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A Wilderness Within

The Life of Sigurd F. Olson

1999
Author:

David Backes

A Wilderness Within

The critically acclaimed biography of this venerable naturalist and writer.

Sigurd Olson (1899–1982) was acknowledged during his lifetime as a leader of the American environmental movement, an emblematic figure for a generation of activists. A Wilderness Within is the award-winning biography of this writer, teacher, and activist who was a harbinger of the raising of America’s ecological consciousness.

I knew Sigurd Olson the writer, Sig Olson the mentor, Sig Olson the wilderness warrior and elder statesman; now I know more fully Sigurd Olson the man, and I am more inspired than ever. A Wilderness Within presents a compelling, integrated portrait of a Northwoods icon, describing a life more courageous, more human, and finally more admirable than the myth. I thank David Backes for it.

Douglas Wood, author of Old Turtle and Paddle Whispers

The first biography of this venerable naturalist and writer.

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was acknowledged during his lifetime as a leader of the American environmental movement, an emblematic figure for an entire generation of activists. A Wilderness Within is the first biography of this writer, teacher, and activist who was a harbinger of the opening of America’s ecological consciousness.

From opposing the building of roads in the wilderness to preserving America’s most treasured wild rivers, Olson was involved in fierce battles over the environment throughout his life. He testified before Congress, spoke at town meetings, and was once even hanged in effigy.

But Olson is best known for his many essays that express the wonder, awe, and peace he found in the wilderness. The lyricism and evocative beauty of his prose became a model for nature writers like Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard. Olson’s popular books, including The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, and Reflections from the North Country, are beloved by generations of readers, with over 300,000 copies sold.

A Wilderness Within looks beyond the environmental battles and books to expose the inner forces that drove Sigurd Olson. He rejected his father’s path as a minister and agonized over his own spiritual life, struggled with school and work. Backes details Olson’s painful path to becoming a writer, and the physical and emotional tolls that his activism and writing took of him.

For this biography, Backes conducted interviews with Olson’s family and had complete access to Olson’s papers, diaries, correspondence, and photographs. This research is what makes A Wilderness Within the authoritative portrait of one of the greatest environmentalists of the twentieth century.

A stunning look at a man with a vision for the natural world and a vision for himself, A Wilderness Within will be essential reading for Olson fans, historians, and outdoors people around the country.

David Backes is the author of Canoe Country: An Embattled Wilderness (1991) and The Wilderness Companion (1992).

424 pages
Translation Rights: University of Minnesota Press


Awards

Winner of the 1998 Small Press Book Award for best biography.

A Wilderness Within

David Backes is the author of Canoe Country: An Embattled Wilderness (1991) and The Wilderness Companion (1992).

A Wilderness Within

I knew Sigurd Olson the writer, Sig Olson the mentor, Sig Olson the wilderness warrior and elder statesman; now I know more fully Sigurd Olson the man, and I am more inspired than ever. A Wilderness Within presents a compelling, integrated portrait of a Northwoods icon, describing a life more courageous, more human, and finally more admirable than the myth. I thank David Backes for it.

Douglas Wood, author of Old Turtle and Paddle Whispers

A Wilderness Within provides valuable insights into the life and times of Sig Olson. During the big battles of the 1960s, Sig was the nation’s most eloquent and knowledgeable advocate for the protection of wilderness and wild rivers.

Stewart L. Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior 1961-1969

Insightful, elegantly written, meticulously researched and sympathetic without being unbalanced.

Paul Gruchow, author of Grass Roots and Journal of Prairie Year

Wilderness guru Sigurd Olson spent his life fighting to save the wildlands of America for the backpack and the canoe. In this deeply probing and rich biography, David Backes reveals that Olson, unknown to all around him, was secretly fighting and eventually won another battle against the demons and frustrations within his own psyche. It was the battle that left us Olson’s epic books on his wilderness theology and the human need for primitive places. Every wilderness lover and parks user owes Backes a resounding ‘bravo’ for this revealing, eminently readable biography of the restless and driving spirit who did more than any other to shape the modern parks system in America.

Fred Bodsworth, author of Last of the Curlews

This is biography at its best, a book that is certain to become a classic.

Gerald Killan, King’s College, London, Ontario

David Backes’s skillful biography, A Wilderness Within, explores in depth both the public activities of Olson’s productive conservation and preservation career and the torments that dogged him throughout his life. Thanks to years of careful research by Backes, we have a colorful portrayal of Sigurd F. Olson, backcountry woodsman and guide, wilderness advocate, negotiator, administrator, teacher, author, and environmental icon.

New York Times Book Review

The new biography on the life of Sigurd F. Olson is being released at a most appropriate time. With three separate bills now bouncing around the halls of Congress to redirect management of the BWCAW, the burgeoning rhetoric to sway public opinion cries out for a good dose of historical reality. I found A Wilderness Within by David Backes to be a fascinating and inspiring account of the development of conservation in America and the canoe country in particular.

