What is "The Singing Wilderness"?

What is "the singing wilderness"? It refers to several different things, all at once.

It is the title of a 1956 book of nature essays by Sigurd F. Olson that became a bestseller and launched his career as an author.

It will be the title of the third book in a series of novels I'm writing, the first of which, Listening Point, will be published in June 2023 by Riverfeet Press.

It also can stand as the overarching name for that series. And that's because "the singing wilderness" points to a way of seeing and a way of being that is sorely needed in these troubled times.

Sigurd Olson used to tell me that no two people see things the same way. To write, then, is to take something that might be quite familiar, and express it through the writer's unique blend of experience, creativity and insight. That's what I hope to do here, as well as in my books. I'm taking his "singing wilderness" way of life and expressing it for today, based on my life experiences, creativity and insight.

I'm Sigurd's biographer. I'm his estate's literary representative. I want to honor his memory as much as I want to express my own twist on the "singing wilderness" way. But more than that, I want to help you recover the truth of our oneness with nature. To help you discover the power of wonder. To encourage you to spend time in silence and solitude, somewhere outdoors. I trust in what the experience will do for you. You will grow more aware. Feel more alive. You will find wholeness. You will know peace.

The singing wilderness way will help you begin to satisfy a hunger that no amount of material striving can suppress.  And if enough people discover this way and live it, our society may begin to break the chains of a way of life that in the long run threatens all life.

But first we need to get a sense of why Sigurd chose "Singing Wilderness" as the title of his first book, and as a simple way to express his entire worldview.


To Sigurd, the “wilderness” part of the title highlighted the essential wildness at the heart of all reality. It included large wild expanses of land, but also much more. He wrote about locations in and around his small town of Ely, Minnesota, even his own backyard. As he said, "Some can find their wildernesses in tiny hidden corners where, through accident rather than design, man has saved just a breath of the primeval America." He continued:

I know of a glen in the heart of a great city park system, a tiny roaring canyon where many seeking solitude and beauty can find release. It is dark in there, and damp, and in the heat of the summer it is cool. Ferns and lichens and liverworts cling to the rocks, and there grow flowers that thrive only in the shadows where the air is charged with mist. The water swirls through this canyon as it has for thousands of years, and the sounds are the sounds of a land far removed from civilization.

A highway runs within a hundred yards and cars pass almost overhead, but the rocks and trees screen it from view and the only evidence of traffic is a vague hum that blends with the whisper of the wind and the music of rushing water. There, if a man wishes, he can regain in a swift moment the feeling of the wild, and steal, for a brief instant, respite from the noise and confusion of a big city. There, if he has perspective, he may recharge his soul.



As for “singing,” to Sigurd it conveyed a sense of relationship that doesn't come easily to many. In our culture, descriptions of nature are dominated by the sense of sight and the picturesque. Sigurd's title expresses what his friend Sam Campbell described as “that elusive melody to whose rhythm all nature moves.” For Sigurd it also implied mystery and joy, the joy of connectedness.  And as he fleshed out his manuscript early in 1954, he wrote in his journal:

If each thing I write will somehow have this illumination, this glow, this transcendent beauty, the feeling of having touched the absolute, it will be enough. I can do this by bringing in somehow my feelings for the primeval, the origins of things…the sense of wonder, awe, oneness with all life and the universe itself, [and] the childlike quality, soon lost, of being part of that greater life.

THAT is the real spirit in which I use the “singing wilderness” concept as the title for this blog as well as the title of the third novel in the trilogy I am writing. It points to an awareness, a perspective, and a way of life. A way of seeing and being that is even more important now than it was when Alfred Knopf published Sigurd's book and it became a bestseller.

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