STEVENS POINT — Sometimes, relief from the incessant gabble of today’s world comes in old, worn packages.
If you go to the stacks in your local library, itself a place of respite, you will find some of the works of Sigurd Olson, one of a remarkably long line of nature writers with Wisconsin ties. Olson, who was pretty well-known in his day, has faded some from memory. After all, he has been dead for almost 40 years.
But the books he left us are still there for the taking, in many ways as fresh and vibrant, as poignant and poetic as ever. He extolled the intrinsic values of wilderness, and his essays explore the physical, mental and spiritual challenges and rewards that come to those who immerse themselves in nature.
The library here offered a little cache of Olson’s books, each of them touched by many before. On my desk today is a copy of Olson’s “The Singing Wilderness,” written in 1956. Its yellowed pages hold essays tied to the seasons and born of his wilderness observations. The simplicity of his words belies the great wisdom he shares. It almost seems as though Olson is here, softly reading beside a crackling fire.
Olson may have been most comfortable writing about the swish of a canoe paddle on a wilderness lake, but he didn’t shy from the fray over preserving our natural heritage. One can’t help but think about the Trump administration’s recent weakening of the Endangered Species Act when considering this Olson quote: “Love of the land is the basis of the unending struggle of those who really care against those who see only material rewards.”
A canoe is about as fancy as it got for Olson as he cut his way across wilderness lakes. There’s a gritty toughness to the man that belies the poetry of his words. He might have dwelled a bit on taking trout from cold streams and deep lakes, but mostly he wrote about simple rewards waiting for humans who take the time to explore wild places.
The important takeaway for all of us is we are still able to find some of the natural world in our midst. It’s safe to say we are all within an hour or less of natural areas, state and county parks and other places where nature still thrives. Our rich conservation legacy has withstood unprecedented assaults in recent years, which serves to underscore the vision and wisdom of those who came before us. Now, more than ever, we need nature to help us unplug.
Wisconsin’s list of nature writers includes names like Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Olson fits well in that company. He grew up in northern Wisconsin, was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and had close ties to Northland College in Ashland, home of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. He was a teacher, guide and adventurer, but his enduring legacy is those now-tattered books and the magic they contain.
One can imagine a whole new audience of young people relishing his words, if only they knew to pick up one of his books. How clearly quotes like this would ring: “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”