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The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd F. Olson

The nature writer Sigurd Olson seemed to have spent his time on earth gathering singular moments from the rush of time, crafting them in unforgettable words, so that we too can experience the healing wonders of nature.

The first time he has heard the ‘singing wilderness,’ as he calls it, Olson was seven years old. He says: ‘It was near the tip of a bold peninsula that reached far out into Lake Michigan, and though I was only seven at the time and knew nothing of the need of solitude, or the hunger I have known since, the response was there.’  There, at the edge of a pier, at the end of deep woods he ‘entered a life of indescribable beauty and delight’.  Here are some passages, which speak far better than what I can offer in a description:

A school of perch darted in and out of the rocks.  They were green and gold and black, and I was fascinated by their beauty. Seagulls wheeled and cried above me.  Waves crashed against the pier. I was alone in a wild and lovely place, part at last of the wind and the water, part of the dark forest through which I had come, and of all the wild sounds and colors and feelings of the place I had found. (p. 8)

That first moment occurred at the age at seven.  Here we are later in life when the perception is keener, when the solitude is akin to memorized joy, when the observer has achieved poetic mastery, and when we can sense the love of nature in the depth of the images he writes:

Gradually the streamers of rose and mauve in the east changed to gold, and then the sun burst over a spruce-etched hill.  At that moment the river was transformed into a brilliant crystalline boulevard stretching to infinity. The air was mountain air that morning, and my feet were winged.  I was in the forbidden land, land of the spirits, a place to approach with awe and perhaps with prayer. (p.14)

And later still:

The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores.

A man is part of his canoe and therefore part of all it knows. (p.77)

And farther North:

Shafts of light shot up into the heavens above me and concentrated there in a final climactic effort in which the shifting colors seemed drained from the horizons to form one gigantic rosette of flame of yellow and greenish purple. Suddenly I grew conscious of the reflections from the ice itself and that I was skating through a sea of changing color caught between the streamers above and below. At that moment I was part of the aurora, part of its light and of the great curtain that trembled above me. (p.185)

This book caught me by the heartstrings, and part of me wants to memorize every page of it. Whether it’s simply the nostalgia I feel for Lake Michigan, that one Black Sea that had sustained me through the first years of exile in the States, when I pined for the sound of the farm life in the mornings–the roosters calling across the village– or the coin of the moon that hung above the precipices of the Carpathian mountains of my childhood, I don’t know.  I don’t know if Olson speaks to me because I am increasingly anxious with every Ar Quality Index warning that I receive in my inbox during the summer season, or when I return from the beach saddened because it is often unfit for swimming, here where I live now. But these worries aside, I feel grateful to have this book, and to be able to return to Olson’s meaningful, beautiful words, where I could find solace even if I am struggling to breathe in the heart of the city. I am grateful that his work has been and will remain a catalyst for change, that it has raised awareness about the need to safeguard our magnificent national parks, where, as he says, we too can hear the singing wilderness and feel renewed.