Forty years ago today I wrote a letter that changed my life. Well, really, it was the one I received six days later that changed it, and in the forty years since then there has not been a day in which I haven’t remembered with gratitude the man who wrote it.
I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was totally lost. I had made a terrible mistake in my freshman year, doing something I thought quite practical: I filled my second semester with three five-credit courses. Five credits of calculus, five credits of organic chemistry, and five credits of zoology. I thought I would get these basic requirements over with so I could get to more interesting courses as a double major in forestry and wildlife ecology.
It hadn’t occurred to me that taking these simultaneously at one of the world’s top universities would be too tough a challenge. How naive I was! One at a time, I could handle. But all three–I was blown away. By the end of freshman year I was on academic probation, and my low grades kept me from going into either of the programs I had intended to enter.
My parents, who didn’t understand why I couldn’t just go into business, fortunately understood me enough to recommend I spend that summer of 1976 in a tent just a few miles outside of Ely, Minn., at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I had been going there on vacations since 1963, and it was where I felt most centered. I spent many of my days that summer helping workers build my parents’ cabin, but I had lots of free time to explore, and took full advantage of it. I spent some of my time high up in a white pine, looking out over the lake and the forest beyond. On windy days I would climb as high as I could and hold on, rocking back and forth in the breeze. In late afternoons and early evenings I’d often go to a small local dump where black bears would congregate after the gate closed at 5 p.m., and I’d practice my sneaking skills. If the wind was right I could get within about 15 feet. At night I’d listen to loons, a barred owl, and, occasionally, a pack of wolves that traveled through on their circuit. Once, they surrounded my tent, howling. It was so loud I winced with pain and covered my ears.
In short, it was a memorable summer that healed me enough to try the university for a second year. And I had a reasonably good fall semester, including a course by one of my favorite professors of all time, Joe Hickey. Seventy years old and in his final semester before retirement, this world-renowned ecologist was a dynamic teacher and a kind man who would put his arm around your shoulder if he saw you outside of class. But second semester came and once again I had classes that did not interest me, and the sense of futility returned, along with a powerful desire to escape to some wild place, like the character played by Robert Redford in my favorite movie, “Jeremiah Johnson.”
I couldn’t tell my parents about any of this; they simply would not have been able to understand. But I thought of someone who might—Sigurd F. Olson, who lived in Ely, Minn., and was a bestselling nature writer and a national icon for his leadership in preserving wildlands. I didn’t yet know how important he was in setting aside wilderness areas, national parks, and scenic rivers, but I had read two of his books–The Singing Wilderness and Reflections from the North Country, the latter of which had just come out in October 1976. I felt a kinship with him and his way of looking at things.
That’s why, on February 23, 1977, I sat at my dorm room desk in 228 Sullivan Hall and wrote to Sigurd. I really didn’t think I’d get an answer, but I had to try. I was almost out of hope. “I am a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin and it seems harder and harder for me to do schoolwork or go to classes,” I wrote.
I started out as an eager student of wildlife ecology, but it seemed like no matter how hard I studied, I couldn’t get good grades. ….I keep wondering if it’s worth it. My heart and mind are on the wilderness, especially after last summer which I spent in a tent on Garden Lake….Do you think school is necessary to get a type of job in a national park or forest or wilderness area that pays enough money to support a family?
Sigurd’s letter arrived six days after I sent mine. He had responded within twenty-four hours of receiving my letter. Today, as his biographer, I look back on that with amazement, for I know now that he had a daily pile of letters, including correspondence on environmental issues in which he was actively involved. In addition, despite being almost 78 years old, he was still traveling on environmental business for the Wilderness Society and other groups, and still doing book signings. He was, in other words, far busier than I had known when I wrote to him. He wrote a little over a page, but here was the key part:
There is no substitute for a college degree much as you hate to sit behind a desk….Talk to your professors and advisors and don’t worry too much about a 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.
One of the great things about being Sigurd’s biographer is that I have heard many stories from people who were close to giving up, wrote to Sigurd, and received a prompt response that gave them enough hope to hang on and follow their dream. And as I poured through his collected papers at the Minnesota History Center in the early 1990s I saw many exchanges of letters such as the above. But what a surprise it was to start reading another one only to have the lights go on: Hey! That’s MY LETTER!
Sigurd’s letter didn’t magically dispell my confusion: I still didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t even know what I was going to major in. But the fact that he wrote gave me the hope I needed at that moment, and I kept plugging away. I ended up switching majors a couple of more times, and finally chose one I didn’t even care about, just so I could graduate in four years and get the heck out of school and move close to the wilderness. Meanwhile, I stayed in touch with Sigurd, and next time I was in Ely I dropped in at his house to meet him. Unannounced! I was too shy to try to arrange anything, but with my letter from him in hand I had his address and I had to see what his house looked like. And his writing shack. His wife, Elizabeth, saw me when I was still thirty feet from the door, invited me in, and brought Sigurd and me some milk and cookies.
A year later, in 1979, after I graduated (true!), Judi and I moved up to Ely, and we got to know Sigurd and Elizabeth better, and I found a job at the Ely Echo newspaper and discovered–I should say rediscovered–my love of writing. Sigurd encouraged me to try graduate school. I did. Not as easily as that, though! Because of my early stumbling as an undergrad, I had to get a second undergraduate degree to show I had brains. Sigurd died before I started my first graduate classes. I wrote my master’s thesis about the campaign he led to get airplanes banned from the wilderness canoe country. I was strongly encouraged to go on for a PhD. I did, and discovered my love of teaching. My dissertation and first book was a history of the canoe country. Sigurd was in it, of course. In 1990 Elizabeth, then 93 years old, gave me permission to write his biography.
I race through all the above–and I could have added much more–to make it clear just how much my life has been impacted by Sigurd Olson, and that letter he wrote to me when I felt like giving up. My career and many of my dearest friends are a direct result of that little act of kindness. And one of the great joys of my life has been to try to pay it forward–to encourage others who are down and close to giving up. As a college professor for more than a quarter of a century, I had many wonderful opportunities to do just that. Not a semester went by without my telling students about how I almost flunked out, then almost dropped out, and how the kindness of someone who was still a stranger at that point gave me the hope I needed. I know how much many, if not most, of my students needed to hear this, for despite the lip service Americans give to the notion of “following a dream,” in reality the pressure is strong on students to sell short their dreams and do something “practical.” My favorite part of teaching was to help them recover the dream.
My biography of Sigurd will turn twenty years old this August. Maybe when the anniversary rolls around I’ll write more about that, for it, too, changed my life in profound ways. But for now, on this 40th anniversary of a letter that made it all possible, I simply wish to express my never-ending gratitude for the kindness of this very busy, great man.