In October of 1990, Mark Peterson and Jeff Rennicke prepared a working paper titled “The 1991 Sigurd F. Olson Writing Award.” At the time, Peterson was serving as director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and Rennicke was serving on its advisory board.
Their working paper outlined a proposal to establish a writing award that would honor the memory of Sigurd Olson and that would “help to support and encourage the work of those contemporary writers who seek to carry on his tradition of quality nature writing in the Northwoods region.” As Peterson and Rennicke noted, Olson was “a conservationist, a guide, a public speaker and an untiring advocate for protection of the beauty and integrity of the Northwoods. But, first and foremost, Sigurd Olson was a writer. The written word was the medium through which he shared his love for the quiet lakes and distant calls of the loon, the northern lights and the tracks of the wolf.”
In their paper, Peterson and Rennicke explained that books to be considered for the 1991 award would be required to have a 1990 copyright date and that they would have to be works of non-fiction that dealt primarily with the “Northwoods region.” They also explained that book submissions would be reviewed by a three-person volunteer committee and that the winner would receive a monetary award and be honored with a “reception, book signing, and reading.”
Adoption and implementation of the writing award proposed by Peterson and Rennicke in October of 1990 was ultimately delayed by a year, but by July of 1991, funding for the award had been secured and a public notice indicated that book submissions were due by February 15, 1992. The notice further indicated that the winning book would be the one that best captured “the beauty and spirit of the Northwoods and the value in preserving that environment for future generations.”
A press release dated April 9, 1992, announced the winner of the first Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award—Minnesota author Jim Dale Vickery for his book Open Spaces, which, according to the press release, “paints an intensely personal and beautiful portrait of life in the Northwoods.” In a letter to one of the donors who supported the first writing award, Northland College’s then-president Robert Parsonage wrote that the award was presented to Vickery as part of a symposium celebrating the Institute’s 20th anniversary and that Elizabeth Olson personally presented the award to Vickery, commenting that her husband, Sigurd, would have been proud of the first recipient.
The second award winner, in 1994, was Jim Brandenburg for his book Brother Wolf: A Forgotten Promise. In a personal letter to Brandenburg, the Institute’s director Kate Lidfors describes Brother Wolf as being “unparalleled in expressing the spirit, values, and aesthetics the award represents,” and Jim Dale Vickery, in a comment included in the press release about Brandenburg’s award, notes that Brother Wolf “will go far to expand the hearts of people open to wild beauty, and to open those hearts which, for too many years, have been closed.”
In 1994, the reading committee also cited three books for “excellence in achievement” including A Place on the Water by Jerry Dennis, who would later win the 2004 award for his book The Living Great Lakes, and Saving All the Parts by Rocky Barker, who is a graduate of Northland College and an accomplished environmental journalist.
The third nature writing award was made in 1996 to David Dobbs and Richard Ober for their book The Northern Forest. Eileen Long, who was chair of the reading committee and who would later provide an endowment to partially support the award, described The Northern Forest as “a shiny example of the Institute’s mission of promoting thoughtful and thorough analysis in the investigation of complex environmental problems.” The press release for the 1996 award also notes that one of the readers for the award was Vonnie Olson, Sigurd Olson’s daughter-in-law, who played a key role in helping Olson refine and prepare for publication his first book, The Singing Wilderness.
After 1996, the Institute began awarding the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award on an annual basis, a practice that continues to this day. In 2000, the criteria for the award was expanded beyond its initial focus on the Northwoods, and since that time has been open to national and international submissions that capture the spirit of the human relationship with the natural world and that promote values that preserve or restore the land for future generations. Kathleen Dean Moore’s book Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World was the first winner of the award with this expanded focus.
Today, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award receives between forty and sixty submissions a year, and award winners are selected by a seven-person committee that includes a current Northland College student. The committee begins reading in the fall of each year and makes its final selection in March. Financial support for the award is provided by the Eileen Long endowment and by annual gifts from dedicated donors. Additional donations or contributions to the endowment are always welcome. A complete list of past award winners and details about the current winner may be found on the Institute’s website.
The children’s category of the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, which began in 2004, will be the topic of a future From the Archives installment.