By David Backes
Published in the Summer 2016 LPF Newsletter, page 7
Excerpts from Sigurd’s writings have been published in a variety of languages, including Russian and Arabic, but a Chinese company is the first to publish a complete translation of one of Sigurd’s books. SDX Joint Publishing Co. in Beijing has published a Chinese edition of The Singing Wilderness, and sent me several copies just in time for the Listening Point Foundation annual luncheon in St. Paul on April 9.
It was a long time in the making. I was contacted by the publisher in the summer of 2010, and there were several exchanges of emails but communication was difficult and spotty. Once they published it, they were supposed to send me copies for the LPF, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, and the Olson family. I never heard from them after 2010, and wondered if they ever finished it.
That fall of 2010, at my annual conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education, I met and became friends with a young Chinese woman, Yan Zhu, who was starting a doctoral program in Florida. She happened to have spent some time at Wolf Ridge, and so she knew of Sigurd Olson and had read The Singing Wilderness. She was excited to learn that a Chinese publisher was interested in making available a translation.
After years of no communication from China, we both wondered what had happened. This past December Jo Jo (as friends call her) finished her PhD and moved back to China. Soon after arriving, she discovered that the book had been published in 2012! Jo Jo set about learning who to contact, and making sure they lived up to the agreement to send those books. The surprise package from China arrived at my house on April 2.
The translator is Cheng Hong, a professor in the foreign languages department at Capital University of Economics and Business, in Beijing. She has taught English there for more than 30 years, and during a period in the mid-1990s as a visiting scholar at Brown University in Rhode Island she developed an interest in nature writing and eco-criticism. She has one book of her own about British and American nature writers, called Tranquility
Her husband, by the way, is Li Kequiang. Li just happens to be Premier of the People’s Republic of China—the head of China’s government. He took that office in March 2013.
Editor’s note: In the following article, written in 1996, Sig’s son Robert recalls details of the Olson family home in Ely. This home, recently purchased by the Listening Point Foundation, now provides many opportunities for the Foundation to advance Sig’s legacy of wilderness education.
Sig and Elizabeth moved from the Rapson House on Harvey St. up to the new house on the hill south of town in August 1934. There are no letters about the move, but it must have been hectic because it was at that time of the year that the Border Lakes was going full blast, which meant a twelve-hour day, seven days a week. I remember absolutely nothing about the move although I was nine and old enough to have know what was going on. My only recollection is that Sig was happier about the move than Elizabeth. She remarked many times how she missed being in town and seeing the children walking by on their way to school. I think I found it a great adventure and looked forward to living out of town near the woods and fields.
The house was not totally unfamiliar to me anyhow. I had visited there many times with my little friend Ricky Bang who lived there with his sister (name forgotten) and parents, Dorothy and Luther Bang. Bang worked for one of the mining companies and had a dreadful temper. They used to call him “the terrible tempered Mr. Bang” after a cartoon character of the period.
The house itself, which was built in 1928, was only half finished. The upstairs was without a bath and more like an attic than an upstairs. That is where the Bang children slept and must have half frozen to death in winter. The setting in 1934 was bleak. The house was set in the middle of a grassy field studded with piles of rocks, piled up, presumably, by someone who had once farmed it. There was neither shrubbery nor even trees in the yard except for three small box elders planted in a line just to the east of the house. On the other hand, it had a great view over town and no other buildings between it and the woods across the field to the south. The only tree that I can remember was the beautiful clump of birches in the middle of the field back of the house, which now appears to be dying.
The carpenters must have been busy that summer. When we moved in, the upstairs had been finished in its present dimensions so that Sig Jr. and I had a proper bedroom to ourselves. This is the room which Sig used for a bedroom for many years. Elizabeth’s bedroom was used by Sig for work and writing.
We shared the hill then with only one neighbor, Florence and Pete Peterson who owned the brick Dutch colonial house just to the West. They owned Peterson’s Fishing Camp on Hoist Bay of Basswood Lake, and Pete was partner with Sig and Wally Hanson in the Border Lakes Outfitters. Relations between the families were close and for the most part cordial. The families socialized together, attended the same church, hunted ducks together, and cross-country skied during the winter. A few years later, the Chinn family, also members of the Presbyterian Church and part of the mining community, built a new house to the west of the Petersons. Jim and Merle Call built next to us sometime after the war. It was all very neighborly and cozy.
