The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute Looks to the Future

By Alan Brew, Executive Director of the SOEI

Over the past year, in anticipation of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s fiftieth anniversary in 2022, the staff of the Institute have reflected on its history and deliberated about its future. We have shared with one another our own, affirming experiences of wildness as well as the anguish we often feel in the face of personal challenges and when it is evident that, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, aspects of our village life are stagnating.

In this context, we have refined the Institute’s mission to focus on programs and activities that promote, protect, and celebrate experiences of wildness and wonder in northern woods and waters. Through this commitment, we hope to ensure that Sigurd Olson’s singing wilderness continues to be available for all and to expand significantly the number of individuals who benefit from the tonic that it can provide.

Inspiration and affirmation for this refined focus come from literary and scientific testimonies of the essential role that wild nature plays in our lives, as well as from personal experiences with students in wild places.

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Writing in the midst of our country’s first industrial revolution, as we were beginning the transition from a rural, frontier citizenry to a predominantly urban citizenry, Thoreau offered a compelling testament to the value of wild nature and to the essential role that it might play in our personal and collective lives. “We need the tonic of wildness,” he wrote in Walden, “to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk” and “to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest.” Without this tonic, Thoreau asserted, our “village life would stagnate.”

Writing in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War, Sigurd F. Olson also testified persuasively to the value of wild nature. In The Singing Wilderness, he describes how a childhood experience “in a wild and lovely place” allowed him to enter “into a life of indescribable beauty and delight.” And, in Listening Point, he describes how a wild spit of land in the Quetico-Superior country helped him to know “one of the oldest satisfactions of man”—how it allowed him to recapture an “almost forgotten sense of wonder” and to learn “from rocks and trees . . . truths that can encompass all.”

Today, in the throes of our own Digital Revolution, the essential value of wild nature, and the wonder it inspires, continues to be affirmed. Richard Louv has demonstrated the sobering consequences of childhoods deficient in nature. Recent studies in the neurosciences have shown that interactions with nature promote improved cognitive functioning. And, Christopher Norment, a teacher and environmental scientist, has argued in an article for Orion Magazine that it is wonder, and especially wonder inspired by encounters with wild nature, “that sustains intellectual and artistic creativity, nourishes the most active minds, and gives rise to the best professionals, no matter what their area of expertise.”

For nearly twenty years now, I have had the good fortune to spend a month or more of each year traveling with children and young adults in wild places. I have sat with them on Olson’s Listening Point and watched as they traced with their own hands glacial striations in granite billions of years old. I have listened with them to the howls of wolves and to the yodels and wails of loons as day fades into night on campsites deep in the Boundary Waters. I have paddled with them to the foot of a remote waterfall on the Canadian shore of Lake Superior and felt its power in our feet and eardrums as it tumbled and thundered to the shore of the lake. And, I have hiked with them to the sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in May and watched sandhill cranes walking on ice sheets that wouldn’t fully melt until June.

Through these and numerous other experiences, and in the faces of my students, in the pages of their journals, in the life paths they have pursued, I have seen testimony after testimony to the transformative and sustaining power of wild nature—to Thoreau’s tonic of wildness and to Olson’s singing wilderness.

And yet, the number of individuals who engage with nature continues to decline and the threats to wild nature are more pervasive and persistent than they’ve ever been. New technologies are also creating seductive and addictive devices that draw youth and adults alike into increasingly virtual worlds where connections are more illusionary than real. In a recent article for The Atlantic, for instance, Jean M. Twenge, demonstrates that post-Millennials, who spend significant amounts of time each day alone and indoors with their devices, are physically safer than ever before (fewer parties, fewer car accidents, etc.) while rates of teen depression and suicide are skyrocketing.

Believing that experiences of wildness and wonder can be a powerful counterforce to these trends, the Institute will focus in the coming years on creating and facilitating these experiences and on ensuring that they are available to youth, college students, and our north woods communities. As part of this focus, we will continue and further develop well-established programs at the Institute that already affirm the value of wild nature, such as LoonWatch, the Timber Wolf Alliance, Apostle Islands School, and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Awards, while simultaneously developing and delivering new programs and activities.

Alan BrewAlan Brew has served as a faculty member in the English department at Northland College since 1999. His courses focus on American literature and nature writing, and he regularly teaches field-based courses in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Lake Superior Watershed. With his wife Nicole, he has hiked, paddled, skied, and fished in many of our country’s awe-inspiring wild places, and both of their children experienced their first Boundary Waters canoe trip before they were six weeks old. Alan began serving as the executive director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in August and continues to teach part-time for the English department. 

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