SIGURD F. OLSON

Forgetting the seriousness of living

At one point in his decades-long struggle to establish himself as a serious writer, Sigurd Olson considered abandoning the effort for painting. After all, he reasoned, his subject was beauty, which is expressible in any medium. But then he considered that he was already middle-aged and decided, in the end, as a practical matter, to stick to words.

He was nearing 60 when his first--and possibly best--book, The Singing Wilderness, was finally published in 1956. It was, as they say, discounting all the years of preparation, "an instant success," winning both critical acclaim and a wide audience, and the book has not been out of print in the 42 years since. (That, in modern literary terms, is an eternity.)

Olson's success is in many ways puzzling. Environmental books, despite our preoccupation with the subject, don't sell well; most of them don't get reviewed, and hardly any of them last a whole generation (the author died in 1982). Olson, moreover, is not a masterful stylist; even in the '50s, he had nothing strikingly new to say; and although it didn't count for much then--as it does now--his version of the wilderness experience is strictly male. So what explains the enduring appeal of his work?

Its allure rests in two things: that Olson's subject really was beauty (that is, he was a serious writer); and that through all of his work runs an admirable, if unstated, subtext--a refusal to whine.

Although David Backes, in his fine biography of Olson, The Wilderness Within, never goes so far as to make the claim himself, ample evidence suggests that Olson suffered for most of his life from clinical depression. He disliked his work as dean at the junior college in Ely, and was frustrated almost beyond endurance in his struggle to publish the work he considered important. In the later years of his life, after he had become a nationally important environmentalist serving as president of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association, Olson was despised by many in the town where he lived--to the point of being hanged in effigy. Olson had plenty of reasons to be depressed.

His salvation lay in the wild country just beyond his doorstep. In the quiet and solitude of the canoe country, he found the solace, the equanimity he desperately needed. When he sat down at his writing table, it was the capacity of wild places to lift the human spirit that he remembered. Not a single line in all of his published writing dwells upon his own misery. That malaise, of course, lurks between the lines, all the more eloquent because it remains unspoken. But Olson makes of it, by his silence, an affirmation rather than a complaint. He simply will not play the tiresome part of the victim. This is not avoidance but sublimation, which is the transcendentalism of all lasting art.

As for Olson's true subject while writing about the wilderness of Quetico-Superior in such collections as Listening Point, The Lonely Land, and Runes of the North--the important point is that what is off-putting about so much nature writing is the fatuous presumption that what one discovers in encounters with the wild is oneself. Olson doesn't fall into that trap. He values wilderness for the alternatives it offers, for its otherness, not for its solipsistic gratifications. In one memorable moment in The Singing Wilderness, Olson watches in the full moonlight while a deer mouse struggles up the wall of his tent, finally attaining the peak of the roof, from which it hurls itself down the sloping side in a long, playful slide. Olson notes that he has often watched animals cavorting in the light of the full moon, and then he writes:

I thought as I lay there in my bag that, if nothing else, moonlight made men and animals forget for a while the seriousness of living; that there were moments when life could be good and play the natural outlet for energy. I knew that if man could abandon himself as my deer mouse had done and slide down the face of the earth in the moonlight once a month--or once a year, perhaps--it would be good for his soul.

To slide down the face of the earth in the moonlight: No ambition could be less self-congratulatory or more felicitous. Olson holds out the promise of such ambition against the cheaper and meaner possibilities of our everyday lives; that he does so credibly is why his work endures.

 
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