The writing shack began as the family garage, which was located to the right of the entryway approximately where the big spruce now stands. The garage was converted into the writing shack in 1937 at a cost of $150 and moved to its present location. The work was done by Border Lakes employee Alex Peura of Winton. A set of clothesline posts completed the backyard and served to suspend many a deer.
The new garage was added to the main house in 1938.
These were the years when Sig converted the raw material of his surroundings into the yard as you now see it with the stone walls, shrubbery, and trees. Elizabeth had wanted a landscaper to do a design for the yard along conventional lines, but Sig would have nothing to do with that nonsense. He wanted to landscape the yard in native shrubs and trees and along informal lines, so there was much hauling in of spruce, maples, birch and even a scrub oak from the woods (see “Scrub Oak” in The Singing Wilderness). Hauling in the rocks and piling them into the stone wall was a labor we all pitched in on. We rejoiced at what we had done and Sig describes his thoughts and feeling in “Stone Wall” also in The Singing Wilderness. The only drawback for me was that for many years I had the job of mowing and trimming the lawn, which included clipping by hand the grass that grew up between the rocks in the wall, a real chore.
For me, the lore of the old house is that it was in that house that the family matured and came to define itself. It was during those years that the Olson family established its traditions, memories, and way of life. The house was small and cramped (775 square feet of floor space). But it always seemed to be full of fun, comfort, security, and friends, at least from the boys’ point of view. Both Sig and Elizabeth had their problems, Sig with a place to get away to work free from telephone and friends, Elizabeth with a cramped little kitchen and tiny closets. Every inch of space including the basement was put to use. Cousin Curtis Uhrenholdt expanded the family for a couple of years (1939-1940) so that Elizabeth had to feed a family of five on the dining room table set against the living room staircase. The boys and Curtis filled the upstairs. Sig and Elizabeth slept in the downstairs bedroom. Fortunately (for all concerned) Sig now had his writing shack where he could get away.
The Porch was built during the summer of 1954 by Harvey Tjader, Esther’s older brother. It was never called anything else. Credit for actually doing it should rightly go to Elizabeth. They had talked about adding another downstairs room for years but Sig never took the time to do anything about it. Finally, Elizabeth put her foot down and made it happen. Much pleasure and congratulations all around when it was finished.
It transformed the house, added a stunningly beautiful new room, and provided the increasingly necessary space for entertaining as Sig became more and more involved with the conservation community. In a way, the Porch marks the end of one, mostly family, life and the beginning of another life of affairs.
A decade and a half ago Bob and Vonnie Olson and some of their bighearted friends dreamed and worked the Listening Point Foundation into existence. That founding group included Chuck Wick (still Vice President of the Foundation today) Dave Peterson, Milt Stenlund, Sigurd T. Olson, Dave Zentner, David Backes, and Randy Pachal.
It was their vision that as long as the sun and rain fell on an iconic little finger of granite and greenstone in the Quetico-Superior, it would be protected—as a place others might visit to find a little of what Sigurd F. Olson had found there, and as a source of inspiration for dreams of their own. The second part of the vision was to nurture and promote Sigurd’s lifelong passion of wilderness education, the timeless value of wild things and wild places in a modern world.
Today, there are many grateful beneficiaries of these efforts. The rocky point, still sheltered by white and red pines, still reaches unencumbered into the waters of a clear, north woods lake. Waves still wash over ten thousand year-old glacial striations at its tip. The simple footpaths that Sig and Elizabeth so often walked remain much as they were, leading nowhere in particular but to a better understanding of one’s self and one’s place on this earth. The enormous guardian boulder, covered with lichens, mosses, and ferns, still guards the point and the rough little Finnish cabin that Sigurd built there.
