January 12, 1930
Sigurd's earliest discovered journal entry.
This is Sigurd’s earliest discovered journal entry. He had found an abandoned cabin on Grassy Lake, not far from town, and had begun regularly traveling out to it and spending the evening or night. In this handwritten entry (as usual, on looseleaf paper) he discusses happiness, writing, and thoughts of getting his master’s degree in zoology. In the fall of 1931, he would give in to that goal, and take his family down to Champaign, Illinois, where he would earn his master’s degree in zoology. His major professor would be the nation’s leading animal ecologist, Victor Shelford, and Sigurd’s thesis would be the first scientific study of the timber wolf. And, as this entry suggests, he would hate almost every minute of it.
A beautiful morning after a fresh snowfall. Made it out here in less than an hour and good going.
Coming out I realized as I have many times that the greatest happiness for me is my enjoyment of nature. No matter how much money I accumulate and under what conditions I live there is and always will be one prime source of contentment and that is in the observation of and exhilarating enjoyment of the woods. I think I can be very happy if I get into my writing stride again — My needs are few. If happiness is everyday life if we make our heaven here on earth then I must really be reaping [can’t make out word] bit of heaven right now — Sometimes I think my range must be small because it takes so little to satisfy but after all is not the realization of one’s wants happiness enough. Above all things I desire happiness. I have a wife who I love more than any one else in the world & two boys both as fine as nature can make them. I have the woods and close contact with the nature I love — Altho I do not or imagine I do not care for my work think of the advantage I have over others who have only a short time of the year to enjoy themselves. When I think of the life I would lead if I became ambitious & became [can’t make out word] to a new job I am sometimes stunned. True happiness comes only to those who realize what they want and attain it. My philosophy makes me content. Research which I should be pursuing were I to attain the goal as a zoologist holds terrors for me. I would much rather dream & write vaguely than force myself down to the cut & dried realism of classification and analysis. I should forget my ambitions & oursue to the exclusion of all else the one goal I think will bring happiness, writing. The very thought of writing, makes me happy and I am never so happy as when I am putting down my thoughts. Failure to do so gives me always a sense of futility a sense of loss and wasted time. Creation individual creation & thoughts be they only dream castles to me is worth more than putting out weighty tomes of scientific lore. How many scientists are cold analysts how many of them in their zeal for ambitious work lose sight of the wonder of creation. How often do they fail to see the [can’t make out word] underlying principle of existence. How often do they fail to see the beauty through their microscopic and statistical intelligences. To me beauty is all, to me it is far more worth while to feel the glory of a sunny morning on the snow than it is to obtain a new specimen, a specimen that hitherto had missed the Lynnaean system — That to me is mere book keeping —
What shall I write —Write what you know best of, what you have most feeling [can’t make out word]. That to me of course is the woods, nature animal and wild life — That I know best & should I pin myself down to articles & stories of nature until I have become recognized I then touch the human element but not before. By writing sincerely about what is closest to my heart I will eventually obtain the goal. Write beautifully, simply and not for money, for the love that you [can’t make out end of sentence].
It is cold, my hands are cold and my mind is becoming frigid. I must soon leave again for town — A glorious run over the snows and then it is over. Putting down my scattered thoughts this morning has been a relief and a queer pleasure.
January 16, 1930
Sigurd compares his life with that of John Burroughs.
Today I have read the life of John Burroughs and have been impressed with a strange similarity between his life and mine. He found the same inability to resign himself to business and the humdrum existence of commercial life. After teaching school for some ten years and nagged by an ambitious wife to try to put his good brain to some lucrative use, he tries anything that will give him a release but only to find that he cannot devote his mind to it. In the midst of figuring and worry he finds himself slipping away to do some scribbling as his friends called it. Many is the time he was discouraged and hopeless but there was always his outdoors to give him renewed strength and vision. I have been teaching for ten years with the same leisure he had, leisure devoted to rambles in the woods, reading and thinking. I have browsed among the philosophers perhaps more contemporary in their scope but not any more hampering than his. Mine have given me the best of modern thought explanations of the slow old theories he had but the result has been the same. I have gotten a broad scope and understanding of human nature and of man’s relation to the universe that I could never have gotten any other way. What has my reading been through the past ten years if not a conscious search for the truth, the truth regarding religion, faith in God and immortality. I have read the beliefs of all the great thinkers of our day and have come to the conclusion that they know no more than I do myself. My belief in God and immortality is as strong as theirs and in many cases I know that mine is much more founded upon solidity than theirs. I know and that is more than many of them can say most of their beliefs are still hampered by their old inhibitions. No matter what their greatness or their standing it often happens that they have arrived at the ripeness or so-called supposed ripeness of maturity with nothing to show but the stereotyped ideas of books that they have read and ideas that have been drilled into them since youth. Or else they are still afraid to come out boldly and declare themselves. My reading and research has at least enabled me to draw definite conclusions that for me will never be altered. In that knowledge I have found a peace and an understanding of human motives that makes the most profound happening as transparent in its scope as spring water. True culture according to Zoroaster is when a man knows that he knows and knows what he does not know. I know that I know and I do not think the past ten years have been wasted in finding out.
I have been my own University. I did not being to get my education at school. All I learned there was enough to enable me to teach a primary subject and to earn my livelihood. That much I have it to thank for but for real understanding that I have my own tireless research and unconsciously well directed efforts to thank. Many is the time I have looked over the reading and thinking I have done during the last years with a pang of regret thinking of all the time wasted. At the time all of the satisfactions I did have was that it gave me pleasure. It brought me slowly to a peace and calmness that will never leave me.
January 20, 1930
Sigurd discusses what he would later call his "flashes of insight."
Below is most of a very long and fascinating journal entry in which he discusses what he would come to call his “flashes of insight” and their meaning and importance. Note his anecdote about Robinson Peak, which eventually would become the centerpiece of the most important essay in his book The Singing Wilderness, the essay titled “Silence.”
Have been reading Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago. The more I read of the great naturalist poets the more is my belief vindicated. They are akin to me in every action every thought. Hudson in his attempt to explain his feeling toward supernatural in nature tells the feeling he has at certain times, moonlit nights in particular toward trees, horizons, space a feeling of awe and reverence almost akin as it developes to fear but intensely fascinating and impossible to subdue. How well do I recognize the same in my own reactions. Yesterday while on my skis, pausing on the high ridge north of Grassy Lake and overlooking twenty miles of wilderness valley to the great range to the southward, for a moment I had the sensation of harmony with the infinite. As Hudson expresses it when he had climbed a hill to look for the sunset, “I sat down and waited for it to take me.” This being taken expresses it so perfectly that any further attempt would be superfluous. One is taken body and soul and while the illusion lasts one is filled with an elation, transported as it were into another world far from the strife of this. It does not last long, can be broken as mine was yesterday by the approach of a truck along the road a quarter mile away. For perhaps a full minute, I stood on my skis steeping myself in the glory of the scene before me. All thought of time had flown or of past and subsequent events, for a moment I was transported. Then like an unpleasant memory I was aware of a hostile influence approaching and I began to retrace the way to the matter of fact. It was nothing but the click, click of a chain striking a fender but it was enough to break the spell. It drew closer and closer until the air was filled with the unpleasant clangor of metal upon metal. I looked up in disgust but the truck was hidden by the trees. It grew fainter and fainter and at last was lost entirely. I stayed for a moment to try and recapture what I had lost but although I did for a brief moment, it was impossible to regain the complete beauty of the first. I pushed on my ski sticks and slid down the trail toward the lake. Once more I had had one of the moments for which I go out. Not always am I so successful. Some days I see nothing, hear nothing, on others every view gives me a glimmer of the goal.
On my canoe trips, much to the secret amusement of my parties, I used to steal away for a silent paddle by myself after the others had gone to bed. They used to chide me about my peculiarities in the morning and make inferences as to my poetic leanings. Many of them would understand however and I would detect a feeling of understanding and sympathy. Most men would do likewise if they could. Few can or are able to see what I see, very few. One must have a peculiar harmony with the infinite, one must be a mystic to see the supernatural. Most of all would I find what I sought on brilliant starlit nights. I would paddle out swiftly onto the open lake if the moon was shining down its path. It never failed to come to me when going down that brilliant shining highway into space. Most completely of all would I be taken when lying on my back looking at the stars. The gentle motion of the canoe softly swaying, the sense of space and infinity given by the stars, gave me the sensation of being suspended in the ether. My body had no weight my soul was detached and I careened freely through a delightfulness of infinite distance. All sense of the present would leave me, all responsibility and worry would flee. Sometimes the night cry of the loon would enhance the illusion. For long periods, I would lay having lost track of time and location. A slap of a wavelet would jerk me back into the present and I would paddle back to the glowing coals of the deserted campfire, there to sit gazing into the coals trying to fathom the depths of the experience I had been through.
In the morning I would receive the jibes of my party with good grace. I knew what they thought, “Moon struck, the yearning of calf love.” Little did they know and how far removed I had been from them. How much would they not give could they have had one of my moments with me. I laugh with them and let them think I am peculiar. I would not think of quarrelling because I have really cheated them out of something they cannot feel.
I remember a sunset on the top of Robinson Peak alone as I must always be if I am to receive the vision in its entirety. The sun a round red ball on the horizons separated from me by leagues and leagues of primitive wilderness. It hung suspended swelling glowing palpitating with energy. For a brief moment I experienced the sensation of feeling the earth move away from the sun. Nothing akin to it had I ever felt. Here was I an atom of life on the rim of the world watching it turn. Never before had I experienced anything which placed me so in harmony with the infinite. The play of gorgeous color on water sky and land no doubt helped to creat the setting but the main sensation the illusion governing the whole was a union of myself with the plan of creation. Then more than at any other time did I feel that I was a part of the beautiful life I loved. From that moment on I was a spiritualist. Nothing could ever take from me what I had found.
Years passed before I could analyze those moments and know in what their attraction for my lay. Now that I know I can see the explanation of many things I have done.
There is no doubt that others have the same feeling though I doubt that they have it to the same degree. Many have a certain appreciation of nature but fail to recognize or if they do recognize do not permit themselves to submit to it thereby losing its completeness. Those who do not see it scoff and call it sentimentalism. And how the sentimentalists are derided. It might hurt that criticism were it justified, but how can such criticism hurt when one’s intellect can see so far beyond the pale of ordinary human perception. Could any criticism of jibe take from the me moment on Robinson Peak or a moment in a canoe in the path of moonlight. Nothing ever said or done can rob me of those moments. I am beyond criticism for I know.
