David Backes Sigurd Olson nature spirituality photography awe wonder silence solitude
My earliest memory is the cry of gulls. I was standing in the shade on the lower level of a double-decker boat, and their calls tantalized me to get a better view from the top deck. I remember emerging from the shadows into a dazzling sun that made the bright orange deck glisten. And there they were, circling above, with brilliant white wings and haunting cries.

From that blue sky day in the Gulf of Mexico at the age of two I have been drawn to wild things, and my many encounters across North America are like cairns, marking the bends and turns of my life’s journey. In August of 2015 I retired from a long career as a university professor who was fortunate enough to focus my writing and much of my teaching on various aspects of the relationships between nature and the human spirit.

During my college days I discovered the writings of Sigurd F. Olson. They–and he–have played a major role in my life ever since. I got to know him during the final five years of his life, and eventually as a professor I got to write the biography of this small town Minnesotan, widely beloved for his nature writing and tremendously respected as a national leader in the movement to preserve wild places. Sigurd once wrote a book called Runes of the North, in which he described his own encounters with nature and the deep meanings he drew from them. “I have known mountains and glaciers, forests and tundras,” he wrote, “and have gathered runes wherever I have gone.” When I decided to build this site, and thought about my goals, it was only natural that Sigurd’s words would point the way.

There are two sections to this site. On the main page you’ll see lots of photos: each one of them is like a rune–a symbol pointing to something deeper, an encounter that provides a sense of meaning and connectedness. Click on them to see where they lead you. The other section is the blog, which will focus on the day-to-day little things that contribute to a strong sense of place, as well as posts that explore philosophical, spiritual, and religious dimensions of being fully human on a little blue planet in a huge universe. The latter will incorporate some of the runes I have gathered as an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and as someone who has read widely and with great appreciation the insights of fellow travelers from all kinds of other traditions and cultures. My original intent was to post weekly, but starting in November 2016 I began working on other writing projects, and that may make my posting a little less regular. It won’t be more than once a week, but sometimes I may go several weeks between putting up new content. You also can subscribe and receive email notifications, if you’d like to visit only when you’re sure there is something new.

Sigurd Olson was proud of his Swedish heritage, but he got the idea of using runes as a metaphor from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala. This excerpt below, which Sigurd used in Runes of the North, has always touched me, and I think it expresses some of the spirit I hope to bring to this project:

Only I am left to sing these tales learned from riddles, snatched from the wayside, broken from the heather, torn from the bushes, drawn from the waters, rubbed from the blades of grass, and reft from the roadside….

The frost squeaked verses to me, and the rain chanted runes. The winds whistled other lays carried by the waves of the sea. Birds twittered words, and the boughs of the trees whispered charms.

These I twined into a ball which was carried in my sledge to a barn where the grain dried. The ball of verse was placed into a copper casket, hidden on a beam of the barn loft.

My verses waited in the cold; long they yearned in the darkness….Shall I draw forth my songs from the chilly frost?…Shall I open the chest of words, set tune to phrases, unwind the ball, and straighten out the knots in the yarns?

[Note: If you have come here from the main page of my old Sigurd F. Olson website, the Sigurd F. Olson Environmental Institute has started making the content available again, and you can find it here.  I am glad to see it available once again, and look forward to seeing the site grow over time.]

15 Comments

  1. Jerry Esch
    June 15, 2015

    David, I look forward to reading your explorations of these remarkable themes. How do you explain the wonders – or spiritual qualities – of wilderness with our everyday speech, which lacks the words to do so? The ancient runes, representing a lost language, are the perfect metaphor for the mystery and magic we all need to rediscover.

    Reply
    • David Backes
      June 15, 2015

      Thanks Jerry! Yes, that is exactly why I chose the idea of runes!

      Reply
      • Deacon Tom Molineaux
        January 2, 2017

        Hi Deacon Dave,

        Happy New Year! I would like to talk to you sometime about your ministry with Climate Change. I am a deacon in the Archdiocese of Washington (DC that is). Laudato Si’ changed my whole understanding of climate justice. Most of my life I have lived with my head buried in the sand about this issue just as most Americans still do.

        But after reading the encyclical it has changed my thinking. I think now that this is a time for hope! But we cannot let this linger for the next generation to solve. But as I see it, our young people are where our leadership is needed to guide them to act on solutions since they will be the ones most affected.

