this hidden longing may go unnoticed and then, without warning, flare forth in an all consuming passion that will not bear denial. Perhaps it is the passing of a flock of wild geese in the spring, perhaps the sound of running water, or the smell of thawing earth that brings the transformation. Whatever it is, the need is more than can be borne...

  11. Flying In (1945)
    (pp. 48-57)

    Roaring along at 3,000 feet, it seemed to me that until then I had traveled like a mole, burrowing through the timber and brush of portages, creeping slowly down the rivers and over wind-roughened lakes, my vision a mole’s vision limited by trees and rocks and rushes with never a vista of more than the water that bore my canoe. But now, for the first time, I saw it as a whole, the wilderness lake country I had explored in the past. From this height I saw the Superior National Forest as a hawk might see it, the blue and...

  12. We Need Wilderness (1946)
    (pp. 58-68)

    A fleet of rocky, pine-crested islands floats between us and the western horizon. It is dusk in the wilderness, a time of quiet and sunset-colored waters. The white tents are pale against the dark forest. Canoes are overturned on the shore, beds made, all equipment under cover, everything snug for the night. In the calm air the smoke from our dying supper fire rises straight into the sky. A loon calls and is answered from a lake over the hills. For a moment the timbered ridges echo and reecho with their wild notes.

    A week ago we had left the...

  13. The Preservation of Wilderness (1948)
    (pp. 69-78)

    Wilderness preservation is far more than the setting aside of recreational areas for the pleasure of the few or satisfying those in search of the esthetic or the unusual. Its preservation is directly concerned with the physical and spiritual welfare of our people, their economy, their education, and their scientific progress. Such areas in addition bestow upon us the unique privilege of evaluating the present in the light of the past. In the words of Harvey Broome:

    These are islands in time with nothing to date them in the calendar of mankind. In these areas it is as though a...

  14. The Quetico-Superior Wilderness Laboratory (1951)
    (pp. 79-83)

    The quetico-superior forest extends for almost 200 miles along the international border from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods. Once the route of the colorful and intrepid French voyageurs, fortunes in fur came down its beautiful waterways. Explorers traveled through it in their long search for the Northwest Passage. It has flown the flags of three nations and has been recorded in legend and history as one of the most unique and interesting regions of primitive lake country in the Middle West.

    Today thousands of modern voyageurs explore it, paddle down the lakes traversed by the adventurers of the...

  15. Those Intangible Things (1954)
    (pp. 84-91)

    To talk about those intangible things is difficult because they are hard to define, explain, or measure. You can measure soil and you can measure water and trees, but it is very difficult to measure intangible values.

    Before I begin to talk about intangible values, let us try to define, if we can, what they are. Intangible values are those which stir the emotions, that influence our happiness and contentment, values that make life worth living. They are all tied up with the idea of the good life. Sometimes I wonder if we actually know what the good life means....

  16. Our Need of Breathing Space (1958)
    (pp. 92-99)

    The urban sprawl is here to stay; it will continue and increase in the foreseeable future. Anyone who has flown over the United States during the past few years cannot help but be impressed with the evidence of this movement into the countryside. This growth is especially dramatic when flying at night, when cities and their radiating arteries of traffic look like skeins of Christmas tree lights, giant flowing tentacles reaching out into the dark, probing farther and farther into the surrounding land. There was a time not very long ago when you could leave the glow of metropolitan centers...

  17. Beauty Belongs to All (1959)
    (pp. 100-107)

    All day i had thought about the island campsite at the north end of Robinson Lake in the Quetico. We had come down the border from Basswood Lake, had portaged the brawling rapids of the river to Crooked Lake with its cliffs and Indian paintings and were now threading our way up the Robinson River. As we neared the outlet at the southwest end of the lake, the campsite was more than ever in my thoughts for it was a favorite of mine and one of the most charming in a country noted for its beautiful campsites, the landing a...

  18. The Spiritual Aspects of Wilderness (1961)
    (pp. 108-121)

    Henry david thoreau said many wise things, but perhaps the wisest and most prophetic was his well known “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” He said this over a century ago during our pioneer era when the continent was still uncrowded and largely undeveloped. Even then he could see what was going to happen.

    During the century since he made his far-reaching statement, we have opened up a Pandora’s box of treasures. We have discovered space-time, the atom, nuclear energy, and probed the vastnesses of space. Evolution is an accepted fact and we are swiftly unraveling the secrets...

  19. The Wilderness Concept (1962)
    (pp. 122-133)

    The concept of wilderness preservation is new to Americans. Recently emerged from a frontier period where the goal was to subdue and eliminate primeval country to make room for farms and communities, it is difficult to suddenly look at wilderness as something to be cherished. Now we have reached a stage of cultural maturity where for the first time in our history we can understand its intangible values and the part they play in our lives.

    The preservation of sample plots of unchanged nature, rocks and trees, lakes, rivers, and mountains, and all forms of life indigenous to them are...

  20. The Spiritual Need (1966)
    (pp. 134-144)

    I am happy to talk about the spiritual values of wilderness because I feel they are all important—the real reason for all the practical things we must do to save wilderness. In the last analysis it is the spiritual values we are really fighting to preserve.

    Not all look to the wilderness for spiritual sustenance. Some seem to get along very well without it, finding their values in different ways. Others must know wilderness at first hand, must experience it physically, as well as spiritually. There is a great diversity in wilderness appreciation and wilderness need, but I have...

  21. Remarks to National Park Service Master Plan Team Members (mid-1960s)
    (pp. 145-150)

    Chairman dan beard: Our next speaker, who really needs no introduction, is a writer, an educator, philosopher, explorer, outdoorsman, canoeist, voyager, conservationist, and special consultant to the Secretary of the Interior—our dear friend, Sig Olson.

    Sigurd olson: Thank you, Dan, for that rapid-fire résumé of impossible accomplishments. I won’t even try to live up to them.

    Sometime after the new Director [George Hartzog] came in, he and I had an early morning talk. We talked about the wilderness. I must have been rather inspired, because George said, “Can you put this into a caption, a brief statement that I...

  22. What Is Wilderness? (1968)
    (pp. 151-153)

    There is much misunderstanding as to what wilderness really is. Some think in terms of large areas, from five thousand acres to a million or more, the sort of terrain where one can get away from all evidence of civilization for a few hours or at best for days or weeks without seeing a soul. This is the traditional concept generally accepted by wilderness devotees and the public, and has given rise to the criticism that only two percent of the population, representing a select and privileged few, get to use it. The vast majority, the ninety-eight percent, say the...

  23. A Longing for Wilderness (1973)
    (pp. 154-174)

    I began guiding canoe parties through the waterways of the Quetico-Superior country along Minnesota’s border with Canada shortly after World War I. All roads ended near the little town of Ely, my home, with only an immensity of space and grandeur beyond: shimmering, island-dotted lakes reverberating to the calling of loons; rapids full of song; cliffs, forests, bogs. To me this could never change. It would always be wilderness.

    But suddenly people were talking of “a road to every lake,” and chambers of commerce were trumpeting the hope of developing “The Playground of a Nation.” I imagined the silence of...

  24. Writings by Sigurd F. Olson
    (pp. 175-182)
  25. Index
    (pp. 183-186)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 187-187)