The feeling of the supernatural comes not only on rare occasions but may come at any time lasting perhaps only a fraction of an instant. These fragmentary glimpses into the infinite are fully as inspirational as the longer ones but are not always recognized. The difference between living a drab and uninteresting life and one filled to the brim with thrilling adventures is just that, being able to see and know life’s great moments when they come to you. Someone has said that to be happy one must know that one is happy and supremely happy. One cannot be happy wondering if one is lacking something. To get the full benefit out of anything one must abandon oneself entirely to it to the exclusion of everything else. Through long effort it is graduatlly becoming possible for me to get the maximum of pleasure and enjoyment out of my moments when they come. My greatest moments of happiness are then. I come from them with a new vision of the beauty of life. That is no doubt the secret of my devotion to the outdoors. It is not fishing and hunting or the physical enjoyment of being out but the knowledge that perhaps I will get another one of those glimpses into the unknown. Of late years it has become a mania with me and I will go to any lengths to satisfy it. A day that does not have at least one opportunity to satisfy it, seems to me a day wasted. Days when I have seen my vision are glorious beads on the chain of my life, the others are drab unbrightened stones.
There are few who see what I see, very few. Even the great writers of nature, many of them have failed. Occasionally there crops out an inkling of it but none of the clearness of perception and depth of feeling that I know. Why I should have it I cannot know, perhaps it is an inherited instinct from some far ancestral mystic. Surely none of my family have it, if they do it is hidden and unrecognizable. In me has been concentrated the natureal mysticism of centuries of my race. I have been given the seeing eye. It is my mission to give my vision to the race in return for the beauty that has been shown me. I cannot go through life keeping it to myself. That would be rank ungratitude to the nature, I worship….
February 2, 1930
Sigurd discusses his writing and his dim view of socializing.
I have written nothing in my journal for a week or more having been much too absorbed in the writing of “The Pike Pole” to think of anything but that. Started and wrote most of the tale out at the cabin [abandoned one he found on Grassy Lake near Ely, Minn.] and during the course of the week ran it through five revisions which is where it rests now. Read it to Elizabeth for the first time Saturday night and although I received the criticism I wanted I was greatly encouraged. At least she admitted that it possessed merit and with some more polishing would pass muster in the better class of magazines. It has given me the same old thrill, the writing of this story. Do not think the time will ever come when I will fail to get a great satisfaction out of it.
My work now is to cut down and eliminate unnecessary material. There are many places now that can be cut down. While reading the book The Author’s Art, I was impressed with this unanimity of opinion by all of them, that work in order to be classed as literature must be brief. Try to say in as few words as possible what you have in mind. If one word will take the place of three or four use the one. Brevity is the soul of art. Simplicity is everything. One does not have to use long encumbered words or sentences, because one’s appeal is to the mass and that would be unintelligible to most. Do not cut down however when there is danger of losing one’s thought. Do not write unless you are full of your subject and feel deeply what you have to say. Know your subject above all and give the impression that you have much more to say than you really put on paper. Give the idea that what you have has been boiled down. Do not have one extra word or sentence than is necessary for your thought. This idea of brevity is important and is one of the evils you must conquer.
Read over a story by Herbert Ravenell Sass this morning, “Wild Mother” in the Ladies Home Journal. It gives me confidence. I could have written that thing with ease. Some day I will get my stuff taken and will add materially to my livelihood enough so that I can devote all of my time to my writing instead of my spare moments. That story is nothing exceptional and could have been compared favorably with my Snow Wings [published by Boys’ Life in March 1928]. I know that some day I will sell everything that I write.
Was out to the cabin yesterday. A new snow had fallen and the going was heavy. Went out in the afternoon and read before the fire Burroughs’ essay on Science and the Poets. He always is refreshing and I enjoy his essays much. My little cabin was almost covered with snow.
Saw a movie last night Coconuts a mediocre affair. Afterwards went up to see Wilson and Edna. Luther and Dorothy were there so decided to spend the rest of the evening….Stayed up late and as a result feel the weather this morning, gray and sleepy. Social evenings how wasteful they are of time and thought.
March 12, 1930
A good winter, but his outfitting company work is gearing up and it's hard to find time to write.
The middle section of this journal entry about taxes and sending out letters refers to Sigurd’s outfitting company. He and two partners bought the Border Lakes Outfitting Co. in January 1929, and Sigurd managed it. His personal goal was to make enough money from it that he could give up teaching and spend the school year writing. As this journal entry begins to show, however, it made it very difficult for him to get any writing done once March began, and it would never make enough money to allow him to quit teaching.
It has been long since I have written in my journal, so long in fact that I have lost touch with the train of thought that for so long this winter kept me on the heights. As I look back upon my experience of this winter, I cannot help but feel that I have been through a period of almost etherial bliss, a period of aloofness from the world and all of its strife, a companionship with things of the spirit.
Since I wrote last many things have happened. I finished Logs on the Quetico sent it to the Atlantic Monthly and had it come back with a most complimentary rejection slip. Have not sent it out again, the same old heartaches accompanied it.
Made a trip with Austen of the Biological Survey and received a new impetus to my zoological studies. Seemed to be favorably impressed with my knowledge of this country and its life enough so to asky me to consider the proposition of accepting work for the survey as a resident biologist. I think I could be reasonably happy if I landed it and could get away from the misery of teaching and all of its drawbacks.
Felt quite elated today as I have finished the first income tax report. For a full week I have hardly slept trying to get it out but now my books are in shape and the report is off. Now I must get ready for the work of the spring. Letters, letters letters and more clerical work until I will hardly be able to call a moment my own. There is some sense of accomplishment however and that is something. I finished the job and without help from anybody. That for me who until a year ago had never stared a figure in the face.
The thing that I regret is the withdrawal of my touch with the infinite. It will be hard to give up my books and reading and harder still to bury myself in the mire of activity that broods of no interruption. I must set my face resolutely against it and think that someday it will be the means of securing more leisure than I have ever had before.
The past week it has been warm and I think spring has come. It is hard to believe that the winter has gone and taken with it all of the beauty that is hers. I love the winter, the ski trips and the twilights. Think of the many memories my afternoon jaunts stored up. I was really happier than I knew. I always am in the winter time. There is not the sense of strain and constant struggle there is at any other time of the year. Now the spring is here and all of that is past. I must get out to the cabin soon to look things over and get some of my equipment. I haven’t been out there for a month or maybe more. Seems I haven’t had time to think of doing anything that I want to do.
April 2, 1930
Of time (lack of), science, and writing.
If the old Border Lakes [Outfitting Co., of which Olson is now manager and one-third owner] could only get on a paying basis so that I could put in my whole winter writing, I know that I could accomplish much. I want to write and the only road to hapiness for me is to keep on writing until all of the feelings and longings within me have been expressed. No happiness can come until I have told the world how I feel about nature. Many before me have felt the same and have followed their star through great suffering and privation. Think of the happiness that must have been theirs however when at last their dreams have come true. This wanting to write has grown upon me until it is more of an obsession than anything else. It must be satisfied and if I fail in accomplishing that something within me will be atrophied. Only through arriving at the goal which is still dim to me will I be satisfied that I have not lived in vain.
If I can show the world what my love of nature has meant to me; if I can show that there is still much of loveliness in nature despite the inroads of explaining science; if I can show that the old mysticism still exists, that nature is still animistic; and that all that is necessary is for a man to be open minded and uncluttered with worldly things, I will have done something worthwhile, of only one man gets a change of heart therefrom. Today in this machine age there is so much of the other and so little of the real thrill that comes from intimate and understanding contact with nature that anyone who can at all show the way will not have lived in vain. I can only believe that the world is waiting for my message and that once I arrive will acclaim the old truth it has always known but so long lived without.
I have just read “My Pagan Boyhood” by Daniels, a beautiful thing and so much like my own. Some day I will write my boyhood and it will be fully as good. My experiences are just as interesting and more imbued with mysticism than his. If I cannot write a better story of my early years, I will be mightily disappointed.
There will be little time left for writing this summer [because of his working managing the outfitting business]. I will have to give up my dreams for a wild summer of making money but I will not forget and the instant the let up comes, I will be back at my desk trying it again.
The day after tomorrow, I will be thirty one. I am getting along in years. I am almost middle aged and have accomplished nothing yet. But this I have and that is the open heart and my life has been filled with the experiences that only a love of nature knows and values. I have a background of material that once I reach the point where I am accepted by the reading world will prove a gold mine to me.
The only thing that worries me is how to mix my scientific studies with my writing. It will be a case of give up one or the other and I know that I cannot give up my writing. That means too much to me. I must write in order to be happy. Of course my happiness is a small thing but then it is my life and if a man feels seriously enough that he has work to do and he do it well and try his best to reach the goal he has set, why that is compensation enough. Some day, I know that it will come. I have only to think of the others who have struggled and been disappointed and finally come through to cheer me.
April 7, 1930
Sigurd finds peace and joy by getting away from the office and going outdoors.
Today, I could stand it no longer, noise and confusion and irritating details conquered at last and acting upon the impulse of the moment, I found myself bound for the woods and solitude. It is one of those balmy days when you know all life is beginning to stir. I am sitting in a rocky crevice high upon a ridge overlooking miles of wilderness to the south of me.
A soft maple before me is swelling red with buds. A tuft of withered brown grass at my feet is showing spears of pale green. Just now a tiny black and orange butterfly fluttered and drifted before me in the wind. It is the second I have seen this season. I do not know its name nor do I care. It is enough that it is a butterfly and the first of the season. Like Thoreau I am no taxonomist. My joy comes from the sense of comradeship in all life, the joy of seeing not from dry classification.
When I think of the Moose Book, I shudder. Now there are two butterflies and now three. How they drift before the light wind, the glory of new life in every movement of their flower-like bodies.
Far off across the hills on the northerly slopes, I can see patches of snow. It will be weeks before it is all gone. The tips of the poplar in the sheltered sunny places are turning pale green, just the faintest hint of green. The trees on the north sides are still cold and wintry gray and the spruces are starved and cold in the swamps.
I hear a crow and the call of a woodpecker and the rustle of many dry leaves and ribbons of birchbark in the breeze. I am glad I came. I have recaptured again the peace and joy that has so often been mine. This day has also been worth while.
The air is somewhat hazy and the blue strips of sky are covered with long fleecy blankets of mackerel.
How much I am like Thoreau and how near I sometimes feel his presence. I know he sat with me this afternoon. I can hear him say speaking of the cutting of his beloved forests and looking at the clouds, “At least they cannot cutthem down.”
Life is beautiful if one can live as one wants. Beauty is all, beauty of living, thought and creation. I must go, come back to earth. I am more at peace now and calmer than I was.
September 28, 1930
Sigurd is determined to decide this winter if he really has writing talent.
The summer is over and once again I am back at the old grind [teaching]. As I look back at my diary it is really amusing to see the change in thought from the idealism of winter to the practicality of coming spring and summer a transition from the world of Thoreau and Emerson to the factual matter of making money. Now I have before me several months of opportunity if I wish the opportunity of writing and dreaming and it looks good.
Two of my stories came out in the magazines this month and if nothing else it gave me confidence. To tell the truth it has been a long time between appearances but the fact remains that I can still do something with my pen. Confessions of a Duck Hunter written on such short notice, nine hours all together has show me that under stress, I can really do something worth while. Queer but I must have some incentive to do work consistently.
