A Private Wilderness: The Journals of Sigurd F. Olson
Sigurd F. Olson; David Backes, ed.
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021
376 pages; cloth cover/jacket, 74 b&w photos, 1 map, $29.95
Reviewed by Anne Cowie

Sigurd Olson, a father of the movement to save the Boundary Waters in the Quetico-Superior region of northeast Minnesota, wore many hats: backcountry guide, college professor, family man, and, in later years, nationally known advocate for preserving wild places. But his most compelling role was as a nature writer—bringing to life the Northwoods of Minnesota and Wisconsin both as a physical refuge and as a touchstone for spiritual renewal. His numerous books, beginning with The Singing Wilderness in 1956, offer inspirational insights that spring from the natural world but can apply to anyone seeking a deep meaning in life.

Olson published eight books and a half-dozen collected works over the years, but his personal journals have remained unpublished—until now. David Backes, the editor of this collection—A Private Wilderness: The Journals of Sigurd F. Olson—is well-qualified for the task of bringing them to light. When Backes was a college undergraduate, he considered dropping out and wrote to Olson, whom he admired, for advice. The naturalist wrote back immediately and convinced Backes to stay in school, eventually paving the way for Backes’ future career as a professor and scholar of Olson’s life and work.

These journals cover roughly twenty years of Olson’s life—from age thirty to fifty. During this time, Olson was busy providing for his family. Still, he had an abiding desire to leave his employment as a teacher and turn to writing fulltime. He tried writing for magazines and newspapers, constantly trying to “make it” and determine what would appeal to readers so he could sell enough copies to support himself. In his private journal entries, he agonized to himself, worrying that he would never achieve success in portraying the spiritual element of the wilderness he cherished in a format that would attract an audience.

What strikes the reader is Olson’s persistence: he never gave up—even through reams of rejection letters and failed attempts to “break through” as a writer. Finally, when Olson was in his fifties, he spoke to a national conference on wilderness preservation. The publisher Alfred A. Knopf was in the audience. Knopf saw potential in Olson’s work and the rest, as they say, is history.

The journals seem somewhat at odds with the popular view of Olson as a confident, charming man who was ultimately successful in saving the Boundary Waters and advocating for national wilderness preservation. Through his contemplations, Olson freely acknowledges periods of depression and discouragement in his quest to publish. But his reflections are the honest depictions of a person struggling to hone his craft and find a way to disseminate his personal view of the natural world. Anyone who is working to write and publish may see in his dedication a path towards realizing their own vision. And if they happen to visit the wilderness for inspiration, Olson would be the first to approve.

Anne Cowie retired as a career law clerk with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. She has served on the Ramsey County Historical Society Editorial Board for sixteen years, fifteen of those as board chair. She enjoys taking long walks in the wilderness.

A Private Wilderness: The Journals of Sigurd F. Olson
with David Backes
History Revealed Series
August 19, 2021, Thursday, 7:00 pm
YouTube Video Link
David Backes shared the personal diaries of one of America’s best-loved naturalists, revealing his difficult and inspiring path to finding his voice and becoming a writer. Written mostly during the years from 1930 to 1941, Sigurd F. Olson’s journals describe the dreams and frustrations of an aspiring writer honing his skills, pursuing recognition, and facing doubt. Author of Olson’s definitive biography, editor David Backes brings a deep knowledge of the writer to these journals, providing critical context, commentary, and insights along the way.