The cabin itself looks completely unchanged, but thanks to ongoing efforts at maintenance and refurbishing is actually in better shape than ever before. Cedar shake shingles have been replaced, with many of the old ones finding their way to walls and dens of Listening Point admirers around the country. Stonework and masonry has been re-done, every stone catalogued and lovingly replaced exactly from whence it came. Logs have been treated to prevent damage from weathering and insects. The old wood stove is occasionally fired up and LPF board meetings held around the old pine table, where new dreams are dreamed and new plans laid. And the objective of preserving the Point and the cabin has been furthered greatly by establishment of a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust and listing of the property in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Hundreds of visitors indeed still come to the Point every year, guided by Chuck and Executive Director Alanna Dore, or other volunteers. History is imparted, along with a deep sense of place and timeless values.
Visitors often remark on the feeling of something like a pilgrimage, a sense that it is somehow vital that such a place exists, and that other places like it be preserved and appreciated. Perhaps, as they listen to the song of a white-throated sparrow or the breeze through those pines, or the call of a loon from out on the lake, they think of Sigurd’s words, “Everyone has a Listening Point somewhere.”
Meanwhile, the goal of wilderness education has been furthered in countless ways. Membership has increased tenfold, with newsletters like this one keeping folks abreast of LPF activities. Every spring a popular Sigurd F. Olson birthday luncheon is held in St. Paul, with speakers like Jim Brandenburg, Will Steger, and Don Shelby. In the last three years a similar evening dinner has been held in Ely so that folks from the North Woods can attend without traveling so far. The Foundation has sponsored “Paddling With Sig” canoe trips and “Writers In The Wilderness” writing workshops. The BBC hosted a worldwide broadcast on wilderness from the Point, and this spring and summer an exceptional SFO exhibit is in place at the International Wolf Center—”The Legacy of Sigurd F. Olson: Wilderness, Writing, and Wolves.” Educational outreach materials like the booklets, “The Story of Listening Point” and “Sig Olson’s Wilderness Moments” have been produced and distributed, along with a “Singing Wilderness” teaching packet.
And of course in the digital age we now have a lovely website and even a Facebook page.
All of these and many other balls are kept in the air largely through the passionate efforts of Executive Director Alanna Dore, who never knew Sig, but who feels a spiritual kinship so deep that it shines through in all she does, and that permeates the work of the Foundation. Sig would have liked A.D.
Also to be credited in all this work is a fine Board of Directors who take time out from their busy lives to see that Bob and Vonnie’s founding vision is fulfilled.
So, the pines on Listening Point still sing in the wind, the cabin snuggled safely beneath as always. The rocks and plants and trails are as they were, and people come to listen and see and feel, sensing and absorbing things that a wilderness philosopher thought important. And ripples that wash upon the ancient rock shore are reflected by ripples that wash outward into the world, ripples of the thoughts and words and actions of Sigurd F. Olson, who wrote: “Listening Point is dedicated to recapturing (the)
almost forgotten sense of wonder and learning from rocks and trees and all the life that is found there, truths that can encompass all…. I must leave it as beautiful as I found it. Nothing must ever happen there that might detract in the slightest from what it now had.”
We’re working on it, Sig. We’re working on it.
—Douglas Wood (President of LPF)
You can help preserve this historical site!
The passage of time and the weathering effects of the elements are taking their toll on the Listening Point structures. In 2009 Sig’s cedar dock needed to be replaced. Last year we restored the cabin’s iconic stone steps and a section of the fireplace hearth. In addition, the entire stone foundation of the cabin was rebuilt. Exactly re-positioning each stone required a special touch and know-how. Now Sig’s sauna is showing signs of decline.
Listening Point was the key to Sigurd Olson’s heart and soul. For a quarter century it provided him the insights, inspiration and perspective that helped him to become one of the leading literary and conservation voices of his era.
The Listening Point Foundation Board of Directors has created a fund dedicated to the long-term maintenance of the Point. If we are able to raise $15,000, a generous supporter has agreed to match that amount. To date, individuals have given more than $9000 toward this goal. Now, we need to hear from you! Would you please consider donating to the Listening Point Preservation Fund today, thus doubling the impact of your investment in the Point? Just click the Donate button at the top and fill in the amount at PayPal.
With your help, we can preserve the natural and historic integrity of Listening Point in perpetuity, so that it can continue to serve future generations as a place of inspiration and a symbol of wilderness, just as it did for Sig.