Sent my story “Logs on the Quetico” in to Thomas Uzzell [an agent]. It will be interesting to see how it fares. I am hoping against hope that his report will be favorable. If it isn’t it will hurt but it will not in the least dampen my ardor. I am used by now to rebuffs but they only strengthen my resolve. Chances are his report will be rather detrimental than anything else. He will make me revise it and inject more human interest, probably increase the suspence and make the stakes higher. That I can do and don’t forget cutting out the description. That will undoubtedly come.
If nothing is doing on this story, I will next submit “The Gentle Wild One.” When I think of the time and effort invested there, I can ill afford to let it lie and rot. There is some really good work in that story and with the proper revising should amount to something. I plan on this winter at least finding out something tangible in regard to my ability. I am through guessing and wondering. It has come to a showdown. I will determine whether or not I have any talent and whether or not it is worth while continuing. If it is I will keep on if it isn’t I think I will let it go if I can. If I can is good. I know from past experience that it will be impossible.
Yesterday paddling down Low Lake, I had a vision of perfect peace – what was it – to be alone in the trappers cabin with my typewriter and nothing to do except write, read and shoot an occasional duck. To do that for a month would be soothing to say the least. Think of having enough time time to burn in which to write and think. All one needs to do in order to write well is to have time to put on something. It is hardest to start a story for me but I love to revise and put the finishing touches to an article. There is a pleasure of putting the final artistry to anything and finishing off a story gives me just that. Imagine sitting in that cabin all alone with something to polish up. Coloring leaves outside the wonderful air peace and quiet and the satisfaction of work well done. Some day I will do just that. If the Business ever makes it possible, I will go off for a month or so every fall.
December 5, 1930
Sigurd is trying to write regularly before his students arrive for class.
This morning the air is soft and warm as milk, the kind of day one would like to spend most of just roaming around, perhaps fishing through the ice or strolling through the woods. Quite misty and it looks as though it might either snow or rain but think it will do either.
This morning my outlook on life is different. With the writing I did yesterday came peace and then the visit of Wally and Pete [Wally Hansen and M.W. Peterson, his Border Lakes Outfitting Co. partners] last night helped cheer me up by straightening out some of the wrinkles in regard to the business. Queer how a little bit of writing about nothing in particular will help put me on my feet. It seems that no sooner do I start putting words down on paper than I feel as though I were accomplishing something worth while. Silly idea I admit because oftentimes the thoughts I put down are mere drivel. It goes to show though that happiness to me is bound up in putting down my thoughts on paper. A little of that every day and I think I would be reasonably happy. This one truth has been driven home so many times that I should know the significance of it fairly well by now. Even the little bit of writing I have done this morning has helped. I think it might be the way Robt. L. Stevenson felt when he was practicing. Practice was to him always a pleasure because he felt that he was striving toward an ideal of perfection. Days when I have done nothing are days wasted but days when I have written much whether the bulk of it be nonsense or not, there is the subconscious realization that there must have been some improvement.
I am going to try and write some every morning before my classes start. I cannot think of a better way to start the day than limbering up my ideas.
Had a delightful hike with E. [Elizabeth] last night. We walked over to the air port then down the shore of Long Lake to the Pioneer Mine then back to town by the mine road. It was warm and snowing slightly and the footing underneath was good. It is always so satisfying to walk with E. so completely does she fill up the void of my interests. She told me the story of the old Arveson couple near her home and their tragic ending, how filthy and swinish they became as they grew more feeble and at last the death of the old man and the bringing of a clawing struggling old widow to the poor house. A tragic story to write too sad for literature and truth.
As we went by the pioneer mine all lit up with incandescent lights I had the impression of a futuristic painting, long angular shadows, queer and weird lighting effects, triangles, squares, semi circles and from the mound of bulk and light came fumes and hissing as though there were a huge monster of steel crouching over its prey the earth and burrowing into its vitals. A whistle blew and from the dark interiors came small ant like figures, men hurrying to their homes and suppers. Into waiting cars they plunged, cars that immediately breathed fumes and light and tore madly down the road toward the town.
Well must close and get ready for my classes. This twenty minutes is certainly worth while and if I have any will power I should carry it through every morning in the week.
December 9, 1930
Sigurd begins studying wolves, but what he really wants to do is write.
This month, Sigurd starts doing the field research for his eventual master’s thesis on the timber wolf. In the fall of 1931 he will start his master’s program at the University of Illinois. In many of his journal entries he writes that science bores him, yet now he is close to deciding to get his master’s degree. A key part of the attraction, as this journal entry shows, is that it could lead to a job that will keep him outdoors much of the time. What he really wants to do is write, but he has gotten little encouragement and keeps trying to think of what he can do with his life that will make him happy and give him a sense of accomplishment.
What a morning, wind out of the west soft and balmy as a morning in September or Oct with just enough of freshness to make one feel like getting out and wallowing in it just for the sheer joy of living. I think of the life of a writer, on a morning like this he could go out for a walk, go where he pleased and for how long he pleases, and the come back brim full of ideas and wade into them for six or seven hours or as long as he wished.
I think and think of my future. If I go ahead and get more biological training there will be a number of opportunities for me that if I do not go I will be out of reach of. There is the survey [Biological Survey, forerunner of Fish and Wildlife Service], there is Kings and Austens idea of a resident biologist for the Sup. Nat. [Superior National Forest] That last would be about what I would want but I must not plan on it because there is really small hope of its ever going through. Then there is the possibility of being sent on investigative work from here to Alaska for the Survey, but what will that do to my home and family. It might be worth while doing it for a time because later on that sort of experience is good to cash in on. Then there is always teaching to fall back upon, the old standby and no so bad at that. If I come back here after getting my masters I will outline my doctors and get the bulk of it out of the way before I go back so that I could spend the bulk of my time on study.
There is really nothing to worry about one way or the other. If I write and the [outfitting] business comes along to give me my winters free it will be wonderful. If I go into the Survey or any similar line there is also a good future and I can always come back to writing as I can to teaching. Those two are the last resorts. In the meantime the thing to do is to live happily, getting as much out of life as possible and not permitting the ogres of doubt and misery camp too much on your trail. It will all come out all right in the end of that I am sure. Just so that I can get out doors once in while for a good breath of air, I can put up with almost anything.
In a way I am really getting anxious to get back to school just to dispel the feeling of doubt which continually assails me. At least the year will do no harm outside of laying our supply of funds rather low and it will increase me chances for the future if I ever decide to go ahead in Biology. For fifteen years I have been undecided the fifteen most formative years of my life. Only one thing have I found out about myself and that is that my love for the woods will never die. There is one sustained interest that I know now will never be changed. My greatest joy comes from a life in the open and my greatest misery comes from being cooped up for long periods in town. Knowing that should bive me my premise. I should know that any work that keeps me out of doors a relatively continuous period will keep me happy, no matter what the work is. This too I have found, that hunting and fishing isn’t everything but just getting out of doors the main thing. Whether or not I have a rod in my hands any more means nothing, or whether or not I have a gun. The big happiness comes from merely being out of doors. It doesn’t make much difference what I am doing just so I am busy, the greatest happiness is given me however by studying wild life. Wild life puts me in touch with all the beauties of nature. I am working with an artistic background and the very knowledge that I am dealing with what I love gives me satisfaction and pleasure. A muskrat becomes a thing of beauty because he lives at the mouth of a creek grown with cattails and bulrushes backed with spruce, the scene that always gives me the most. A grouse is synonymous with poplar woods in the fall, a duck with lake and marsh and wild rice, a deer with snow and thousands of hunting trips, wolves with yellow moons, and howling in the fall and winter, small crustacea with the environment of lakes and marshes and streams. There is no form of life that does not give me some degree of pleasure because of the associations it brings. To go out in the woods and spend a busy day looking up the habits of some animal and keeping notes on what you have found is to be about as happy as one has a right to be. Of course there must be a certain amount of sedentary work to make one’s findings available to the rest of the world but that must not be begrudged because it is the price one has to pay for the privilege of doing the other. As King said it is a shame to take pay for doing anything one likes to do but wonderful if one is able to do it. Most men take pay for doing something absolutely distasteful to them and keep on doing it all their lives, the only pleasure being their short and miserable vacations when they try to regain in two short weeks what they have missed in fifty. They lead truly miserable lives. I suppose eventually I will teach but for the best part of my life I want to be in the woods and there only. Despair grips me now when I think how small my chances are for that unless I cut loose and write. Only there is any semblance of freedom. Any other job means being tied down — but and this is a long thought – I cannot and will never be able to picture characters [write fiction involving people]. There is not sympathy there.
Women I do not know –
April 8, 1931
Sigurd reflects on writing, graduate school, and his near death from pneumonia.
Another year has passed and how queer has my outlook become compared with last year’s dreams and philosophy. As I glance over the pages of last winter, now only a short year ago I realize that nothing is permanent and last of all dreams and aspirations. Then it was writing, I had found my goal at last, for me there was nothing to do but to interpret my appreciation of nature for the world, let others see my joy in the out of doors. Scathing were my remarks on scientific research and today I am waiting for news of a fellowship at the Univ. of Mich and for the assistantship at Illinois. My viewpoint has changed and instead of going at fiction I have decided to content myself with an occasional story or article for the outdoor magazines. After all I believe this is the saner thing for if I was to give up everything for writing I am afraid there would be nothing but failure ahead. This way if I go ahead and get some more scientific work out of the way I can still write occasionally and have that satisfaction and make a good living too.
Kings rumor of a possible Moose Fellowship is anything but quieting. For three years at about $250.00 per month would not be so bad with the chance to work off my doctors degree. King said that Leopold would push it and that they thought I was the logical man for the job. If that materialized I would be made zoologically at least and the outfitting business and the writing would take care of itself.
Since I wrote last I have had pneumonia and to all intents and purposes almost died. I shall never forget certain moments during those hectic days of late December and early January, some pure misery and some joy. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Those nights when all was peace and quiet when all my worries were gone and I seemed to be drifting off into space, the gurgling of the oxygen tanks and their likeness to rapids in the dusk, how can I ever forget it. It was the closest I ever came to sheer beauty and peace. And more, death will never again be a fearsome thing or the hereafter – it is all so natural and so welcome when the time has come. It was all worth while and was it not for the long tiring aftermath, I would go through it regularly when life begins to drag at the traces.
December 9, 1931
Sigurd reflects on writing, graduate school, and scientific research.
