Sigurd Olson’s wilderness philosophy still resonates at Listening Point, his retreat

ELY, Minnesota – It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Listening Point, Sigurd Olson’s cabin on Burntside Lake outside of Ely, and without help I doubt I would have made it. good turn from what is now a smooth bitumen ribbon. But once we parked our vehicles and started the trail to Sig’s sauna, and beyond, his cabin, the place had a familiar feel.

When Sig purchased the shoreline of Burntside Lake and 26 acres of land in 1956, he realized a decades-old dream. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had arrived in Ely in February 1923, and he covered many canoe routes and hiked many trails – literally and figuratively – between that date and the time he bought the land. and, the following year, erected his cabin.

For most of his life, Sig could not afford refuge. By the time I moved to Ely in 1977, he and Elizabeth were well off. Their home was spacious and carried Elizabeth’s refined yet relaxed taste and style. A stone’s throw away was Sig’s writing shack, with a canoe beside it, and the patio between the shack and the house was often a gathering space for important people and, as usual, admirers.

The scene was light years away from the converted coal shed that Sig and Elizabeth had rented when they first arrived in Ely, a structure that was so cold, according to Sig biographer David Backes, that they wore knitted caps to go to bed at night.

Recently, Steffi O’Brien, executive director of the Listening Point Foundation, which owns and cares for the cabin and grounds, and the foundation’s president, Patsy Mogush, accompanied me to Listening Point.

Also in the field were children from a local camp. Each carried a pen and notebook and, while scattered around the cabin, wrote in journals about Sig and, presumably, his adventures and ideas. Certainly, wilderness would be included in these ruminations, however defined.

When I came to Ely 45 years ago I did fresh out of college to run one of two local newspapers, the Ely Miner.

By then I had read Sig’s books and traveled the boundary waters by canoe, but only vaguely knew Sig’s story. I knew he was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and his first job at Ely was teaching high school biology. The salary was minimal, and within a few years he and Elizabeth had two sons, Sig Jr. and Robert. To make ends meet financially, especially before Sig took a teaching job and eventually became dean of the local community college, in the summer he would guide Rubies on canoe trips, sometimes learning the ropes from brave elders who were descended from travelers from the fur-trapping days.

One week I decided to publish in the Miner portions of an essay from Sig’s first book, “The Singing Wilderness.”

I was pretty much a personal exposure to the newspaper, and my thinking, in retrospect – despite the quality and timeliness of Sig’s essay, which I recall was about the wonders of the spring to come – was probably that I needed fill pagesnot always an easy task.

Thus, a call and subsequent meeting with Sig. We then chatted, and did so several times afterwards, usually at his house, but also once when, for no particular reason, we drove to Listening Point.

* * *

The recent day I visited Sig’s cabin and its surrounding pines and birches, and while meandering along narrow paths that circled some of the same moss-wrapped rocks that remained from my last visit, and were actually there when Sig first walked on the property, the memory of posting Sig’s essay converged with my memory of visiting Listening Point with him.

By then, Sig was, essentially, some kind of wilderness guru whose grey-white hair and ubiquitous pipe gave visual credence to his romantic, adventurous, and deeply philosophical writings about nature, which in some circles, drew comparisons with Henry David Thoreau and John. Muir, among others.

I wanted to visit Listening Point again in part to see if Sig’s reputation, and indeed the idea of Sig – made evident by his Burntside Lake property and the small cabin therein – was still alive today, 40 years after his death.

“We give tours to hundreds of people every year,” O’Brien said. “Some learned about Sig by coming to the boundary waters to canoe. Many more come to Boundary Waters after reading his books. Either way, many want to go to Listening Point.

To the casual observer, Sig’s good fortune in life might have seemed preordained.

A bright, educated and charismatic guy came to Ely in the 1920s who enjoyed paddling, hunting and fishing, and eventually he wrote very successfully in nine books about his adventures and beliefs, while leading the charge to transform the boundary waters in a federal desert.

Which is true, in a way.

But Sig’s life story, and his transformation from a scribbler of hunting and fishing wires in his twenties to a kind of metaphysician whose wilderness theology links, as Backes notes in his biography, the need for wilderness to individual spiritual growth and ultimately to the arts, sciences and progress of human evolution, is much more complex.

This philosophy, summed up, is why Sig believed that the act of conservation wilderness is less an option than a moral duty.

Aptly titled “Listening point“, Sig’s second book, like the first, was a New York Times bestseller.

He ended the introductory chapter of “Listening Point” with this paragraph:

I named this place Listening Point because it’s only when you come to listen, it’s only when you’re conscious and still, that things can be seen and heard. Everyone has a point of listening somewhere. It doesn’t have to be in the north or in the wilderness, but in a quiet place where the universe can be gazed upon in awe. The chapters that follow are simply the stories of what I found at my particular starting point. The adventures that have been mine can be known to anyone.

About Leslie Schwartz

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