“That’s an interesting idea,” said Elizabeth Olson. “Tell me more.”
I was sitting at the large maple table in the living room of Sig and Elizabeth Olson, around which countless conservation campaigns and strategies had been hatched over the decades. Even with Sig gone for eight years, the table was still a centerpiece for ideas in 1990. I had come with a new idea to discuss with Sig’s widow, whom I met with several times a year to share progress about programs and projects of the Institute that carried her husband’s name and to get her wise counsel.
On every visit, she offered me freshly baked sugar cookies and coffee, a tradition for welcoming visitors. As I gazed out the room’s large picture window, I could see the converted detached garage that was Sig’s “writing shack.” It was here he pondered and composed his thoughts into nine books and innumerable articles and speeches. Writing was his passion, his craft, and through his words he enlightened and inspired generations to cherish and protect the intangible values of the natural world.
It was a fitting sight for what I was proposing to Elizabeth: That the Institute embark on a new program to highlight and celebrate the best nonfiction nature writing about the North Country Sig so fervently loved. The award would bring the author to the Northland College campus to visit classes and speak to the community. The program’s objective would be to inspire people about the natural world and motivate them to work for its protection.
Elizabeth liked the idea and even went along with my suggestion that we honor Sig by naming the award after him. With that first hurdle of approval secured, the concept was further refined and brought before the Institute’s Advisory Board and the College Trustees for support. Books would be submitted every other year and judged by a panel of readers who would determine which book “best captured the spirit of the human relationship with the natural world and promoted Sigurd Olson’s values.”
Since the 1991 inaugural award was presented to Ely wilderness guide and author Jim Dale Vickery for his book, Open Spaces, the program has evolved and continues to flourish. In 1999, its scope was broadened beyond a North Country focus to include nature writing without geographical limitations. In 2001, Eileen Long, an Institute Advisory Board member, established an endowment to provide an annual cash award for authors, as well as funds to bring winning authors to campus. And, in 2003, a children’s category was added. Today, the Award receives seventy-five to one hundred submissions each year, and two dedicated committees of readers review the submissions and make final selections in each category.
Mark Peterson has served in director roles with the National Park Conservation Association and the National Audubon Society. He served as executive director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute from 1985–1991 before leaving to earn a PhD in the human dimensions of natural resources. Mark returned to the Institute at the end of his career, serving again as executive director from 2012–2017, when he retired.
About the Award
The recipients of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award are announced each April—the month of Earth Day and of Sigurd’s birthday. All are invited to send in work for consideration. Visit northland.edu/sonwa to see this year’s recipients and learn more about the program.