Here I am down at the University of Illinois striving toward my masters degree in Zoology. What an illusion I continually labor under. Up at Ely, I believed that I would be happy down here doing work that I loved. At the same time doubts assailed me and I knew that if I came it would be the same old struggle. Then don’t know down here any more what brings happiness than anywhere else. Although they are zoologists and should be working toward the ultimate which is finding happiness through the study of nature, they are as far off as the average business man. Not a one of them care any more for their work outside of the privilege it gives them to make money than so many bookkeepers. It is all cut and dried and I am horribly disappointed. I am beginning to see that my salvation must be worked out by myself alone and that the only way it can be done is to say up north and do it. Reading Burroughs and Thoreau give me so much comfort. How they would smile at it all. Burroughs secret of happiness, “To find some congenial work, in which a man can lose himself,” how false that sentiment rings down here. All a group of automatons. They are not in love with their work, they get little real pleasure out of it. I cannot wait until I get back to the north where again I will have a chance to write and dream.
Write and dream. That is the keynote of happiness for me. I must write, I cannot get away from that. I thought if I came down that I might forget the urge in my scientific pursuits but it is useless. I can no more forget the thrill and satisfaction that I get from writing than I can forget how to eat. My stories coming out this winter, four of them all told, will help get me started in the outdoor writing field. I believe that with the work I have done that it will be possible to enter into the other magazines as well as Sports Afield. I already have a pretty good start and if I put in the time, it should not be difficult to make a go of it.
Writing up problems, how they bore me. Will I ever get through my thesis I wonder. I hate the very sound of it. That sort of thing I simply cannot get joy out of. I must be working in my philosophy and joy in the out of doors. The rest is mechanical as though I were pasting labels on cans.
Game management – what an empty thing that will be. To get stuck somewhere in the country that I don’t care about working out graphs and tables. How I would hate it. Leopold’s job I would go crazy on. That sort of thing would ruin what little disposition I have left. No Sig you are beginning to know yourself and should soon reach the age where you could step out and decide exactly what it is that you want for happiness. Elizabeth is no doubt getting tired of the continual feeling around I have been doing and discontent and dissatisfaction and I cannot blame her. She is doing her best to keep up but how she would love to have me finally decide what I wanted to do and stick to it. How I have thought and explored the innermost reaches of my nature and found nothing but confusion. For ten years that has been going on, still I am at sea. However not so much at sea as I was. I am gradually eliminating those things that for a while I thought would give me happiness. For a while I thought that a University Job would do it. Down here I would soon go insane as at any other University. It would be the same wherever I go. Tonight I am going to be initiated to Sigma Xi. What a travesty that is. Recommended because of potential possibilities as a research man. I could laugh and wouldn’t Thoreau and Burroughs laugh with me. Research, yes, into the hearts of men and how best to go fishing and roaming through the woods. I agree with Thoreau, I am not a scientist and never will be one, I am a mystic and a philosopher. I can never change that in me….
December 28, 1931
Sigurd, visiting wildlife researchers at the University of Michigan, is realizing that university life is not for him.
Yesterday I spent at the University seeking for that knowledge that would give me peace. Met Dr. Graham, Dr. Dearborn, English, Pullen, and others and am once more convinced that it is the same old story of dry dusty laboratories, much theory and little practice, not a soul among them with the exception of Dearborn who had a spark of imagination or love for what he is doing. He upon closer acquaintanceship might develop into a real friend. The others were so bound up in their own petty affairs that they hardly had time to talk or vist and far too much upon their dignity to ever smile or get enthusiastic. These men have lived too much indoors and not enough in the field to develop the lovable part of their natures. How few are the men who love the game for its own sake. As Graham said at lunch, “A man might become interested in most any subject which he took the time to investigate.” In other words that is how he happened to drift into Zoology, just by chance. That is so true of many of them they might as well have gone into chemistry or engineering.
What did I find? I found that a university position is not for me. The four universities that I have visited, I believe are typical of what a man might find most anywhere in the states. I cannot see how I could possibly be happy in such an atmosphere. The labs are dry and uninteresting, research courses are the same and the men who run them more so. Where are the woodsmen who should be in charge of such work, they are in the woods and it is there that I must go for my future training what there will be of it. No more will I haunt the labs and lecture rooms, what further information I get will be dug out in the field or by independent reading.
There is this much I have found, that when it comes to teaching and research, Ely will give me as much and more than I could ever hope to get down here. Research does not mean much to me and I know that once I get up there again there will be little of it if any. The only research I will do is research into the thrills and joys a man may find by a life in the wilds. Mine is emotional research not scientific. I get far more enjoyment out of writing an article for one of the sportsmens magazines than ever working out some scientific treatise. Let those with little imagination do that sort of thing. The other is for me.
I can do far more good developing the right sentimental interest in the out of doors. It means more to me that certain souls may find comfort in the words I write and that they should be widely read by sympathetic lovers of the out of doors than tucked away in some dry scientific laboratory where only specialists may find them after wiping off their dust. It seems to me that such men as Ozark Ripley, Bob Becker, Robt. Lincoln, Don Hough, Ben East and others exert a far greater interest than ever Dr. Graham could hope to exert. They are the men who are influencing public opinion and they are the men who are really building up the framework of our conservation work. And don’t forget that what you have set out to do is to develop to some extent the love and appreciation of the out of doors that Burroughs and Thoreau began. That is what means much to you and not the other. At this late stage in the game you can never excape it and do not want to escape it.
And more my job must be a job that takes me out of doors and gives me a chance to not only exercise my mind but my body as well. Graham tells of playing water polo for exercise. That would pall upon me. I want the struggle of ranging over miles of wilderness, pitching my camp at night underneath the spruces, wilderness living, developing a natural tan and the hard rugged appearance of the woodsman. I get tired of seeing lovers of the wilderness in white collars and soft white hands. Somehow they do not belong. When they talk of the wilds, I cannot help but distrust them. They are not of the fraternity and no matter how much theoretical information they have the cannot touch the true chord. It is impossible and if they only knew it they would sever if they loved the work enough all laboratory connections and fly to the field, nature’s laboratory. I admit the necessity of laboratories, they must cooperate with the field but that end of it is not for me. I might take Dearborn’s job someday but I can picture myself right now, miserable and discontented, chafing at the leash, wishing and longing for the wilds I have always loved. No the more I think of it the more I see the wisdom of going back up north and working out my salvation. Teaching there at least is far more interesting than down here. I have no responsibilities, have time for writing and inspiration for writing. There I mean something, there I am part of the country….
“Be true to yourself,” the old bards say, “Be true to the best that is in you, the highest and the noblest.” Be true, be true, goes the old refrain down the ages. Put your heart into your work and do your best. Create and express the best that is in you. Never let down. There is no compromise and never will be. To compromise is to admit defeat. That I will never do. So far I have only experimented, sought the reality of the life I have dreamed about and pictured and now I know that it is an illusion and that I shall never be happy anywhere away from the country I love….If I am to be true to the best that is in me, my place is in the north working out my own salvation.
December 29, 1931
Sigurd turns to Emerson and Thoreau for help in deciding what to do with his life.
I have been reading Emerson with much comfort and again bolstered up my theories.
“A man is relieved and gay only when he has put his heart into his work and done his best.”
“Watch the spontaneous outflowings of your genius. They may be as good as the best.”
“True happiness can come only from and through yourself.”
“Be yourself, there is no other quite like you. Only through the development of your own genius will you acquire self reliance.”
Thoreau — “Write simply and forcibly. Manual labor clarifies and eliminates froth in a man’s writing.”
Emerson – “We only half express ourselves. Only by the expression of the best and highest in a man can he acquire lasting satisfaction and contentment.”
To me to interpret nature as I see it, to describe my experiences, my philosophy will always be my goal. My greatest satisfaction has always come from work of the creative type. I believe my searching is over and that from now on, my soul will be at peace. It is not scientific research but the other. I believe sincerely that now it is settled and that from now on I shall have the equanimity of mind that only comes through the elimination of all other possibilities, the narrowing down of my life’s purpose to one all absorbing task, and that the expression of my genius through the medium of the written word. May I never deviate from this. I feel that I can now bear the next five months with fortitude and a smile and be happy in the thought of the future.
Words are glorious things. It thrills me far more to use them and to read over an old story of mine as I did this evening and to see that my judgement has been vindicated. For fifteen years I have searched myself and now at last I know and that brings me happiness. Searching searching, how indefatigable I have been and how relentless but at last I have found the grail, contentment in the only work which gives me satisfaction. Ten years ago when the vision first came to me on the Keewatin trail, how vague it was compared with what I have now.
“A man is relieved and gay only when he has put his heart into his work and done his best.” And only then. All other exertions are simply a means to an end. May I conserve my energy so that I may always paint truthfully my picture of life.
March 15, 1932
Sigurd writes about an abandoned trapper's cabin that he has adopted as a personal retreat.
Sigurd refers to an abandoned trapper’s cabin near Grassy Lake that he has adopted as a personal retreat.
The cabin is about finished. It has been a great pleasure getting it in shape. This afternoon after snowshoeing out here, I found some long boards from an abandones stable and started building a bunk. It has taken me most of the afternoon but now it is also done and covered with a great mattress of balsam boughs filling the cabin with a wonderful aroma. A good bunk is absolutely essential to any cabin. Next to the table it is the most important. A bunk should first of all be full length perfectly level and smooth and solid. The place did not seem quite homelike before but now I have only to look around me to assure myself that I am comfortable. Now all I have to do is fix the south window, do a little more chinking and then I will be through
The cabin isn’t much to look at but it will answer the purpose. At least it is clean, much cleaner than most woods cabins and above all is isolated. Here I can come to think and work and dream. From my east window where I am writing, I look out upon a dense growth of balsam and white spruce. The balsams this morning are loaded with dense masses of fluffy snow. Touch one of these heavy laden branches and you will be showered with it. I know because I have just returned from my woodpile against one of them and was amply repaid for my indiscretion. My south window looks out upon a small clearing, smooth and white and unbroken except by a tuft of grass near its edge. The clearing is bounded by a fringe of hazel and willow banked against a skyline of pointed spruce tops and tamarack. I do not need any pictures, my two windows are enough. The best part of it is that my pictures vary from day to day. Now they are part of a snow scene, tomorrow if the sun keeps shining the snow will be gone and the trees bare once more. Toward spring when the willows and aspen begin to bud out the dark somber green of the spruces will be enlived with a lighted shade more befitting the season. Then too I shall be able to open my door to the west and then I shall have the most gorgeous scene of all, a view across a mile of wilderness valley with enough of a riot of color to satisfy the most particular connoseure. These are my windows. With them to look at you cannot blame me if I am content as far as decorations are concerned. If I become weary with the pictures I have I have only to step outside the door for change. What a picture I had last night as I stepped out for a last look at the sky before rolling in. Stars millions of them hanging close to the earth and so bright that you could almost feel their brightness and how blue black the heavens were. In town you do not get the effect of space that you do in the woods. For one thing if a man stopped and looked at the sky, people would think that something was wrong with him, gather around perhaps and ask him what he is looking at. In the woods it is the natural thing to do, to look up at the sky. There the view is unlimited, no houses or buildings to hem one in, nothing to obstruct and shut one in. The same applies to the weather. In town weather is much one and the same thing. If it is cold, we only notice it when we are going or coming from work. If there is a brilliant sunset we see it through a maze of smoke. Most of us cannot tell when the moon is full or on the wante and if we see a faint sickle of a new moon we mistake it for a reflection of a street light. Ask any woodsman about the moon and he will tell you at once. Ask any man in town and he knows nothing.
