Sigurd Olson, and Man’s Longing for the Primordial


Wilderness again looms as an issue of the day in Montana and nationally, as federal lawmakers ponder the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a bill that would buffer and extend the Bob Marshall Wilderness while allowing existing non wilderness uses along the front, including grazing leases, motorized access on established trails, and mineral development. The bill, considered politically realistic, and 6 years in the making, would add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall as wilderness and designate 208,000 acres to conservation management with limited road building. With plenty of oil and gas development in eastern Montana, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), and with such development not being an issue on the eastern front of the Rockies here in the state, Baucus says the Heritage Act ought to be passed in order to preserve a special place in the West. Montana’s Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg is considering the bill, and has not (as of this writing) voiced opposition.

Such are the practical coordin-ates of a debate that has gone on for over a century in America—how much wilderness, and how much resource extraction in a country founded on liberty and blessed with natural abundance, the value of which is determined both by energy demands and the desire of human beings to live on a planet that reflects and sustains characteristics of its primordial origins.

The Rocky Mountain front, as a monument to those origins, stands as a reminder, even to those who support more resource extraction, that great care must be taken with the land. It’s a sentiment felt by both ranchers and environmental-ists along the front near places like Choteau, Mont., where “every landowner…is part environmentalist,” City Council president Blair Patton told the Billings Gazette last month. “I'm not talking the chain-yourself-to-a-tree version,” he said, “there's different degrees. But we all care about the land.”

This caring about the land crosses all (or most) boundaries in Montana and universally. Even those now tapping the earth’s energy supplies, according to the Gazette, take great pains (certainly greater than in the past) to do so in consideration of such values. 

How though can such a feeling about the natural world be universal? Why do so many people recognize the need to preserve it while lamenting deeply the wholesale loss of it, and what is it about nature that causes us to feel this way? 
Sigurd Olson, the great conser-vationist writer and wilderness activist had much to say about this. Author of The Singing Wilderness and other great works about his life in the North Country, Olson  died in 1982, leaving a record of his deeply sensitive experiences in nature, the appreciation of which in man he attributes to “racial memory,” the idea that our evolving experience in the out of doors over great swathes of time is somehow rooted in our genes. While Olson was no scientist, his mind and work having been steeped in his own poetic perspective and highly subjective immersion in wilderness experiences, he advances this idea in his writings, though the mechanics are never touched upon—how, for example, a desire for nature could be transmitted genetically over generations.

His observation though, that human beings existed outdoors for a profoundly long time and now live mostly indoors, confined almost like creatures in a zoo, and with animal instincts intact, is unavoidable. He also sees human beings as uniquely gifted with their ability for introspection and contemplation, traits beyond that which can be accounted for by natural selection, and which form the basis for Olson’s method of conveying his experiences.

Olson, by describing his own innumerable sensations gleaned in the natural world, often the northern woods near Lake Superior—sights, sounds, smells and observations that speak to him like runes from an ancient tablet—paints a picture of a man found in nature but lost in the seedier corners of urban settings like Duluth, Minn., where remnants of the natural world no longer remain that would otherwise invigorate the ancient cellular memories, allowing a person to feel healthy and alive in his natural place.

Whether Olson’s assumption is accurate or not regarding the mechanism of race memory, his greater point resounds. Mankind’s connection to nature is inherently part of who he is, his natural identity, that from which he sprang, and like a child separated from its mother, he cries out for her and suffers psychically if estranged from her. Over time, the grown child does not know the source of, or recognize, his own disconnectedness and spiritual dysfunction—and if there is one thing obviously attained by Olson and others through their wilderness experiences, it is psychological and emotional healing resulting from spiritual renewal.
Olson describes his experiences in elaborate detail using all of his senses as tools in the painting of an almost infinitely complex and rich mosaic of the natural world with the primordial as a backdrop for all he encounters, one that deeply enriches him and that is indispensable to his fulfillment.

Consider these passages from the Smell of the Morning, a chapter from The Singing Wilderness in which Olson delves deeply into his surroundings using the olfactory sense alone, as if it were his sight or sense of touch, in order to experience the richness of nature in contrast to the industrialized world.

“One of the grandest smells of all is the combination of pine and spruce and balsam when you catch the wind blowing over a thousand miles of them. If you could have smelled them as I did one morning after a rain while the trees were still wet and the rising sun was bringing out resins, you would have had a real whiff of the north. The rain coming across those rain-washed hills was steeped that morning with tonic and cleanness and healing, and I thought of a city I know where the smells are those of industry and burning where men seldom know the joy of air that has come over miles of wild, unsettled country.

