The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute archives include a small, saddle-stitched pamphlet titled Two Essays by Sigurd F. Olson. The pamphlet was produced by the Institute and, though undated, was likely published shortly after Olson’s death in 1982.
The first essay in the pamphlet is titled “Those Intangible Things,” and a note explains that the essay was originally delivered as an address to the national convention of the Izaak Walton League of America in March of 1954.
By definition, “intangible things” are those things that we cannot touch, and Olson recognized that they were often undervalued, especially in the midst of the heightened materialism that characterized the United States in the 1950s. Olson also recognized that intangible things were difficult to talk about “because they are hard to define, explain, or measure.” And so, he began his address with a definition.
“Intangible values,” Olson posited, “are those which stir the emotions; that influence our happiness and content; values that make life worth living. They are all tied up with the idea of the good life. . . . the intangible values are so important that without them life loses its meaning. . . . They are what give substance to the practical; they provide the reasons for everything we do.”
David Backes, who included “Those Intangible Things” in a 2001 edited collection of Olson’s writing titled The Meaning of Wilderness: Essential Articles and Speeches, notes that this address was Olson’s first attempt to explain in detail the concept of “intangible values.” It is also notable that this initial discussion of intangibles occurred just two years before the publication of Olson’s first book, The Singing Wilderness.
Olson returned to the concept of intangibles again and again in his writing and speaking, and near the end of his life, he revised his original Izaak Walton League address for his final book, Reflections from the North Country. In this revised version of the address, he concludes that there is a great need for people “to come in touch with silence, cyclic rhythms, and natural beauty if they are to retain their perspective. Tension, speed, and lack of real purpose in their daily lives make it mandatory they go to places where they can find themselves, regain their dignity and fulfillment as humans. It is the intangible values of the land they need. The conservation of waters, forests, mountains, and wildlife are far more than saving terrain. It is the conservation of the human spirit which is the goal. . . .”
Although the mission of the Sigurd Olson Environment Institute has been articulated in many different ways over the years, the promotion and conservation of intangibles has always been at the heart of its programs. In the spring of 2020, the Institute made this commitment explicit when it launched Intangible, a twice-yearly publication dedicated to capturing through words and art the value of intangible things.
To read and enjoy Intangible in its digital form or to join the mailing list for print versions, see the Institute’s webpage dedicated to Intangible.