Who then are my friends and why am I not lonesome. This morning I found the tracks of a skunk leading from out of the clearing right up to my doorway. He had walked around the cabin three or four times and then had decided that as long as there was nothing doing he might as well go back to sleep for a while. I trailed him back right across the clearing to the little tuft of grass in its center. He had stopped there to investigate the mouse tracks that radiated out from it. Here was a family of meadow mice (Pennsylvanicus microtus) but all safely down in their burrows deep under the frozen crust. At the edge of the clearing the tracks ran into a little gulley and then into a burrow under a log. I marked it carefully. We would become better acquainted as time went on. I had also been visited by a weasel, the long tailed variety. He had included my domain in his ranging….
The man who has not travelled alone has missed one of the greatest sources of joy that can come to the lover of the wilderness. Alone his perceptions are quickened. He has no one to look out for his welfare but himself. This realization gives him a sense of new adventure. One gets the sensation of travelling alone in a big uninhabited world, much the sensation alone on the deck of a sailing vessel at night, alone with the ship and the stars sailing a sea without any end. I get much the same sensation snowshoeing down a frozen lake at night. Nothing to guide you but a star or two, the shore too far off to be seen, all alone with the sky and yourself. If a man has reached the stage where he believes the age of adventure is gone, let him try this. Then if he is in the wilderness he for once knows that he is alone. A sense of immensity and the greatness of space envelopes him.
September 16, 1932
New year of teaching, new master's degree, but still unhappy.
I am back at the job and after a year’s absence [while attending grad school at the University of Illinois] as unsettled and unhappy as ever. I remember the day I lay under the big poplar in a cornfield a thousand miles south of here and thought if I could only be back with Luther and Dorothy, Wilson and Ed and Dick and Laura and the rest I would be perfectly happy, no matter what the circumstances. I would come back content to spend the rest of my life in this one place. Would buy a car, build a house, in other words get anything and everything I wanted, because my schooling days would be over. Well here I am and still I am unhappy. It seems that I do not know what I want, that no matter where I am, I am unhappy and discontented. I don’t know what it is, but as Lib [Elizabeth] says, she has never seen me contented in any situation. Perhaps I will never be contented. I don’t know. Well this much is certain, I am through going to school. I don’t want my Doctor’s degree, that will only mean getting into some University or College and there the grind will be exactly the same as ever. Would I trade places with Shelford or Zeleny or Cahn or any of the rest, I do not think so. My job here is as good as theirs, not counting the money. It is merely the combination of the two that hurts, the impossibility of getting away into the wilds for any extended periods. If I could cut loose in the summer time, it would be somewhat different but that seems impossible, just a continual rush all year long, twelve months at a time….
I think one solution is starting at my writing again, but what will it be. I am sick and tired of writing about hunting and fishing. That material is all repetition. I have written out the best I have in that line. It will have to be short sketches of things I have done and seen. It will have to be different. My little skiing jaunt which I wrote up at Champaign might work for one, short philosophick sketches or something of that order. Not the ducks of Low Lake, deer of the Stoney, fly fishing for northerns, leave that to someone else. If I could find my medium, which I have been feeling around for in my diary for years, I would be all right. The problem is to find that and then get to work on it….
September 22, 1932
Teaching vs. Writing, and Outfitting.
What a grand feeling it was to wake up this morning and to feel that I could really do something. In the mornings I always feel as though if I had the time to put on my writing that I could do wonders. It is a consolation to know that there is part of the time at least when you feel that accomplishment is not so far away. I know that if I could put my mornings in writing that I could really put out something worthwhile. It seems such a shame to fritter away your time doing something that is nothing at all in your scheme of things.
You may think that last year [going to grad school at the University of Illinois and earning a master’s degree in zoology] in view of what you now think and plan was wasted. It was wasted from a financial standpoint but when you consider the peace of mind that comes from knowing something definitively then it was well worth the while. It convinced me that no university life is for me, neither is research, that I would be just as unhappy in academic halls anywhere as right here. For a while I thought that that would be the sort of a life that I would want but I see it is the same old story of wanting to do what I want in my own way, freedom from restriction and rules, doing a man’s work.
Read something interesting last night on how to get what you want in life. This author claimed that if a man outlined a definite program for five years that he could do almost anything he wanted. Said that only 2% of the people had any idea of how to get the things they wanted and they were the ones who had formulated a definite method of getting there. If it is financial independence then it means a definite budgetting of one’s earnings and sound investment. If it is working on some different line of endeavor then it must be a definite attempt towards that end.
Well how does it work out for me. I am 33 going on 34. How is it going to work out. I want to outfit and write, that is my goal and that is what I am fitted for more than anything else. Alaska, the north expeditions, romance and all the rest, when will it ever come true. I am getting more and more resigned to my fate and am afraid that if it goes on much longer this way that I will soon lose sight of my goal. I have had a taste of fame and authority and want more of it. I must make the break soon. This is not my field, I know it and feel it. Do I wake up in the morning anxious to get at my task? No, I count the hours until the end of the week. Surely no future in that.
December 9, 1932
Sigurd wonders whether or not he should become an artist.
For three days it has been bitterly cold, the thermometer hovering around 30 below or worse. This morning it is slightly warmer, just 24 below at my door, clear and still and the wind a little to the south of west. It might clear up and get warmer by noon. Today as yesterday the sun dogs are riding on either side of the sun, two verticle shafts of light, purplish brown on the side toward the sun, gradually paling into white brilliance at the outer edge, comrades of the cold. The smoke rising from the chimneys on days like this is almost beautiful. The other night hiking back from Pete’s, it was quite lovely seeing the smoke illumined by the lights of town.
The last week has been more or less miserable. I am still exploring the depths of my mind strange as that may seem. As I look back over my diary of other years, it is a wonder that there is anything more to find out. Now I have tumbled to a new idea, painting, and realize (for the time being) that I should have been an artist, and interpreter of nature. As I read about the men who have gone in for landscape painting I know that here are men who feel about the beauties of the out of doors exactly as I do. It is their dream to interpret their impressions, moods, or whatever you want to call it on canvas. After all that is all that I have ever wanted to do. To me beauty is everything, I see it wherever I go and am sick an heart that I cannot take it with me. The printed word is so inadequate, description so terribly discounted, that after all there seems to be little there for me. Of course there are scenes that can be painted with words far better than with pictures but in writing you have to give up so much that to you is beautiful for its own sake. The funny part of it is that I never discovered this before. Here I have gone for thirty three years, guessing slightly and groping but never dreaming that this might be it. Last year down at Detroit I had the first inkling of it and I never quite got over it. I resolved then that once I got back to Ely that I would start in. So far all I have done is read and that at least has been pleasant. What means more to me than anything else in life is mood and feeling. I know that I can see and that I feel with the best of them. The stumbling block is technique. At that Gaugin didn’t start until he was 35. If I start in now with my spare time, in a few years I will surely know something about it and by the time I am forty, who knows but that I will be able to at least paint something for myself. If I never accomplish anything worth while at least it will lead to a greater appreciation of art and landscaping and it will give me some pleasure of that I am certain. Photography never did appeal to me for as Harrison says, it is nothing but our own visual perception that really is beautiful.
Here I am on a side track again. When will I ever discover the ultimate happiness. Once it was writing, now painting. What will actually happen is that I will stay on here teaching, amusing my self with occasional painting, writing, fishing trips and hunting expeditions not to forget the Border Lakes [Outfitting Co.]. My teaching has not been half bad this year and next with final elimination of my high school class it will be better. What an inconstant devil I am. How I wish I could finally arrive at some definite decision as to where my best faculties lie. It may be that I am not actually interested in anything but roaming the woods and living like a savage, and what is so wrong about that?
January 7, 1933
Snowshoe trip to Basswood Lake; comments on cabins.
Have just returned from a trip up to Basswood Lake. Enjoyed the long stretches of the lake looking up to my old border country, felt good to swing along on snowshoes, feel the muscles working once more and to rest my eyes on distant blue horizons. Especially will I remember coming out of Wind Bay with the sun getting low and long snaky wisps of snow blown by the west wind, writhing over the smooth rippled surface of the snow. What a picture that was, millions of snaky streamers, pink and gray in the fading sun. Then dropping in to Ted’s, an invitation to stop for the night, an hour at the woodpile more to escape missing the sunset than anything else. How peaceful it was out there with the dogs sitting on their kennels, the clean snow, silhouettes of pine and spruce and the pink in the west. It was beautiful and when I had finished my pile and it was dark, I was hungry and still half reluctant to go inside away from the popping stars and the new half moon.
I am not much of a cabin visitor. I do not play cribbage which I suppose I should learn and find so little to talk about. The only time I love a cabin is when I am alone. Company like with Thoreau bores me after a short time. I am happiest when alone with my thoughts although I do crave the other at times. What I miss most however is the chance to be alone where I can think.
January 20, 1933
Sigurd realizes that he must write what he loves if he is to produce anything worthwhile.
Last night as I lay in bed, the old question came up and for the first time, I saw it with some clearness. The medium of expression for me will not be the animal story, the fiction story or the type of article of Samuel Scoville, Jr., Herbert Ravenell Sass, or Archibald Rutledge or the rest. As far as I can see they have gone to pot and are not going to be able to stage a comeback. Scoville is completely played out. There is nothing left for him to do. He has already gone through the agony of repetition and plagiarism and I can well imagine what has happened to the rest. If I follow their example it will be the same for me. What I want is a medium that will not play out, some means of expression that will enable me to keep on as long as I live. What will it be.
The only solution as far as I can see it is to pattern my form after the things that have appealed to me most. What do I like to read. What in the better journals gives me a thrill of pleasure when I sit down to read. Usually essays or articles of the out of doors with a philosophical twist, quaint homely things that show a love of the soil and primitive enjoyment of nature. Is this following in the steps of Thoreau or Burroughs? Not quite. This must be something a little different from the rest. Once I find my medium and quit groping and producing instead, I believe I will have achieved something very essential to my peace of mind….
Nature magazine and its various petite animal stories fails to thrill me. Field and Stream and the rest, I can never read with pleasure. Even animal stories of the usual kind, bore me. It is rather a false hope to think that I can ever then produce anything of that type that will ever amount to anything. In order to do anything, I must have an ideal, a dream to follow and if I write stuff that I am not interested in, how can I hope to write anything others will also read or enjoy. No, that is sure, I must write the type of thing that I would enjoy most myself. The workman who takes no pleasure in his work cannot help but be slovenly, particularly if he realizes that it will not be a thing of joy and beauty when he is through. It becomes then merely a job, the task of finishing something distasteful and can never hope for immortality. If on the other hand, you can produce something that you realize yourself is good and enjoy, then there must be the joy of creation in it. A painter who realizes that he is doing something mediocre, a writer who realizes that he is writing something that when he gets done will be dull, is like the man who building a house knows that no one will want to live in it because of its ugliness even if he does get paid for it. Will such a creator even though he gets paid a prodigious sum for it find much of the artist’s or creator’s happiness in his work? I fail to see it. So it must be with me. If I am to do anything really worth while, I must find a medium which will take all I can give it, something that I can look at with pride and say, “that is my handiwork,” the best that I can do. Then and only then will you be doing anything worth while and only then will you receive the true artist’s reward, the satisfaction of knowing that you have created something substantial and worth while.
