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For Sigurd Olson’s biographer, Greta Thunberg’s activism gives new hope

“For the same kind of reason I love Greta Thunberg, Sigurd was someone who had this sense of purpose, this sense of calling, that he couldn’t let go of,” said David Backes.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg speaking at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Monday.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

When David Backes was a disillusioned student at the University of Wisconsin in 1977, he wrote to his hero, environmentalist activist and nature writer Sigurd Olson, who promptly wrote back to say, simply, “Stay in school.” The exchange inspired Backes to become Olson’s biographer and lifelong champion, and, many years later, to write a note of support to the Olson of her day, Greta Thunberg.

“Greta, I became a university professor the summer of James Hansen’s famous testimony before the U.S. Congress,” wrote Backes, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on Thunberg’s Facebook page on February 2, just as Thunberg’s #ClimateStrike and #FridaysforFuture movement was gaining momentum and attracting trolls. “I began bringing climate change into my classrooms that fall, 1988. At the time, I was optimistic, thinking the science was clear enough for any prudent society to begin to wean itself from fossil fuels. By the time I retired in 2015, we were preparing to elect a president who ridiculed the science. You speak truth, plainly and simply and with conviction. And you are the best sign of hope we have had in a long time. Already you are making a real difference, confronting the complicit silence of older generations and inspiring many other young people to take action.”

On September 20, Thunberg’s vision for a climate crisis call to action came to fruition in the form of four million people marching all over the world, with more to come. A few days later, Backes was feeling protective of the teenager, given the right wing’s attacks on Thunberg since she addressed the United Nations and criticized world leaders for inaction on protecting the environment.

“There’s a word that Sigurd loved,” said Backes, from his home in South Milwaukee. “It’s Finnish, but Greta would still remind him of it: ‘Sisu,’ which means ‘an inner strength and indomitable persistence which never admits defeat. The courage to withstand adversity.’ That’s Greta.

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“And Sigurd would love the fact that Greta is Swedish. Oh, he would have loved that! But it’s a different generation. Sigurd wasn’t an in-the-streets protester kind of person back in that day, but I’m sure he would respect the necessity of it in this day, given the nature of our situation. One of the things he shares with me is introversion, and introverts don’t tend to go just go out and march easily. They’re more likely to give talks, though, that can inspire people. That sounds contradictory, since Sigurd liked to be alone; he liked silence and solitude, but he knew he could speak effectively to people.”

To be sure, it’s a good time to rediscover the legacy of Olson, who once wrote, “No greater challenge faces us than to preserve some places of quiet and beauty for the sanity of mankind.”

Sigurd Olson
Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt
Sigurd Olson
That passion drove Olson to become one of America’s foremost nature writers and activists, and a canoe guide who helped found and establish the Superior Roadless Areas, a.k.a. the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. So passionate was his mission, Olson was once hung in effigy by mining advocates in his hometown of Ely, during debates about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which were granted full wilderness status by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, 50 years after Olson started fighting for that designation.

Today the fight is with Twin Metals Minnesota, the mining company that, after the Trump administration cleared the way with renewed mineral leases, plans to build a copper-nickel mine near the BWCA.

“Sig would of course warn strongly about the risks being taken if copper-nickel-sulfide mining is allowed near the Boundary Waters, and he’d be fighting that tooth and nail, for sure,” said Backes, of Olson, who was president and vice president of the The Wilderness Society, and helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

The Sierra Club deemed Olson “the personification of the wilderness defender“ and one of America’s most beloved nature writers and most influential conservationists of the 20th century.” He wrote passionately about the North Woods wilderness of northern Minnesota in his books, including “The Singing Wilderness” (1956), “Listening Point” (1958), “The Hidden Forest” (1969), “Wilderness Days” (1972), and “Reflections From The North Country” (1976).

Author of the award-winning 1997 biography “A Wilderness Within: The Life Of Sigurd F. Olson” (University of Minnesota Press, 1997) and two more Olson titles, Backes wrote, “Olson was, in many respects, a second John Muir, the famous turn-of-the-century writer and conservationist who founded the Sierra Club. The similarities are striking… Muir’s theology, like Olson’s, arose out of direct, joy- and wonder-filled experiences in nature, with subsequent reflection and reading giving form and adding nuances to those experiences. And Muir’s evangelism, like Olson’s was devoted to helping people discover the sacredness of creation and their own connectedness to it.”

“For the same kind of reason I love Greta Thunberg, Sigurd was someone who had this sense of purpose, this sense of calling, that he couldn’t let go of,” said Backes. “He had to do it, and he followed it no matter what the sacrifice. He went through decades of turmoil and never gave up. I would tell that story of his persistence constantly to my college students, because they’re constantly under pressure to give up on their ideals and their deeper dreams in order to fit in and live the quote-unquote American way.

“Sigurd didn’t do that. He ended up achieving greatness, but not only in his accomplishments, but greatness of spirit, because he became his true self. That’s why I wrote it, and that’s why he still inspires me to this day. That’s why I continue to write about him.”

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We could all go to school on Olson’s mission these days, especially in light of the business-as-usual proceedings at the recent United Nations Climate Action Summit. According to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland Wisconsin, which oversees Olson’s legacy, “Sigurd was influenced by the literary naturalists W.H. Hudson and John Burroughs, as well as many other thinkers and social critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Henry David Thoreau, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Lewis Mumford, and C.J. Jung.”

Olson once said, “I have discovered in a lifetime of traveling in primitive regions, a lifetime of seeing people living in the wilderness and using it, that there is a hard core of wilderness need in everyone, a core that makes its spiritual values a basic human necessity. There is no hiding it. Unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.”

David Backes
The Singing Wilderness
David Backes
“His approach to these big problems was always to face them, admit them, talk about the difficulty of them, but also talk about what we can do to make things better,” said Backes. “One of the things that I take away from that as well as my own experience and study is that in order to have hope, we have to face reality. Greta is trying to get us to face reality. Everything she has to say in her speech the other day was very accurate.  She was speaking like the prophet Jeremiah; it was the unvarnished truth, and a lot of people don’t like to hear it, but it’s true.

“Sigurd would be facing the reality of the situation, and not giving in about the truth of this, of pointing out every tenth of a degree that we’re heading towards will be less bad for the future. We can’t prevent it from getting bad anymore, but we can prevent it from becoming worst-case.”

On August 27, 1971, one year after the first Earth Day, Northland College hosted its first environmental conference. Olson was a guest lecturer, and the experience led directly to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, which opened in 1972. In 1974, he won the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing. He died January 13, 1982, of a heart attack while snowshoeing.

“Sigurd had a way of writing and speaking about these things that touched something deep in people,” said Backes. “He captured the feelings that people feel when they’re in nature, and he really got people fired up with his talks. He struck a chord in a way that very few other environmental leaders did. I think it was one of the Minnesota governors who said that, ‘Some people produce advocates; Sig produced disciples.’”

Count Backes among the Olson disciples — and, potentially, Thunberg and millions more.

“My life is totally different because of him,” said Backes. “I can’t even imagine what my life would be without him, or what I’d be doing, so I’ll never get tired of writing and speaking about him.”