...The smell of resins is part of our background, part of the woods existence of our ancestors in the pine forests of other continents. Our response to them is part of our racial awareness; our subconscious is so impregnated with them, the memories they invoke are so involved with our ancient way of life, that no amount of city-dwelling removed from the out-of-doors will ever erase them....Civilization has robbed us of much of our sensitivity to smells, has dulled the original powers of perception by too much living indoors. It has substituted the byproducts of industrial production for the natural smells of earth and water and growing things. Primitive tribes still have the faculty of smelling the weather, but few urban dwellers can sniff the air and tell what kind of day it is going to be, let alone know what flowers are in bloom or what life may be near.”

Olson touches upon myriad odoriferous experiences that inform and enliven his senses, that of “wet earth and the opening a billion buds...the heady pungence of balm of Gilead...a cranberry bog at dawn while it is still covered with mist...the black acidity of peat...a spicy sweetness that I never forgot: the scent of bruised sweet gale...the trailing arbutus bloom...[and] the flowers of midsummer,” which Olson says, “have a stronger more virile smell [than arbutus], but in these first blooms is a hint of perfection made up of the first intimations of warming earth, melting drifts, and opening buds...as if all these are brought together in one blossom to give a foretaste of what is to come [spring].

The richness of sensations Olson offers builds understanding related to the nature of man—as a creature deeply informed and historically conditioned by the natural world (while lending credence, in regard to the olfactory sense, to the efficacy of aromatherapy, with Providence seemingly having arranged the earthly fragrances for humanity’s benefit along with the proverbial natural pharmacopoeia comprised of all the herbal medicines found on earth, from the Amazon rain forest to those of European white willow bark, from which aspirin derives).

Imagine then one’s self estranged from this heritage, as we often seem to be, cut off as it were from the tree of life, orphaned with barely a clue as to the parental nurturing that is lacking—exiled from Eden (though one must recognize the extreme difficulties inherent in that Eden—the battle against cold, starvation, disease, the perils of trying to thrive amongst hostile natural forces—and the resulting millennial effort to subdue those forces simply in order to survive).

Then imagine one’s self as an indigenous being for whom the experience of nature was life, without having been shaped by anything else, a mind free from modern contrivances, like that of an infant, with awareness having been formed (at least predominantly) by primordial nature, all of the smells, sights, sounds, creatures, forests, vistas, the infinite panorama of stars, and the totality of the whole’s influence on mind and soul—and this as having been humanity’s experience for a million years.

After all of that, placing him in a  subdivision down the street from Target, like a Cro-Magnon resusci-tated after having been frozen in a glacier for 100,000 years, surely deprives his soul of the sensory and spiritual coordinates inherent in its natural make up.

Olson placed an unusually poetic  focus on his espousing of this concept and his lifelong campaign to promote conservation, to the extent that clinical Latinisitc words like conservation, habitat, ecology and environment hardly seem bearable in the context of his anglo-saxon and Celtic based literary style (though he surely understood the necessity of such words), and that’s because Olson lived and wrote, not as an academic or as a scientist, but as a man who found his soul, that of a poet and child, in nature.

Contemplate this passage, for example, in which Olson delves deeply into, well, himself, his intuitive relationship with the natural world, as he describes the time of subtle change that many of us take for granted, early spring, when barely a hint of that season stands in the offing, but which Olson discerns as a magical and promising enterprise in the making.

“To anyone who has spent a winter in the north...the first hint of spring is a major event....To appreciate it, you must wait for it a long time, hope and dream about it, and go through considerable enduring. Looking forward to spring plays the same part in morale building in the north as rumors do in an army camp. The very thought of it is something to live for when the days are bitter and winter is stretching out a little longer than it should. ...When March comes in, no matter how cold and blustery it is, the time is ripe for signs. It makes no difference if the ice is still thick on the lakes and the drifts are deep as ever. When that something is in the wind, the entire situation is changed. I caught it one day toward the end of March, just the faintest hint of softness in the air, a slight tempering of the cold, a promise that hadn’t been there before....Then I became conscious of the sound of trickling water beside me, nothing more than a whisper, but the forerunner, I knew, of a million coming trickles that would take down the drifts of the entire countryside.”

In this editor’s mind, a stark and stinging example stands out that represents all too vividly the consequences of losing the sort of sensitivities Olson describes and that lead to man’s shabby treatment of the natural world.

Not a Montanan by birth, I recall remnants of that natural world from my youth in Pennsylvania (just as Olson recalled boyhood sensations in Minnesota’s north woods) and in particular those areas preserved, or at least held as open space or forest, where the aromas of spring, fall, summer and winter enlivened the senses, calling from a deeper place not only in the landscape, from some far off treed skyline beyond harvested cornfields, but from within. One wants to be a part of it, to explore, and to feel life as it truly is, or had been before all the din, eyesore, and waste settled in the time since the Industrial Revolution.

