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Things Seen and Heard: Regional Identity in Sigurd F. Olson’s Environmental Ethic

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Nanna K L Kaalund.

Sigurd F. Olson of Minnesota was one of the foremost American environmentalists in the 20th century. Olson served as vice president and president of the Wilderness Society, as a member and president of the of National Parks Association’s board of trustees, and remains the only individual to have received each of the highest honors from the Sierra Club, Izaak Walton League, Wilderness Society, and National Wildlife Federation—and the John Burroughs medal for nature writing. Olson’s involvement in the conservation movement, however, was guided by an “environmental ethic” firmly rooted in regional identity, especially Minnesota’s history and that of the French “voyageurs” in the Quetico-Superior wilderness. Olson thought this region’s historical and natural heritage was so precious that he devoted his life to protecting and writing about it, producing several bestselling volumes and countless essays on the region’s history and wilderness. More than his conservation activism, it was these writings that marshalled public support for wilderness protection. In reemphasizing the centrality of regional identity in Olson’s writings, I resituate his environmental ethic in the growing scholarship on Midwestern history and argue that its popular appeal was made possible by its cultivation of an accessible, reasonably coherent concept of the region’s environmental and cultural history. By way of conclusion, I will attempt to connect the regional rootedness of Olson’s environmental ethic with the contemporary climate crisis.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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