by Doug Wood
As I write these words from our old 1930’s cabin in the Pine Point woods, change is in the air. The basswoods have long since dropped their leaves. The maples have passed their brightest brilliance and the last of the foliage they hold will not last the advancing cold front. The tamaracks still hold forth in all their golden glory, and of course the red oaks will cling to their scarlet cloaks until nearly spring. But the woods are changing, and all can feel it.
The red and gray squirrels are more active and industrious than ever. Most of the ducks have migrated down the great Mississippi flyway. The herons have moved along. A kingfisher rattled from deep in the back bay a few days ago, but I have not heard him since. The nightly lows are lower. The winter stars come around earlier in the evening and begin to claim the summit of the night sky. By the time these words are read, snow
will likely cover the ground, and Old Man River may be once again locked in ice.
Change is in the air. But then, it always is.
During the months when Orion rules the night, we will be attuned to the slightest upturn in temperatures, the advancing minutes of daylight. We will watch the ground turn bare on the south side of the big White Pine trunks. We will listen for the first telltale drips from the eaves and the first whisperings of running water, the “Spring’s here!” call of the chickadee. We will feel something quicken in our blood with the first warm zephyrs from the south, and restlessly await the arrival of geese and redwings, bluebirds
and swallows, goldeneyes and buffleheads.
Change is always in the air.
Sometimes it arrives more unexpectedly than with the predictable cycle of the seasons. But it is never totally unexpected. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It may arrive as a wild storm, toppling old friends. Or as a bright,
breezy, sunny day, kicking out the last rags of clouds from a lingering low-pressure system.
And of course, change arrives in our human lives as well, in our families and organizations, in all the things we care about and love. As it arrives, we undertake the constant but always new process of dealing with it—with birth and loss and growth and evolution; with joy and sadness and concern and excitement. All are a part of the seasons of life.
For our Listening Point Foundation, this is particularly a time of change. Our beloved Boundary Waters Wilderness faces perhaps the greatest challenge yet to its viability and integrity, while wild and natural areas and creatures nationwide bear the brunt of new policies and actions from Washington that threaten hard-won gains that may have once felt permanent. Caring citizens throughout the upper midwest and coast to coast are engaged in efforts to direct the constant reality of change in positive directions. The LPF—guided by its twofold mission to preserve Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point and advance his legacy of wilderness education — will be navigating these waters in the months and years ahead. And we will do so in the context of even more change.
LPF’s long-time Executive Director Alanna Dore, for years the heart and soul and face of the organization, is taking early retirement. I say “early” because whatever her age (she may be over 35) and length of tenure, it would always feel like she should have stayed “just a little longer.” That will always be the case when a person gives as much of herself—of her love and care and personality and devotion—as Alanna has done. Her accomplishments on behalf of this organization are unrivaled and too numerous to list in full. From yeoman-like fundraising toward the purchase of the old Olson home as our new headquarters; to acquiring much needed grants for much needed projects; to overseeing historical refurbishments and restorations to the iconic cabin; to truly expert archiving and management of ever increasing historical resources; to organizing large scale annual spring and fall events, dinners, fundraisers, gifts and auctions; to creating the ongoing “visits to Listening Point” program; to—and most importantly—dealing with an endless stream of personalities, needs, wants, desires, and obligations in her graceful and positive interactions with the members of LPF and the public in general, well… as I say, a full accounting of all Alanna has done and meant to the Foundation is impossible to present here. Suffice to say, she will be greatly missed.
But not yet. For another part of this change is our welcoming on-board of new Executive Director Steffi O’Brien. Introduced at our annual Fall Dinner in Ely, Steffi has been chosen to continue in Alanna’s footsteps for many reasons, not least her brilliant smile, engaging personality, outstanding educational background, achievements and skills. Much more will be shared about Steffi in this space in the future, but for now I will simply add that Alanna and Steffi will be working together for the first six months of the new year, as Alanna shares ALL she has learned and mastered in her tenure, and Steffi soaks it ALL up. And begins to add her own touches.
So… change is with us, as always. In the midst of it we feel challenged, and beckoned, and uncertain, and reassured. As always. As human beings will forever feel on this beautiful planet Earth we call home.
By Douglas Wood, president of the LPF
On February 23, 1977, a young college student named David Backes—struggling, feeling lost and adrift and about to drop out of school—wrote a letter to an author and conservationist named Sigurd F. Olson. He expressed his despondence and confusion to a man who, for some reason, he thought might understand. Who might even be able to help.
