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Part seven of the MER documentary series, A Sense of Place. Program is titled “More Than One Wilderness” and profiles living in Minnesota, from city to cabin.

Program includes Sigurd Olson speaking about his life in the wilderness of the Boundary Waters; a look at the contrasting “new kind of wilderness” in the lives of people on the move, living in a Twin Cities apartment complex; discussions on daily life of a real wilderness dwellers in the Northland; and music/nature sound segments.

This recording was made available through a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.


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SPEAKER 1: The distance between an apartment complex in Bloomington and Ely on the edge of a 2,000-mile wilderness stretching through northern Minnesota and on into Canada can be covered in about 5 hours by automobile. But is it possible by any mode of transportation to span the psychological distance?

SIGURD OLSON: There's something strange, something remarkably forceful that gets people who once lived in the North. I suppose part of the reason is that the North has a-- still has a sense of wilderness. The wilderness is disappearing fast here. But the further North you go, there's more wilderness.

The only place where people live in this country called the North is along its southern fringe, say 2, 300 miles from the Canadian-US border. Beyond that, there are only occasional mining camps clusters of natives, some logging operations. But all of that vast country denotes something in this day when we think about being crowded and pushed around and not having space enough for our own needs.


So space, expanse, open country, wilderness, whatever name you want to give it is a great drawing card. That's one part of it. Then there's the matter of silence.


SPEAKER 3: I think that your reference to retreat to nature is very appropriate here. Because first of all, I think this is a-- International Village is a community within a community. I think that the people here need other people, like Mike said about being very gregarious. And they're looking for something, just like maybe a small town might provide. It's within.

And yet, they can have that urban atmosphere. They can have-- they can go downtown to Minneapolis and go to all the nightclubs. They can go to the strip and go to all the nightclubs. They can have the best of both worlds here, and I think their needs--

MICHAEL JENNINGS: Difference between living in a-- a bustling little town in the middle of the desert, as different to living in, say, Sacramento, where you're an hour from the mountains, an hour from Frisco-- you're an hour from the woods. In a place like this, everything is accessible and nearby.

It takes no effort to reach any part of the world that you want to be in. And you may forget some worlds, like, again, artistic qualities and that type of thing. And very few artists, I think, are out here, the type of artist that sits and paints creatively.

A lot of commercial arts, definitely, but very accessible here, anything you want to do. If you want to be with any kind of a person, I think they're right here. And they're at fingertip. And I think they're receptive. I think they're right. I think they're doing the same thing. They're willing to meet you, any basis that you want to call. May be superficial. May possibly develop into something far deeper.


SPEAKER 1: A Sense of Place, a documentary series which looks at regions and regionalism in the state of Minnesota, produced by Minnesota Educational Radio under a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission. This program is called More Than One Wilderness.


We are a society on the search and a state whose goals are polarized between progress and preservation. Hardly more than a century since Pig's Eye and St. Anthony were scruffy river settlements, Minnesota is proud of the beauty, the culture, the industrial success of its Twin Cities and their suburban appendages.

And the pride is justified. Minneapolis and St. Paul are rich in many ways, especially so in relation to the decay evident in most major Metropolitan centers the country over. Up north, however, the state possesses another kind of treasure, mile upon mile of forest land, decorated with gleaming lakes and sinuous rivers, silent country, except for some noisy small-town chambers of Commerce, largely uninhabited, except by some rugged individuals who like it that way.

This then is a point of tension in our state, its personality split between the social needs of its outgoing, gregarious Metropolitan self and the deeper explorations of its soul region, delicately balanced, dependent on space and silence for survival. This is a story of people searching for their place in this state, those who chose or were chosen by the city, and those whose commitment has taken them northward in geographical direction, inward in psychic terms. It begins at International Village, an apartment complex in Bloomington.

NANCY COOL: When I first came to International Village, I felt strange, as though I were the only one who had survived an A-bomb attack because I just wasn't, at first, meeting people as much as I wanted to, I guess. You have a little bit of loneliness when you first come to a new place.

SPEAKER 1: Nancy Cool is an overseas teacher for the Arabian American Oil Company, working this year on an exchange basis at a grade school in Edina. She's been out of the country for a dozen years, most of them spent in Saudi Arabia.

NANCY COOL: Yeah, we live in a vacuum over there, and you feel very deprived of all current news, keeping up with the times. And I just wanted to be sure I was in a place that was swinging somewhat. So I had friends that were looking out for a place that might be good for a single person, and they sent me this brochure that I thought just sounded, wow, that's for me, [CHUCKLES] The International Village brochure.

So I wrote in right away and told them my situation. I was interested in living there for one year. And when you live abroad, why, letters have a lot of meaning for you. And I got a letter from the secretary at that time. It was Sharon [? Schunk. ?] And she says, we've assigned you to such and such a room, and I think you'll like it.

And just those reassuring words, coming to a strange city, that I thought, with this brochure and with that secretary, I think this is really what I want. Plus, I'm interested in sports. And that advertises tennis and golf and the rec center and the swimming pool and all. And compared to what I'd had, I thought, this just couldn't be beat.


LUCY: I have always been very people oriented, and I do love working with people. So I enjoy it very much. I have as you know, many, many people to work with. And they are from all walks of lives. And many people are from the foreign countries, and you just have to remember to smile in any language.

SPEAKER 1: Lucy [? Heddlested ?] is officially the rental manager for International Village. In truth, she's something of a house mother to the people who live there, for this is an apartment complex different from most others that dot the landscape in the Twin Cities, a difference you can see in the handsomely designed buildings, each with a touch of continental flavor set among rolling green areas, a difference Lucy believes people who come to live there can feel and respond to enthusiastically.