Boundary Waters Journal

David Backes, Olson’s biographer, uses private journals, interviews, and other unpublished sources to reveal sides of Sigurd Olson that go far beyond the picture I’d formed of the man from his books.

Mpls.St. Paul Magazine

In the last decades of Sigurd Olson’s life, he was a mythic figure to friends and conservationists. Successful writer, teacher, administrator, national wilderness leader and spokesman: all of those accomplishments wrapped up in a handsome, white-haired, charismatic package. But it had been a long, and largely suppressed, journey to get there, a progression marked by self-doubt, rejection, perseverance and, finally, triumph. That struggle is portrayed in a captivating biography by David Backes. In A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson, Backes traces Olson’s life from his boyhood in Illinois and Wisconsin, through his frustrating attempts to become a writer, to his critical role as a national wilderness advocate. Backes is an ideal choice as a biographer. He knew Olson in his last years. And he kept in touch with Elizabeth Olson after Sigurd’s death. At the suggestion of a publisher, he asked her if she felt ready for a biography of her husband.

St. Paul Pioneer Press

In our talks, Olson also detailed the difficulties he encountered in becoming a successful writer. But it wasn’t until I read Backes’ excellent biography that I fully realized how painful the process was. Fifteen years after his death, Olson may still be Minnesota’s most beloved author. I opened this first biography of Sigurd Olson with great anticipation. And its author, David Backes, did not disappoint me. A Wilderness Within is a fascinating book. And the Sigurd Olson who emerges from its pages is far more complex and heroic than the persona that he fashioned for himself. Backes has done an enormous amount of research, and he explores many aspects of Olson’s personality, but he never loses sight of his main story-Olson’s desperate need to fulfill himself as a writer. There will be other books about Sigurd Olson, but I doubt they’ll be more compelling than this one.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

This smoothly written, congenial biography will engage readers through its compelling parallel narrative of a man’s unfolding commitment to his own enlightenment and to the public good.

Publishers Weekly

The abundance of anecdotes and quotes gleaned from Olson’s letters and journals, as well as family interviews, make this a fascinating and highly readable book. Essential for any collection with works by Olson and recommended for general collections as well.

Library Journal

Virtually everyone who loves the northwoods has read one or more of Sig Olson’s best-selling books. An ardent outdoorsman with a gift of vision and language, Olson captured the essence of wild areas, while teaching the reader lessons in ecology and outdoor life. Now, his life is detailed by a fellow environmental writer who had complete access to Olson’s family, his papers and photographs. The result is a book that is interesting to everyone, but will be required reading for Sig Olson fans.

Lake Superior Magazine

Acknowledged as a leader of the American environmental movement, this biography reveals the forces that drove Sigurd Olson-writer, teacher, activist. From opposing the building of roads in the wilderness to preserving the nation’s most treasured wild rivers, he was a man with a vision for the natural world, and the lyricism and evocative beauty of his prose became the model other nature writers would follow.

Sports Afield

A highly readable portrait of a much-loved writer and a beautifully articulated history of the conservation movement in the United States through the middle decades of this century

Audubon

From a personal, non-political perspective, Backes supplies fascinating details of Olson’s struggle with writing (a late-bloomer, his first book, The Singing Wilderness, was published when he was 57), his virulent discontent with a career as a junior college dean, and his post-World War II work in Europe with the U.S. Army. He also offers information that readers might use to speculate about early influences in Olson’s life. His father, a dictatorial, fundamentalist Baptist minister, would have preferred a pastoral career for his son, and some might argue that Sigurd became a missionary after all. Backes’s account seems well-researched, is competently written, and will doubtless be a standard text for anyone interested in the history of American conservation and the BWCAW.

Minnesota Volunteer

In this beautifully composed biography, David Backes presents readers with a compelling portrait of Sigurd Olson (1899-1982). With this and the paperback editions of Olson’s writing recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, the public now has easy access to a full understanding of the life and thought of this important American conservationist. This is an outstanding book.

Minnesota History

I am grateful for the insight into Olson’s life and intellectual development that Backes provides; grateful, too, that a new generation of readers will have Sigurd Olson’s own words to guide and inspire them.

Conservation Biology

The book goes beyond the life and times of an extraordinary and complicated man. It places the man on the stage of the history of Minnesota so well that it has the readability of a historical novel.

North Life Magazine

David Backes writes from a wealth of public and private, even intimate, knowledge of Olson the icon and Olson the man. He traces Olson’s development through the early years in which he adopted a narrow view of wilderness and wildlife to his middle years of searching for a balance between man and wilderness, and finally, his arriving at a sense of meaning and oneness with nature that is reflected in his best-known works.

Lake Country Journal