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Image of Listening Point.

Finding a Sense of Place

Conservationist and wilderness advocate Sigurd Olson died nearly 30 years ago, but his lakeside cabin looks as if he'd just walked out the door. That's what you will find when you turn to "The Listening Post" in this issue.

A lived-in feeling is part of what makes a visit to this historic place extraordinary. Walking around this north woods retreat, you can imagine the footsteps of the man who wandered here, cleared a path through pines, waded along a sandy shore, and sat down on a great slab of Ely greenstone to listen.

The nonprofit Listening Point Foundation preserves these 27 acres and its simple artifacts. One summer morning in 2010, some friends and I toured the site with executive director Alanna Dore. We drove up a grassy two-track road and parked in a small clearing in the woods. We walked first to a cedar-log sauna, perched above a hidden cove. Sigurd found this Finnish sauna near Embarrass, Alanna said. He arranged to have the dovetailed logs disassembled, then reassembled here. Inside, we saw tiered benches, stones atop a woodstove, wooden bucket and ladle, and an enameled-tin temperature gauge.

Next, we walked up a path made soft and fragrant with fallen pine needles. Outside the cabin stood a lichen-encrusted washing table. Crossing the threshold into the cabin, we stepped on stones collected on site by Olson. Stonemason Mike Braun recently restored the doorstep and foundation, replacing each stone exactly as originally laid.

Finally, on the point, we fell silent—listening as Olson encouraged everyone to do in his book Listening Point.

Olson reserved this place for contemplation and went back to town to write. And so Alanna took us back to town to his writing shack, a remodeled garage next door to his house. Once again, we entered a room with a just-left feeling. Olson's Royal typewriter held a sheet of paper with his last words: "A New Adventure is coming up and I'm sure it will be a good one."

I asked Alanna if I might thumb through a stack of magazines on a shelf. In short order, I found what I was looking for—several Volunteer magazines. Each issue contained one of Olson's stories, published in the years after his death. Presumably his wife, Elizabeth, put them here.

While ensuring the privacy of this writing space, Elizabeth Uhrenholdt Olson welcomed visitors to their home. Jim Brandenburg, who first photographed Sigurd Olson in the 1970s for a Washington Post story, became a frequent visitor. "I spent a lot of time going to his house," he says. "He had an open-door policy. Thousands of people must have gone there. How he found time for them I don't know." After Sig died, Brandenburg says, Elizabeth continued welcoming visitors with coffee and cookies "at that classic big table overlooking their yard—where all kinds of people have sat talking about writing, wilderness ethics, wildlife, voyages."

After Brandenburg accepted the assignment to take photos of Listening Point for this issue, he felt some trepidation. But unlike the fledgling journalist who first photographed Olson at the point 40 years ago, the now famous photographer had different reasons for concern. "I laid awake at night and thought about how I could get the right shot," he says. "It's not an easy place to shoot because it's so important to me."

Indeed, the place has become important to many. Because of the vitality of Olson's writing, Listening Point has taken root in the imagination of countless readers. Today, this refuge continues to reflect the inviting spirit of both Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson: Visit, make yourself at home for a while, and then leave Listening Point as you would the wilderness—without a trace.

Kathleen Weflen, editor


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