        Laudato Si’ points to the urgency of Pope Francis’ message, which I agree with you that our American bishops are not taking seriously for the most part. In November I actually sent letters to over 200 of them (anonymously of course). I can share the letter with you if you’re interested. I received a total of 1 response only to say that the letter was received and was being forwarded to the proper bishop! But I believe my purpose may still have been achieved.

        Let me know when you’re free to talk.

        Peace,

        Tom

        Reply
  2. Nancy Kilgore
    August 16, 2015

    Hi David,

    I just discovered your lovely blog/website while looking for that quote on busyness by Thomas Merton. Thanks so much for offering your reflections here.
    It sounds like we have a lot in common. – nature, mysticism, meaning, theology. I’m a pastoral counselor and writer.

    Nancy

    Reply
    • David Backes
      August 18, 2015

      Hi Nancy,
      I am happy that someone with so much in common has discovered my new website and blog! I look forward to checking out yours as well.
      Peace, David

      Reply
      • David Backes
        August 18, 2015

        The link didn’t seem to work. In any case, feel free to comment on anything that touches you in some way. Peace, David

        Reply
  3. Michael Arloski
    August 18, 2015

    Thank you David for initiating this way of sharing the wisdom of nature, people like Sig, and yourself. I look forward to sitting with a cuppa hot tea and dreaming of the wild places where I’d rather be.

    Be wild! Be well!

    Michael From Mountains

    Reply
    • David Backes
      August 18, 2015

      Thank you Michael! I hope you’ll keep finding things here that make your tea time a happy time!
      Peace, David

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Terry
    January 3, 2016

    I came across your website while researching ideas for a theme/s for a Lenten series to be offered in our meditation room at Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, PA. I came across a blog you had written entitled “Lent as an Oasis.” I thank you for turning my thinking on its head, a bit, in reference to Lent, and I look forward to reading more of your “runes.”

    Reply
    • David Backes
      January 4, 2016

      Thanks, Elizabeth! Yes, that was part of my old blog, New Wood. Gathering Runes has a different emphasis but also some overlapping interests, so I hope you will find worthwhile things here, too.

      Reply
  5. Marc LeFebre
    September 22, 2016

    After a rushed dinner of defrosted and baked Alaskan wild salmon, I had the pleasure of finding the salmon migration film you posted. It’s just what I needed to feel reconnected to the source!
    I hope you will be at NAAEE. See you there?

    Reply
    • David Backes
      September 23, 2016

      I’m glad you liked it! Yes, I will be at NAAEE. Nice to be able to drive! And my passenger will be Ken, who is spending a few days with us before the conference. It will be great to see you, Marc!

      Reply
  6. Deacon Tom
    November 18, 2017

    Just catching up on some of your blogs. Excellent as usual! Glad to see you’re still hangin’ tight with your climate change discussion (July?). Someone’s got to!

    Reading between the lines of Laudato Si in 2015, it was clear to me immediately that Pope Francis really had little hope that needed changes were possible before Earth’s sixth mass extinction begins to take place. The silver lining – plenty of opportunities for martyrdom should become available pretty soon. Maybe that will be part of a future encyclical!

    Blessings to you and yours for a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season.

    Reply
    • David Backes
      November 19, 2017

      Hi Tom,

      Happy holidays to you as well. Yes, I especially post and comment about it on Facebook. While we technically have the capability of doing the things necessary to keep the total average increase below 2 degrees Celsius, it doesn’t look like the political will to do so is going to be there in time. One peer-reviewed paper this summer that got a lot of attention said there’s now about a five percent chance. And if we don’t start a permanent decline in the use of fossil fuels by 2020, you can pretty much forget it. As Pope Francis has said more than once, time is running out. Unfortunately, by the time the disastrous effects make it impossible for politicians to ignore, it will be too late to avoid catastrophe. It will, instead, be a matter of trying to stay below a 4-degree Celsius increase. If we hit 4C, we’ll be committing half of all species to extinction, and the forced migrations of the massive numbers of humans living along the oceans. Every tenth of a degree we can shave off will be better than doing nothing, but realistically the future looks grim.

      Reply
  7. Deacon Tom
    November 22, 2017

    David – There’s a book that I’m reading, “American War” by Omar El Akkad, a rare novel for me. It’s about a family’s experience after climate degradation has spiraled out of control. The author’s depiction of post-cataclysmic, late 21st century America is actually a bit tamer than what my own prediction for that time would conjure up. Pretty good read though.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Reply

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