By: Steffi O'Brien
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.