David had spent the previous summer camping in the Ely area, where he and his family had taken many happy camping and canoeing trips, and during that time had discovered and read two of Olson’s books, The Singing Wilderness and Reflections From the North Country. They had struck a chord in a young man who loved the outdoors. And the words on the pages provided a hint that here was someone who knew some essential things about life, someone a young person might be able to reach out to for guidance and understanding.
Exactly one month earlier, another young man living and teaching school in Morris Minnesota, sent Sigurd Olson a very similar letter. He, too, felt lost and uncertain. He, too, had recently discovered Olson’s books. He, too, had been moved—even to tears—by the words on the page. And he, too, had the strange feeling that here was a person who might somehow be able to help.
The second young man was me.
David and I did not know each other then, had never even met. But without realizing it, we were connected by our shared difficulties and confusion, and by our impulse to reach out to someone we thought could help. When we compare notes now, the similarities and parallels are striking.
Within a week, David received an answer that changed and gave direction to his life.
“There is no substitute for a college degree,” read the letter, “Much as you may hate to sit behind a desk…. Talk to your professors and advisors and don’t worry too much about the major right now. That will come in time. With your love of the wilderness and a definite objective your grades will go up. What you need to do now is pour all of your energies into your work accumulating all the possible information you can get.”
I, too, received an answer within a week. “What a beautiful letter,” said the words. “You really impressed me with the exquisite depth of your understanding and your need of the North Country, and you said so hauntingly well I am sure I have not seen the last of your reflections…. You have talent, I know that. Keep on working away and someday you’ll arrive.”
Both David and I were shy, unsure about reaching out and “bothering” this famous author. Neither of us really thought we’d get an answer. And both our lives were changed—and redirected—when we did. Had either of us realized how incredibly busy and burdened this 78 year-old man was, we would probably not have even tried. It is good we did not know. Because we both needed an answer, needed the feeling that someone heard what we said, understood how we felt, and would take the time to encourage us.
David became a teacher—a college professor—helping countless other young people reach for their dreams and sort out the choices and challenges of life. He also became a writer and Sigurd Olson’s official biographer, telling the story of Sig’s life—including all his own difficulties, fears, and doubts—in the beautiful book, A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson.
I became a writer as well, first of songs and later of many books, including my latest memoir, Deep Woods, Wild Waters, the story of my own lifelong love affair with the natural world and the North Woods.
It is my considered opinion that none of this would have happened had we not stumbled upon the writings of Sigurd Olson, and more particularly had not each of us sat down to write a letter, and received a beautiful and caring answer in response.
Sig Olson is remembered and revered today for many things—for his beautiful books, for his environmental and wilderness ethic, for his hard and fruitful work to preserve wild and natural areas in the North Country and all over the continent. But perhaps one of the least known aspects of his life and career was the way in which he gave a helping hand, a listening ear, warm counsel and advice, to literally countless individuals, often young people, who needed just that. Often responding in a matter of hours or days to the many letters and requests he received. David and I were by no means exceptions, but rather examples of a commitment Sig Olson took seriously and lived every day.
Life is hard. It is confusing and challenging and full of twisty trails and difficult portages. It can be discouraging. Everyone needs a little extra help once in awhile. Here at the Listening Point Foundation we have declared this our “Year For Youth,” as we highlight the importance of mentoring and making connections with younger generations. And we can all make a difference. Sometimes it is hard to imagine, with all of our own life difficluties, our acknowledged shortcomings and limitations, that what we say and do really matters, can really make a difference to someone. That we are really important in the scheme of things.
We are. For although few of us may ever have the public impact of a Sigurd F. Olson, each of us is vitally important. To someone. Each of us can help someone. I have a favorite little saying that I’ve often shared around the campfire with groups I’ve guided on wilderness trips: “There’s no such thing as V.I.P’s. (Very Important People) Just I.P’s (Important People.)” Sooner or later on a canoe trip you discover there is only one way to sit around a campfire—in a circle, no one in a more elevated or more important place than anyone else. Everyone equally responsible and equally involved. There is another saying: “To the world you may just be one person; but to one person you may be the world.”
And so we encourage all our LPF friends to make a special effort this year to do what Sigurd Olson did. Connect to the next generation. Remind them they are important and have something to offer and contribute. Share your wisdom and your passion, and help pass on the legacy of caring for our environment and our natural heritage. Remember someone who helped you along in life, and be that person for someone else—someone who may be young and in need of guidance. Help the Listening Point Foundation celebrate the “Year For Youth.”
That would make Sig Olson proud.