Thought last night of my name, Sig Olson though all right in the woods is not what you might call a distinctive name for the type of article that you are thinking of writing. Your full name – Sigurd Ferdinand Olson – on the other hand has a sort of a swing to it that might easily create and hold a following.
Now that so much is settled, what then will it be?
February 6, 1933
"Be true to yourself"
What will it be – here I am again at a loss. My scientific work palls. I see names in the Wisconsin summer catalog that were there 12 years ago – old staid professors, now approaching old age, in the self same rut. I want something more than just that. Only one life – perhaps I attach entirely too much significance to fie – [erhaps just the doing is all that is important. In the words of the poem of last night, “Roads,” perhaps that is all that is meant, just the marching down the road and that the marching is enuf.
Soon I must find out or go insane with trying–and writing seems the only thing that will do it. When I look over scientific books I weary….What I want is to be able to do something different so that my friends can point me out as one who has ability of a sort and can make his way by his brains alone. I cannot stand mediocrity – I must know that I am being appreciated. Ego, my vanity must be satisfied — If it is writing then what shall it be — short essays or sketches, hardly there is no money in that and I must have that – I must do something that pays and pays well….
For me, then, there is only one thing to do, write my thoughts….I know I have thoughts, for 30 years I have done nothing but think. Start writing about anything and see what comes. If it is good enuf it will be worth while. Do not worry about your work, that is necessary and not unpleasant and do not worry about money. If you can find your medium, not matter how humble, you can put up with anything because then life will be worthwhile and will have significance….Write what you feel sincerely and not what you think you ought to say. It is what you feel that will interest others. Be true to yourself.
September 14, 1933
"What I want is a working-writing combination, ala Thoreau and Burroughs."
The question now confronting me is again the changing of occupation. On Oct. 4th I will take a civil service examination for the position of Junior Park Naturalist with the National Park Service. It will take me away from this country and I am afraid that it will mean the severing of my relations with the Border Lakes Outfitting Co., [and] the giving up of my dream to spend the winters writing. Of course it may also mean getting into a line of work that will give me just the sort of life I want, a chance to be out of doors most of the time, time to write and study and freedom from the classroom. There will be handicaps as well but there are those in any field.
The Border Lakes once we get on our feet should bring in about $1500 to $2000 per year. Then with the winter for writing, I should make another $500 or so, perhaps more. The question is now, can I take a chance or will I take a chance, a gamble on the future I want, or will I cut away from it all and tie myself up again in something that will make me unhappy.
This I can do, take a crack at it, keeping my interest in the Border Lakes until I see what I want to do and then come back and try to work it that way. Looking at it in that light, there is really not much to worry about except my job in the Junior College and I have never been overly in love with that.
In the last analysis, what I want is a working-writing combination, ala Thoreau and Burroughs. I do not think that I will be ever quite satisfied until I work out something like that. I am close to it now and perhaps don’t know it.
October 11, 1933
On returning from the meeting of the International Joint Commission in Minneapolis.
This journal entry refers to Sigurd’s testimony in Minneapolis at a hearing that the International Joint Commission held as part of its process of deciding whether or not to allow an immense waterpower development plan proposed by lumber baron Edward W. Backus. The plan, which was eventually denied, would have flooded several thousand miles of canoe country shoreline. Sigurd’s testimony there marked the beginning of a new phase in his role as a wilderness activist. In the past, his conservation work had been almost exclusively at the local level, mostly speaking to Ely civic groups about the necessity of preserving the canoe country wilderness. But his testimony before the International Joint Commission gained him attention at the state level of the Izaak Walton League, which was playing a major role in fighting the waterpower proposal. Even more important, he was commended by a man who was emerging as a national leader in wilderness preservation: Ernest C. Oberholtzer, soon after the International Joint Commission hearing, placed Sigurd on his select mailing list of conservation correspondents. For Sigurd, however, as the journal entry below shows, the positive reaction to his testimony boosted his self-esteem and made him think about how he could bring the same kind of magic into his writing.
On returning from the meeting of the Int. Joint Commission at Minneapolis.
I went down to the hearing with little knowledge of what I wanted to say and up to the time I took the stand, I knew nothing. Right now I do not remember just what I did say but I believe judging by the many compliments I received that whatever I did say was pertinent. I forget how many came around, but among them was the attorney general for Minn., Frank Warren of Mpls. Oberholtzer, Kaupanger and others. All of them said that I had made a wonderful impression on the commission. The fact that the commission itself was interested enough to talk things over with me was of importance.
All of this left me with one concrete impression and that was that somehow I have the power of conveying my enthusiasm to others, particularly men. I can make them see and feel what I see and feel of the out of doors. Of all the witnesses I alone brought out this which explains no doubt that I alone received applause.
I accept all of the gratefully but more than that it brought out for me a very important discovery and that is that I have the ability of transmitting my feeling for the woods to others in perhaps a different manner. I have something to tell and it is something men will listen to. Why not utilize that in your writing. For years I have been searching for a medium. Here it is, the love of men for the things I love. This is to many an intangible thing but to me it is very real and to many others it is very real, real enough so that it can be written about and discussed, as real as love of home and family and as necessary to a complete life as the latter. This then will be my theme, the love of men for the life in the open, the love of men for the companionship that goes with it, the love of men for all things, that have to do with it, the trappings of the life we know.
That alone was worth far more than the trip itself to me, to find out that my medium will not be as Thoreau a self analysis or as Burroughs a self interpretation of nature or as Scoville Jr. a painting of color, but something different, no not new but something very definite, the love of a man the passion of men for the life in the open. Here is something that will never wear out. I may attack it from a different angle as time goes on but it will be the central theme song of all my work. When I am through they will say that man had a greater love and could transmit it to others more clearly than anyone else. Men like to talk about things that lie close to their hearts and will pay for material that comforts them and gives them a renewed vision. When a man goes duck hunting, it is not merely the ducks that count, but the feeling that goes with it. He actually loves the sound of whistling wings, he loves the bob of the decoys in the rice and most of all the feeling that he is doing something primitive, that satisfies. There are a million things that a man gets pleasure out of and the secret here is not to tell of anything except through indirect suggestion, that will mean a reading between the lines.
What then will be my medium? Will it be stories of the out of door type similar to others I have written or will it be something else.
I imagine it will have to be regular out of door stories weaving in them my love of the things I do rather than a mere chronicling of events. There are many places where this can be done, a subtle weaving in of events. I believe more now than ever, that there is a depth of purpose that can be worked out in all of this, an opportunity to develop a conservation spirit through that medium and an added love of the woods. If I can make my stories and articles convey the same impression that my little talk evidently conveyed in Mpls. then I will have accomplished something.
If it is the essay and there may be a few of them, it will be more difficult. However there is a possibility there too. It will have to be many things. The most important of all however was to realize that there is something more important than mere monetary recompense. The appreciation and comradeship of other men is the big thing. to have other men come to me and tell me that I hit the spot in a certain article is worth more than anything else.
My scientific writing is through. I can see nothing there that others cannot do much better than I. Why mix up in that when I have a field of my own. Do what you can do well and leave the rest for the other fellow. One cannot be proficient in more than one thing.
At least it has given me respect for what I can do better than others and that is to talk. If I can talk then I can write.
November 14, 1933
An offer from Aldo Leopold.
In the fall of 1933, Aldo Leopold, a new professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, wanted Sigurd Olson to become his first doctoral student. The possibility put Sigurd into a real quandary, as the journal entry below shows, along with others from this time period. To put this journal entry into context, look at the correspondence between the two.
Yesterday I received a letter from Aldo Leopold asking me if I would accept a sort of fellowship for a study of deer in Wisconsin. How much would I need, perhaps $3000 a year, I suppose an exhorbitant sum. Do I want to do that sort of thing again, and tie up another three years of my life, hunting the unattainable. I am now 35 and as I said to Elizabeth this morning, this will be a final decision. Failure to take advantage of this and I will be on the black list forever. Aldo Leopold is one of the big men, in fact perhaps the biggest man in game conservation and research today. To turn him down would forever damn me in his eyes and in the eyes of all those who are interested in game. I am 35 now, in another three years, I shall be 38 close to forty. Jumping back and forth between Wis. and Hayward perhaps would mean that we could not have much of a home. It would mean that I would have to give up what I most want, peace and quiet, a chance to dream and write.
I decided yesterday that I was through with self analysis and that from now on, I was going to write steadily. I derived some comfort from that as for four years all of my rambling has really been an effort on my part to find out if I actually could or wanted to write. Unless I am entirely blind there is now no question of that. Then the thing to do is to forget about research, stick here to my job and the Border Lakes [ Outfitting Co.] and spend what time I can writing. I know now that unless I make some definite effort, I will be continually miserable. Knowing that is a very valuable thing to my peace of mind. Doing that I can be reasonably happy. Another 15 years and both Lif and I will be fifty. If I have kept on with my writing, by then I should have gotten somewhere. Perhaps then I will have a camp of my own.
However, if I take up Leopold’s proposition, in three years I will be through, perhaps, with my degree. I may get a position with some university or with some state dept as a game expert. It is hard to tell where I will be or what will happen. True, this is my big opportunity and this time if I refuse, I am through FOREVER. If this is what I want to do with my life, then here is my big chance. Perhaps in the end it will mean travel and fame and a chance to do a tremendous amount of good. This field is opening up if a man has ambitions along that line, here is an opportunity.
It will mean of course that our home life is to be forgotten for a long time and that I must forget my dreams and my writing. Both choices have possibilities. Which will make me happier. Lib hesitates to advise me because as she says she wants me to do whatever will make me happy. She is unselfish enough to feel that anything will be all right if I am satisfied. I suppose what I want to do more than anything is to write. Then the thing to do is to spend the rest of this winter convincing yourself that you can and will write. If you can do something worthwhile then all right go ahead. This is your last chance, and I feel that next spring something is going to pop. Will I be ready to make my final decision.
November 28, 1933
Reflecting on True Happiness.
While out at the Stoney [River, where Sigurd went deer hunting], I picked up Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook and ran across something like this, “To live the abundant or bountiful life, we must be engaged in work which means the outpouring of our enthusiasm, greet each day as though it were our last, regret the coming of night because it separates us from our working day.”
