Nature as Oracle: Sigurd Olson’s Never-Ending Search for Spirituality in Wilderness
By Charles Dayton
Sigurd Olson: the very name conjures up visions-the North Woods, the deafening silence of the deep winter, campfire light flickering on a leathery face, the long low wail of the loon at sunset, a lone canoe slipping silently through the mist. His lyrical word pictures of the beauty of the North Country expressed the feelings of those fortunate enough to have been there and made it live for others who had not. But Sigurd Olson went far beyond nature’s beauty, in order to seek its meaning for the human spirit, and therein lies
his greatness. Sig’s experiences as a guide, a naturalist and a teacher had filled him with a great love that demanded release and expression. He described the process this way: “As time went on there was a certain fullness within me, more than mere pleasure or memory, a sort of welling up of powerful emotions that somehow must be used and directed. And so began a groping for a way of satisfying the urge to do something with what I had felt and seen, (something) that would give life and substance to thoughts and memories, a way of recapturing, and sharing again the experiences that were mine.” He had a peak experience while viewing a simple and beautiful scene: “The little raft of ducks floating out in the open were caught that very instant in a single ray of light, and as the somber brown hills were brushed with it, the glow was around and within me. “Then the sun dropped behind a cloud and the hills were dark as before, the ducks black spots against the water. But for a time, I saw them as they were in the glow, and knew nothing could ever be the same again.” In that flash of insight he knew: he must write. “Suddenly the whole purpose of my roaming was clear to me, the miles of paddling and portaging, the years of listening, watching, and studying. I would capture it all, campsites and vistas down wild waterways, the crashing waves of storms and the roar of rapids, sparkling mornings to the calling of the loons sunsets and evenings, whitethroats and thrushes making music.Nights when the milky way was close enough to touch I would remember laughter and the good feeling after a long portage, and friendships on the trail.” But, the editors of Sig’s earliest stories wanted only simple descriptions of adventure in the woods, and they slashed away “bits of philosophy or personal conviction.” Finally, the editors accepted an article with a philosophical tone, and encouraged him in his belief that the sense of awe and mystery that he felt for the wild, his belief that humans could sense the meaning of life from the timeless cycles of nature, should be expressed. In that article entitled “Search for the Wild,” Sig took issue with John Burroughs, a nature essayist. Burroughs had written that Thoreau viewed nature as an oracle questioning her as a naturalist and poet. While Sig agreed with Burroughs’ characterization, he disagreed strongly with Burroughs conclusion that Thoreau did not find what he was looking for. Convinced that the “lifetime search of Thoreau had been fruitful and what he sought and found in the woods and fields around Concord, Walden Pond, and the Merrimack River was what we all seek when we go into the bush, . . . I tried to prove that the never ending search for the essence of the wild was the underlying motive of all trips and expeditions…. I had dared speak of my deepest convictions, and for once there were no deletions. Read more …
<<FYI, I did have a chance to share my photos this spring when I gave a talk to the “Listening Point Foundation” in Minnesota, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Here’s the link to my blog.