Thursday, April 30, 2020
Posted by
Nicole Kari

Inspiration of Sigurd Olson

We are in a particularly tough moment in time. Our global community is facing new challenges, in more ways than one, during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all trying to manage financial pressures, adjust to our home environments and responsibilities, and are experiencing new normals. We continue to take care of and worry about our friends, families, and neighbors the best that we know how. Among these tribulations, we are looking for stability, familiarity and direction in order to survive. We don’t have many answers to our difficult questions and issues. We look for moments of respite in between the uncertainty.

To help soothe some pangs of cabin fever, I have been able to take in the writings of Sigurd Olson, an American author and environmentalist who lived near and loved the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I have a copy of his classic book, The Singing Wilderness, that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while. Reading these essays has transported me to the places I enjoy being in most: Minnesota’s natural world. I wholeheartedly know that walks in my local park are one of the main reasons I am mentally, emotionally and physically surviving. In this time spent outside, I can find a stable foundation, as I always have throughout my life. I am able to bear witness to the beautiful and grounding fact that nature is continuing on its course, despite our human challenges. It is there for us to take care of, quietly observe and take solace in. It has been calming to be able to both read about and see the changes that are occurring outside here in Minnesota--winter is giving way to spring, a refreshing time of regeneration, aliveness, and growth. These seasonal processes remind me that we are still connected through nature, and that we will adapt through our challenges, similar to the wildflowers that give rise after the snow melts.

I am looking forward to the day where I can again be in one of my favorite special places that always grounds me, as it did for Sigurd: The Boundary Waters. In the meantime, I can live vicariously through his words, and experience the changing of the seasons in my own backyard, and I can envision the same natural changes that are surely happening in the BWCA as well. I enjoyed his essays on Spring (and I must admit I dabbled in his Summer essays as well, as I am dreaming of the days of again safely paddling in Canoe Country with my family while wearing shorts). 

"…The grouse was drumming on its log and the frogs were tuning up in the little pond. The killdeer were quiet now and the blackbirds had gone to sleep, but I heard the song of the hermit thrush, the clear villain notes that in a little while would make every valley alive with music. Spring in the Northeastern was worth waiting for and dreaming about for half the year." -The Singing Wilderness, The Winds of March essay

"Of all the resinous odors in my experience, balsam seems to have the power of awakening the most vivid memories...I never walk through a stand of it without rubbing some of the needles in the palm of my hand so I can breathe in a concentrated dose. That heady smell brings memories of camps all over the wilderness lake country, of balsam beds on hundreds of little islands and rocky points." -The Singing Wilderness, Smell of the Morning essay

"I had seen the stars very close, had heard the song of the coyotes and listened for the first full breathing of the lake. I had made medicine with the chickadees and the whisky-jacks, had played a game of hide-and-seek with the ravens, had caught a trout and seen its ghostly flash in the blue-black depths of the lake. I had spent some days as leisurely as a bear coming out of its den, soaking up the warmth of spring." -The Singing Wilderness, No Place Between essay

"That night it was still, and in the moonlight the loons began as I had heard them before, first the wild, excited calling of a group of birds dashing across the water, then answers from other groups until the entire expanse of the lake was full of their music. We sat around until long after dark and listened, but instead of becoming quiet as the moon went high, the calling increased and there again was the wild harmony, the music that comes only once a year, when it is spring on Lac La Croix." -The Singing Wilderness, The Loons of Lac La Croix essay

"There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known." -The Singing Wilderness, The Way of a Canoe essay