It is as Burroughs or was it Thoreau put it, “Greet each dawn with joy and enthusiasm.” All of the philosophers say it differently, but all of them as far back as Aristotle admit that the only way to live a well rounded and happy life is to do something in which we can completely lose ourselves. Only by losing oneself can a man find true happiness and forgetfulness. And only by the expression of one’s own genius can he be really contented. No matter how many recipes you find for happiness the meat in them is the same.
December 2, 1933
"I have the terrible urge for self expression."
Since Saturday, I have done more writing than at any time since last winter or for that matter several years. I am surprised that I am as facile with my words as I am. Like Burroughs, as I sit down to a finished article, I wonder that there were as many thoughts and I wonder where they all came from. Last night and yesterday, I worked about four hours, this morning two making six in all. What gets me is the fact that I can think at my machine and one advantage there is that one’s thoughts are clear and correction easy.
Am I going to run out of material. I do not think so but how will I know unless I really do any work. I think there will be plenty of material, more than I can ever conceive of once I get going. Periods of sterility will come, but they will be conquered. Do not worry about [that] at any rate. Do not either worry about quotations. Your own thoughts are worth more than theirs. Have confidence in yourself and do not let what others have said worry you. If you really worked this winter, by spring you should have a dozen things ready for publication. The only way in which I can develop a medium is to keep on writing steadily, writing and thinking, always thinking. What I am most thrilled about is the fact that I am getting back into the swing. I feel thoughts coming and capture them and doing it, means the end of the old inertia and stagnation. Now if I can only keep on and above all sell something I will begin to get back my self respect.
I have the terrible urge for self expression. I can’t do anything without having it ride me. If I go anywhere, I fret away the time, because I have no opportunity to write. If I go out iwth other people, I will sit in a corner and read, letting them play cards. I act like a neurotic and the waste of time is terrible to me. Perhaps it is a form of neurasthenia that I have worked myself into. Whatever it is, days and nights in which I am not writing are nightmares. If I could spend the best time of the day working at what I think I should do, then I could feel free to play the rest of the time and play with abandon. This way, I feel my evenings are wasted unless I try and do what I want and what a miserable failure most of them have been due to the fact that I am on edge and over nervous.
I realize now that the most important thing in life to me is finding out once and for all whether or not I should go on this way. Once that is settled then there is little else to worry about. But that alone is all important, so important that my peace of mind depends on it. Knowing that then, no sacrifice is too great to make in the solving of it. If a solution can be reached this winter, what a milestone in my progress. Think of being able to write in your diary, “I have found it” and to know that for the rest of my life there will be no more wondering or debating as to what it is to be. Then I will adopt a regular writing program and adhere to it and that solely.
Think of recognition of the public, magazines, fan mail, tributes to my insight and genius. Sounds egotistic but even that is a small part of it. The big thing will be the happiness of knowing that at last I am on the right track and no longer a drifter. It is not an impossible thing if I have courage enough and strength enough to go through with it. I labor under no illusions as to the work it will entail, the sweat and misery of waiting for the mail, rejections and all of that. I know already what that means, but there will be plenty of other compensations to take care of my peace of mind.
December 31, 1933
"The last day of the old year and for once I am happy."
The last of the old year and for once I am happy, a happiness born of having done some writiing. since school let on a little over a week ago, I have been continually at it. Not a day has gone by but what I have put in a few hours and some days have written steadily. Now I have two stories out, “En Roulant” and “The Supernatural Instinct” and last night I finished “Familiarity” which I think I will try in Scribner’s. Finishing this last article has given me more peace than any of the others. I have a real sense of accomplishment and it is really good and should find a market. As I have so often said, if I can only keep on working continually at something, the days of boredom will be gone. Only through constant effort and creation am I at all happy.
During these vacation days, I have been trying out part of a dream, writing in the mornings as I would had I given up my job and hiking in the afternoon and it really is a pleasurable existence. The big thing is that constant effort means a good output. Instead of an article a month, it means an article or two a week. I notice too the added facility with which I write and the increased enthusiasm which is mine as I keep at it. Without practice, to approach an article is torture but with my mind away, it is fairly simple.
Tomorrow I am going to start a short outdoor story, a sequel to “Confessions of a Duck Hunter,” and though I have only a general idea in mind, by Wednesday, I should have the thing fairly well whipped into shape. Then I will have four articles on the way, seeking a market, surely one of them will place somewhere.
Today we have a gang for dinner and had I not written, I would be miserable, but now I find that I can enjoy them with my mind at peace. All I need is a sense of accomplishment to drive away the misery that I have known so long. Even though I don’t do very much, this work is giving me practice and sooner or later, I will land. Remember what Uzzell said, that I was on the verge of some very good sales.
I thought I would just jot down these random thoughts because sooner or later, I will be again in the mood for comfort and will need some bolstering.
February 19, 1934
Writing, happiness, and the approaching canoe outfitting season.
Sigurd is having some writing successes and happiness, but he knows that by March he will have to put his extra time into reservations and other preparations for the summer canoe outfitting season, and so his writing time is nearly at end end until fall.
I have just sent in my canoe trip outlines to Robert Page Lincoln so that much is off my chest. I have my doubts about Outdoor Life taking “Let’s Go Exploring” for the simple reason that I think I pounded it off in too much of a hurry and perhaps the same is through about “Crusing in the Arrowhead.”[Note: Outdoors Magazine would publish “Cruising in the Arrowhead” in May, but it would take three more years before “Let’s Go Exploring” would find a home in Field and Stream.] Nevertheless, the fact remains that I got that much material out of the way, it is done and through with. What seemed an insurmountable job is through and I did it in the time specified.
I am going to get off an article for the Minnesota Conservationist on wolves sometime before spring. [Note: Minnesota Conservationist would publish “A New Policy Needed for the Superior” in May.] The recent renewed agitation for trapping leaves me cold and think it is about time to get something off for the conservationists to think about.
Yesterday was a lovely peaceful day. The thought occurred to me. Should I ever lose my family life, then such an afternoon as I had yesterday will haunt me. The bright sunshine out of doors, Elizabeth and the boys at home, no place to go, nothing to do but read and rest. For once I was supremely happy and contented. Took a little jaunt on my snowshoes after lunch and worked off any excess energy, then home to work and preparing supper, then reading and finally to bed. Very peaceful and happy.
By the looks of things, next summer should be pretty good business for the outfitting game. If by some chance I should make a thousand clear, think what a sense of relief it will give me. By spring I will have $200.00 coming from the Co. plus $100 for my stories will make it $300.00. That should if we are careful take care of us during the summer. Then by fall with the $500 I will take in salary and a possible dividend will give me between $1000 and $1500 to play with. Perhaps we will put it into a house, perhaps we will just sink it in as so much savings. Perhaps I will quit my teaching and spend the winter writing. I could do it on that with very little trouble. But before I quit, I should build myself a house so that I will have a place to live no matter what happens to my other sources of income. [Note: The Olsons would buy and move into a new home in August. A two-story cream-colored frame house on top of a hill just south of Ely, it was modest but pleasant, and its location at the edge of the country, next to wide-open fields and a wooded ravine, foretold innumerable family cross-country skiing trips in the years ahead. The home on Greenvalley Road (really a dead-end alley) would be Sigurd and Elizabeth’s last. (Eventually, their property and the surrounding area would be incorporated into Ely, and their address would become 106 East Wilson Street.)]
As spring approaches with the multifarious businesses of getting ready for the coming season, I find myself more and more weaned away from my dreams. So it is at the end of every winter. Coming activity absorbs my interests and makes me doubt if I ever had thought for dreaming and writing.
August 10, 1934
A new house, and ideas about his writing.
Sigurd wrote this just after he and his family moved into a new home. A two-story cream-colored frame house on top of a hill just south of Ely, it was modest but pleasant, and its location at the edge of the country, next to wide-open fields and a wooded ravine, foretold innumerable family cross-country skiing trips in the years ahead. The home on Greenvalley Road (really a dead-end alley) would be Sigurd and Elizabeth’s last. (Eventually, their property and the surrounding area would be incorporated into Ely, and their address would become 106 East Wilson Street.)
Last night strolling around the yard, a revelation of what I was to do came to me in no uncertain manner. for years, I have pondered as to what should be my ultimate sphere, what if I went into writing, what would be my medium, and then it came. I think what started it was talking to that party that went out in the afternoon, a man and his wife by the name of Glesener. When I saw the light in his eye, the joy that shown there at the prospect of taking another trip, the expectancy in his beautiful wife, I sensed something kindred with them all. I see it so often day after day, the joy of going and coming back. Last night watching the children play outside the warehouse, their clean trim little bodies, the joyous laughter, the play, healthy, happy, gorgeously happy little animals, I knew that I loved them all and their aspirations were close to me. I am beginnning to realize that after all the most important thing in life is human emotion, that if I get an understanding of that, my problem of what to do will be solved. For many years, I believed that I was out of sympathy with the race, that I wanted to be alone, that I did not like people. Now I know that it is different, that I do like people, that their aspirations are mine. What gave me despondency was the knowledge that my field was limited. Animal life, well and good, trees and scenery good also, but only worthwhile when used as a background for human activity.
This then is the most important thing that has happened to me since I started writing. There is no limit to this field and what is more, what made it difficult to sell my stuff was that it was lacking in human interest. I shall build up my understanding and though it will be a long row to hoe, still I feel that at last I am ono the right track.
I read Greta Garbo’s story last night in Liberty and I see a great resemblance there with my own dreams. She too was a dreamer, different from the rest, aloof from the crowd and still of them. This winter, I am going to try and work up one good story, a story in which the interest is entirely human, of course with a woods setting, for that will always be my forte. That I know, but from now on, I will work in the human angle to the exclusion of all else. I feel that soon I will hit my stride and when that happens, I will be far too happy for any use. I have made something of a mark in the writing game, have at least had a taste of it, know enough about it to know the thrill of seeing my stuff come on. Have also had enough favorable criticism so that I know I have something.
I think Sydney’s little visit perhaps helped me as much as anything to get down to earth and know where I was at. Thank you Sydney for coming. You have no idea how you have helped. And now I am surcharged with happiness. The world is again beautiful and lovely and no matter what I do, the fact that I know where I am going for the first time in my life is all that is necessary.
Samuel Scoville, Jr., Herbert R. Sass, Rutledge, all the rest, they have failed and they know it. They can write of the woods, but they have already died and who cares to read a woods story where the actors are limited. Think of the demand for the fictional short story, think of the unlimited material at your fron door, think of all you can do. Dad was right when he said that animal and outdoor stuff was all right but the most important thing was to work in the human side of things. He knew then what was wrong and I was still blind.