Contemplating and exploring early American History, and visiting sites related to same, brought this sensation to life, descriptions of the land as it was 200 years prior, living in a farmhouse actually built at that time, then seeing subdivisions gobble up adjacent swaths of open space and with them history. George Washington’s troops had bivouacked on the very land beneath one’s feet, and mine in particular, availing themselves of high ground where the farmhouse was built just 26 years after the Revolutionary War, so that they could observe the approach of Red Coats on the Skippack Pike, and nearby at a now preserved farmstead where the General himself planned the battle of Germantown and celebrated reports of the victory over British troops at Brandywine with cannon and musket fire, the blasts of which shattered the farmstead’s windows, 200 years prior.
Perhaps five miles from that place, a degraded waterway, the Schuykill (Skookul) River, runs from the vicinity of Valley Forge through a semi- urban route of concrete banks, cisterns, and under nasty corroded bridges that seem reminiscent of  gritty science fiction rather than the beautiful rolling landscape of southeastern Pennsylvania that one might liken to English countryside. The vicinity there though had become a terrible eyesore, minutes from Valley Forge, which is of course preserved in open space, and the river nicknamed the Sure Kill for reasons you can imagine. Driving a nearby expressway southeast into and past historic Philadelphia toward the enormous Delaware River (into which the Schuykill flows), which forms the serpentine border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, one passes oil refineries stinking incredibly of sulphur, vast complexes of them that sit upon and dominate broad expanses of land, and then yet another scene from science fiction picks up at the Walt Whitman Bridge just before it spans the Delaware, the same river Washington crossed through packs of ice early Christmas morning, 1776, in a surprise attack on the British at the Battle of Trenton, 33 miles north as the crow flies, that turned the tide of a revolution that created a nation. The high view from the Walt Whitman, 4 lanes in both directions and with toll booths, reveals the incredible breadth of the Delaware, a mile wide as it flows to the sea, far wider and carrying far more water than, say, the Yellowstone, more like the Mississippi, and there existed once, at those sprawling banks, an extraordinary expanse of wetland, the remnants of which I saw as a child, the enormous life giving potential of which one intuitively perceives and absorbs, although less so even then due to the preponderance of crushed automobiles stacked by the wayside, of junk, various complexes, and now pavement filled with warehouses and endless rows of cars that dominate every square foot of that vast riparian expanse.

Passing over that bridge, one imagined the scene 200 years prior,   even 100, not really all that long ago, the grandeur and ecological wealth of it, and while living in the present, perhaps a bit of a dreamer like Sigurd Olson, one can’t help but feel a bit demoralized, yet the Port Authority there oversees tremen-dous commerce that produces standards of living relieving the degradations of poverty that historically fostered disease and despair—families supplied with food, shelter and clothing, and so on. The car, what’s more, taking that route and driven by the dreamer making such observations, requires gasoline refined from the very refineries that foul the entire area for miles around. Similarly, in a sense, Olson himself erected a dwelling in the wilderness, a place of retreat and contemplation where he wrote, an act that if replicated by the many he sought to inspire would have resulted in the destruction of the very thing he sought to preserve.

Surely there are lessons here, but not those as simple as wind and solar, which are unrelated to transportation fuels, and though they should be ramped up enormously can meet only a small fraction of total energy needs—and then electric cars require the burning of coal, predominantly, as fuel for electrical generation. Nor are the lessons simply that we must forbid development, in that its worldwide pace will continue along with the economic expansion of places like China, Brazil, and India, with people seeking freedom from poverty, ever more prosperous lives, and higher standards of living.

The first lesson might be that the words of the likes of Sigurd Olson should be read and taught for their spiritual and ecological import, along with history (seriously neglected in public schools), including the history of land (geography has also been spurned), former proliferations of creatures and habitat, and the consequences of development in relation to nature—toward the goal of, not demonizing self-starters, but to instill values related to our natural heritage and to foster a practical societal ethic regarding balancing the two.

Ultimately, it is experience that teaches, awakens, and guides, and that is of the individual. Writers like Olson may be of little value if human beings avoid immersion in their nature world, humbling themselves so that it might reveal the kinds of insights Olson chose to convey, sights, sounds, smells and feelings that connect one to the primordial, something that has existed in one form or another across an unfathom-able span of time and that resembles as much as anything what might be realized in contemplative moments as the living, breathing organism that gave birth to life—mysteri-ously, not as expounded in textbooks, but in some reality we’ve yet to penetrate or understand, and to grasp that as the source of one’s own identity, and as indispensable. None of that’s political, and it’s a tall order, organically and intuitively sensing the setting into which one was born as teeming with tell tale signs of God, or whatever reality satisfactorily accounts for the complexity, beauty, mystery, and irrepressible energy behind and within it all.
The concluding lesson may be—experience it, while it’s there, for there is no other way to appreciate its value without having done so.







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