U of M Press: You write on your blog that Sigurd Olson is "a man few have heard of." What should people know about Sigurd?
Peter Olsen: He struggled for much of his life to find his voice and it caused him and his family a great deal of strife. He doubted himself constantly but never gave up, and it wasn’t until in his mid-fifties that he finally came into his own and The Singing Wilderness was published. Everything changed after that. At forty-eight, I find that very encouraging. But because the writing he is known for is so filled with calm and beauty and wisdom, many of his readers don’t realize that there was turmoil in his life.
Because of his own tenacity and eventual success, he was incredibly encouraging to anyone who sought him out. Everyone who has made comments on my blog has a story about how an encounter, either with him personally or with his writing, has changed the course of their life. His biographer David Backes has his own such story.
He was a charismatic and extremely appealing man. His son Robert described him this way when I interviewed him: “The thing I remember so vividly is that he was a strong, manly man. He smelled good.… There were a lot of women who sort of took on the wilderness ethos out of sheer attraction to him… But he, in a way when he was in his 30s he was Clark Gable-esque, if that conveys the image.”
UMP: What makes Sigurd such an influential figure?
PO: There are two different answers to that question. For those who read his books, his writing was a kind of touchstone for things they felt but didn’t know how to express. For people who met him or heard him speak, I think it was also his charisma, his sincere warmth, his generosity, and encouragement. His door was literally always open, coffee and cookies waiting. Strangers would make pilgrimages and just show up on his doorstep, and they were never turned away. He promptly returned every letter ever sent to him by fans and followers and seekers.
UMP: Why a documentary?
PO: Sigurd’s defining belief was that wilderness is vital to our spiritual health and happiness, which arose from the idea that we have a biological, evolutionary connection with nature. This was all well before e-mail, iPods, and cell phones. I think that we need to take a new look at his ideas in this age in which every advance in technology further divides us from our natural origins.
This will not be a straight up biography, but more of an interpretation of his life and his work. I will use his life story as the back bone of the film but jump off to explore ideas suggested by his experiences. I want to go out into the wilderness with urban dwellers, for example, who have never left the city. As a guide (Sigurd) did this all the time. Is there a way to live in cities that acknowledges and respects our connection with wilderness?
I also have personal, maybe even selfish, reasons for making this film. I really feel like this, more than any other film I’ve done, is the film I was sort of meant to make. I am extremely inspired by (Sigurd's) life. He lived his life out of doors; I live in New York City. He knew the land and the plants and animals and weather cycles – he knew the wilderness intimately, he knew how to survive and thrive in it.
Finally, I fell in love with my fiancée on my first trip in the Boundary Waters. We had just met and she asked me to go with her and another couple for a week-long excursion. It was a little scary going off into the wilderness with this beautiful stranger, but it turned out to sort of seal the deal for us. I brought an anthology of Sigurd’s works and read passages from it as we sat around the campfire at night. Ultimately, I think I am making this film, or at least, set out to make this film, because of that first trip. It changed my life – and so, in that way, did Sigurd.
UMP: What is your favorite Sigurd Olson passage?
PO: "Silence" from The Singing Wilderness (see excerpt below). I plan to open the film with that. And that book is a great place to start for anyone who wants an introduction to his writing; that or Listening Point. I also really love The Lonely Land, a book he wrote about a 500-mile canoe trip he and a group of friends took in the '50s in a remote region up in Saskatchewan to retrace the journey of early voyaguers. I think it would actually make a great feature film.
An excerpt from the chapter "Silence" in Sigurd Olson's The Singing Wilderness:
It was before dawn, that period of hush before the birds had begun to sing. The lake was breathing softly as in sleep; rising and falling, it seemed to me to absorb like a great sponge all the sounds of the earth. It was a time of quiet—no wind rustling the leaves, no lapping of the water, no calling of animals or birds. But I listened just the same, straining with all my faculties toward something—I knew not what—trying to catch the meanings that were there in that moment before the lifting of the dark.
Standing there alone, I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. A shout or a movement would have destroyed the spell. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.
> Learn more about Peter Olsen's documentary.
> Find more books by Sigurd F. Olson.