Now I know and this winter I will try and work out one good yarn for either the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s. If I can do that and get by with it, I will feel that everything else is O.K. I think of my year away and as I said to Sydney, I failed to find what I went after. I know now that it was a failure. I am not interested in scientific things and never will be. I am not a scientist, never want to work the the Forest Service, the Fish and Game, Biol Survery or any of the rest. That does not appeal to me, no matter how attractive. It is the human side of things that appeals only and it is there my field lies. I am rusty on technique that is true, but the important thing lies in knowing at last where I am heading. No matter what happens now, I will keep working ahead and sooner or later I will land. I haven’t given up my dream. It will soon materialize and knowing that I am so happy that nothing can ever down me again.
All of these years, I have been trying to find out what it is all about. For a long time, I despaired of every finding out and those periods were fraught with despondency. If I land and make a go of things think how wonderful it will be. All of these years and the training I have had, has given me an understanding of life that I couldn’t have gotten in any other way. It has not been wasted, that I know. I can go ahead now, with all of the knowledge at my disposal and I know success will come.
Up in the new house, we are all so happy. Now with this new knowledge, I can put up with my regular life and keep working always working away at something else. Eventually, I may be able to give up my teaching or the outfitting and put in my time writing. The thing to do now is to polish up your style, study character delineation and a thousand and one other things. Nothing matters, however, so much as having found out that I am on the road.
September 30 and October 1, 1934
"My job is the interpretation of the beauty and the meaning of this country..."
Sigurd has been having a difficult time deciding about a job offer from the Soil Erosion Service. A day visiting Ernest Oberholtzer at Rainy Lake encourages him to see that his main calling in life is to interpret the wilderness canoe country in articles and essays.
Sept 30, 1934
Written at Ranier –Rainy Lake
I know now that my future lies in the Quetico-Superior Country, in the study and interpretation of the life I have learned to know and love. Here I will live and here I will die and here will I forego all else. My future will be in the study and understanding of this region and the further identification of myself with it. I feel happier and more settled than ever before.
Ely, October 1, 1934
I wrote this yesterday under the full influence of the sunlight on Rainy Lake, the beauty of the fall coloring and the peace, and decided then and there that there was only one thing for me to do and that to make myself an authority on this region. Sooner or later if I prepare myself, the time will come when I will be in demand. In addition to that is the immense personal satisfaction of knowing that I am doing something worthwhile. So far I have somewhat identified myself with the country. If I continue by means of study and articles, both of a scientific and philosophical nature, I will soon build up my reputation further.
I am supposed this noon to write Holt and cancel forever my chances with the Soil Erosion Service. Ober thinks it is the thing to do. I wonder. Yesterday I was sure. Today, I am a little uncertain. In fact I have a faint feeling at the pit of my stomach. Is it right or wrong, $3200 per annum, Spring Valley, going all of the time, moving from place to place, never at peace or at home. Still perhaps a step in the right direction. Perhaps I could come back here and get further with that training behind me. On the other hand my job is the interpretation of the beauty and the meaning of this country, by means of articles and essays. In that way, I can build myself up, keeping hold on the recreational aspects as well. Ober says, your fortune is in this country, don’t leave it.
Keep my teaching just a means, get it standardized and work in the other on the side, never losing sight of the ultimate goal and the companionship that will be yours when you reach it.
Writing goals. "A new slant different from Thoreau..."
A new slant different from Thoreau — the melancholy of Burroughs or any of the rest of them. Nature School is romantic Joy — sheer joy in being alive — tipping your hat to a sunset — walking on air — romance — adventure — the world is sick of tragedy — show this side of the outdoors in every article you write — zest, joy and abandon.
If you can describe every jaunt of yours and inject the joy that is often yours, the romance of that first year — get away from the mediocre — the commonplace — away from tragedy and remorse — pure joy in living and doing — do it well enuf so that anyone reading any article or story of yours cannot help but feel uplifted and happy — nothing sickly sentimental at all — not Burroughs — he is old — but something entirely different — none of those have as yet touched it — the joy in doing anything out of doors, love of the soil, of travel of hunting of fishing of everything — no dried melancholy philosophy but something new and alive — a philosophy of happiness in actioin — the joy of doing things for their own sake —
Strike a note & hold it — the world is sick of tragedy, tears, broken hearts. What it wants is light heartedness — happiness — a chance to enjoy —
Stop regretting what is going on — No one loves a reformer — necessary as they are. Be an interpreter of the happy life —
Above all keep forever in touch with the one basic idea
“Mallard for Breakfast”
“The Vista Hunters”
Certain subjects may be barred from this angle but not many.
I feel so strongly sometimes that I know I cannot go on without satisfying — The emotion I know at times hurts me terribly. It is all that is worthwhile in life to me.
Human feelings — emotions — the only worthwhile things in life. Nothing else matters just that — love — understanding — sympathy. They are all — that is worthwhile — One who can understand and feel must give without stint. A broad sympathy and understanding — that is enuf —
Writing. "Writing is the insulin of a disease of long standing."
The big question for me as always is what to write. I try and think of medium and it always comes back to the same thing, my interpretation of things as I see them. That should be the answer. I want to write for myself, write easily, write for the pleasure of it and that seems to be the only thing that I want to do. Looking over the old diary today, I find it replete with the old conclusion, “Write or be damned.” That has run through for many years and the way I have felt the past few days is sufficient proof of it to make me sure. It will not make much difference if I don’t write anything worth while from a financial standpoint. I must write to keep my sanity. Writing is the insulin of a disease of long standing. I must take my regular dose or go under.
I Plant some Spruce Trees
The spruces had grown on that small northern hillside for five years now, had weathered the storms of five winters and were now ready to take. The leaves were all gone and they stood sturdy and green against their background of dead grass. I would take three now as many as I could carry in my pack sack and then three later on. It was going to be fun to dig them out. There is always more fun to digging out one’s own trees and carrying them back, than having them come in a box from some nursery. Then they seem one’s own as though they belong, not the adopted children of some foreign nursery plot.
I looked them over carefully. They were all there. I hadn’t seen them since last spring. They were sturdier than when I had seem them last. The summer and wet fall had been good to them. They would transplant well for they spread their roots only along the surface and beneath was only gravel. I pushed the spade gently under the first and lifted it out soil and all, dropped it carefully in the packsack. Then two more until the pack was full, full enough to carry. As I finished smoothing off the holes I had made, the sky was copper with a November sunset. I went down the trail sprinkled lightly with snow. Here was a portage, but what a strange load I had this time. No supplies, no camping equipment. The portage I travelled was the old Indian trail from White Iron Lake to Shagawa, used in the days before the white men came for carrying between the Kawishowa River route and the Lake Vermillion route. It seemed good to feel the weight on my shoulders to dig my boots into the still unfrozen trail. A packsack full of spruce trees.
Topping the hill, I saw the lights of the house before me. It would soon be supper time……[journal entry ends]
Encounter with an Elderly Man on a Walk in Scotland.
Sigurd spent a year in Europe beginning in June 1945. As soon as it was clear that Germany was about to surrender, the army began making plans to bring home three million Americans. Realizing that it would take months to get them all back, the army planned a variety of activities—including college course work—to keep the soldiers reasonably content and active while they waited. Sigurd was invited to be one of the professors at at the army’s university in Shrivenham, England, far to the west of London near Swindon.
Classes didn’t start until August 1, so Sigurd got to travel around England and Scotland during the summer. In mid-July he even got to spend the night of a full moon in the midst of the circle of stones at Stonehenge. Sigurd wrote the following after a pleasant encounter with an elderly Scottish gentelman near Edinboro. (The breaks in these passages are Olson’s, a common practice of his when jotting down ideas in a journal.)
Day in the Peatlands
I had just passed the west end of the reservoir when I saw him, an old man striding along ahead of me. He wore a gray raincoat and had a little knapsack on his back and in his hand he held a book that he’d been reading.
When he saw me he stopped and waited, and we talked about the fishing in the stream and he told me about the little trout that grow there, how a man must be good with a fly to take them, and how in Scotland there are no private waters such as there are in England.
The little stream trickled down through the valley. Ahead were the high hills of Caernathy Peak and to the north of those — suddenly the whole world was shut out and we two were walking along that beautiful valley and talking about things that mattered —
“What the world needs is less speed—men want to get rich in a hurry”
People need the understanding of spiritual things.
He read me some poems of Rupert Brooks as we sat high on the side of Caernathy. The sun was setting in the west and the hills to the east were bathed in its last light. The heather was purple, the peaks clouded with mist.
“What the people need is happiness,” he said, “and so few know how to get it. Still it lies all about them.”
Then I told him of the rich man who did not know what to do with his money.
But mostly we just sat there and looked and listened and wondered how there could be thoughts of war when such a place existed. We were in a world of our own, talked of Thoreau “I would rather see a hawk over the fields of Concord” etc.
We talked of Buddha, and Confucious and the spiritual problems of mankind.
That afternoon was a revelation, a spiritual revelation. When it grew dusk we went down the side of the mountain and took the road back to Edinboro.
April 4, 1949
Sigurd's 50th Birthday
Sigurd is happy on his 50th birthday. He’s in Toronto, where he has just succeeded in achieving a major goal for the Quetico-Superior program: the creation of an influential Canadian group to enlist public opinion for the large portion of the canoe country in Ontario. Fresh with success, he records his hopes of writing a book.
Birthday – 50 – 4/4/49
I have made the break and new horizons have opened up – a fuller life – more realization – more and bigger objectives.
I have found fame and friends and encouragement. When I write now it will be with a new and bigger audience – no short stories of adventure or love – it will be books of my feelings & probings on life and nature and mankind.
The Philosophy of a Wilderness Man –
The story of how primitiveness has always been important to me – statement of objectives. Woven through everything I write or see
The fascination of primitive things – soil – black dirt – rocks – geology – protoplasm – frog songs – flowers. The cabin – The theme is primitiveness – all the way thru. The search & finding of the value of primitiveness all the way thru –
Church – the Druid stories – cathedral – great groves –
Hunting – 5 AM – not so much the hunting as what goes with it –
Not a return to the prim. but an awareness of what we are losing.
Living in a pack sack – simplicity – the movie –
The lunch spot –
Pussy Willows –
Kindling wood –
The Singing Wilderness
The Singing Wilderness, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1956, was Sigurd Olson’s first book, and it was immensely successful, becoming a classic of American nature writing. For Sigurd himself, it was the culmination of a long and hard-fought dream. The journal entries and letters below, along with excerpts from A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson, tell the story. I recommend reading the items in the order listed.
- The Making of The Singing Wilderness
- Time to Start a Book: Journal Entries from 1952
- “This is the Most Important Thing You’ve Ever Tried”: Putting it Together, 1953 to January 1954
- Telling the Family, Getting Reactions, Early 1954
- To Bring Forth “Something Shining for Man,” February 1954
- “Make 1954 the Year of Submission and Acceptance”
- Finding an Agent: May-June 1954
- Rejection: Summer and Fall, 1954
- “I am Enclosing Good News from Knopf”: January 1955
- April-May 1956: Success! The Singing Wilderness is Published, and Makes the New York Times Bestseller List
- The Singing Wilderness and A Sand County Almanac: Comparing Olson and Leopold