LUCY: I think basically, they come, and they're just looking for an apartment. Or possibly, they want to be with the type of people they feel they want to be with. Some people really don't know what they want, but it ends up that they find it there.

And the philosophy of the man who built the place was to build a way of life. He just does not believe in building apartments and collecting the rent check. His philosophy is that many apartment people are very lonely people, so we try to give them a way of life. And they seem to find it there and get together. It's like a community.

So this is what we have there, we feel. And we have many social activities and athletical activities going on at the village. So if they don't have friends, they do meet them, whether it's at their job, at the village, or whatever they decide to do. But they do find themselves going out less and less.


MICHAEL JENNINGS: OK, I had my choice, and I'd known people from the village before. When I first came on the police department, moved to several homes. And then I knew a couple of people that lived here, and their girlfriends lived here. So I used to come down on Sunday afternoons and got to know a couple of people out at the pool. They have pretty big to-dos every Sunday with a band and big crowd. It gets pretty crowded out there.


In so many words, I would pick this place. I picked this place because I thought it was less phony.

SPEAKER 1: Mike Jennings is 24, a policeman on the Bloomington City Force. Once married and soon to be again, he met his new fiancée at the village. But, he suggests, people shouldn't come to the suburbs with that goal in mind, as relationships are apt to be of the more casual variety.

MICHAEL JENNINGS: You live in Minneapolis. Say you're a mundane secretary or clerk or not real happy with your job. You're trying to make things better, and you hear from people. Bloomington is really fantastic, just parties all the time. The whole strip is covered with hotels and restaurants and nightclubs you can go to and meet a number of people. Why don't you move out there? It's fantastic out there.

So here's a person who's accustomed to, say, a lower city form of life. They come out here to meet the person that they've always been waiting for, like they have been thinking back in Minneapolis. It's not like that. It's not like that. They come out here, and they meet the first guy that comes along. And he's just comes at it all together, just seems like he's totally in love with her, one night, you know?

Well, the next day, it's gone. Mainly, it's just get together to have a good time. And I think that's part of the lifestyle in Bloomington. There's a lot of people getting together just to have a good time, with no looking back. Tomorrow, maybe it's all-- it'll be altogether different tomorrow.

Say you meet a girl out here. Let's have a fantastic time tonight. Whatever you choose to do, we'll do. If it happens to be sex, fine. If it's not sex, fine. Let's go have a good time. And tomorrow, you'll think about, maybe you'll call her again. Maybe you won't.


LUCY: You can sense the interim or going on to other things or transition before they get married, transition before possibly they make more money. And they can get their own apartment. They don't have to share it with someone.

The middle-aged people-- they've sold their home. They stay. They're very stabilized. The only reason they would leave is if they really wanted a change of scenery. Apartment people sometimes are transient to the point where they like a new look or a sunken living room or whatever.

But basically, like I say, it's the younger people when they're just starting out, possibly get married. Some stay on, and some don't. But I would say, really, that it would maybe even out 60-40, 60% in the transient or interim of their period of life. And the others are very stabilized and stay for a long period of time. We've got tenants that have been here seven years.


A lot of the people that are older wouldn't leave the village, because they've got the youth around them that they enjoy. And it does keep them young. You will see them always out at the pool every Sunday or every night conversing, being with the young. They really need this.

I tell many young people, they come to rent there. They like it, and they want to be with this. And they want to rent there, but they feel that it's too expensive, like maybe $10 to $20 a month over what the budget was that they had planned for themselves. So I tell them to think about it but that they will end up saving that $10 to $20 a month in entertainment.

First of all, they won't be going out as much. Secondly, they will be bringing their friends there to entertain them. So this way, they save a lot. And it becomes much more economical than they had anticipated when they first looked at the overall picture of so and so X amount of dollars for an apartment. So it's all in what they're looking for, I feel. Again, they don't know some of them, yes. But they do find out in a hurry when they get there.


I would have a sense of living in a smaller community in a wild wilderness, and it is an escape. And you're with people that, basically, I think feel the same way. They can get back, shut their door. It's very quiet there if they want it to be. But if they want the excitement, or maybe not excitement, just someone else to talk to, someone else to put a stake on the outdoor grill with, it's there.

You will see kids walking hand-in-hand, a blanket in the arm. Or they'll be laying out on the grass. Now, there's not too many apartment complexes where you see this. You basically see parking lots and garages. And it's a feeling of freedom like you say with nature. They can actually walk out and touch it or be on the grass or whatever. There's flowers planted around, as you notice. The shrubbery is beautiful. I think it's all there.



NANCY COOL: I soon became all in my own, I guess, feeling as though I belonged. And people began to speak, and you do feel odd when you go in the rec center at first. And everybody seems to know everybody, but you don't. Or you go to a party, and everyone seems to know everybody.

And you don't know them. But it has fulfilled my needs very well, and I find that I really hate to leave. No it's like a small town, pretty much. You get to know the people in your building. And the village does have these social things that bring you together also, and it seems like a small community.


Oh, I definitely think this type of living is the coming thing. I think what I visualize are villages within themselves, totally self-sustaining with their own little grocery store, where you can get anything you need. And you hardly need to go outside the village. We already have a hairdresser on our block. And I believe that more and more, it will be a community within a community from now on because it's such a popular way to live.


MICHAEL JENNINGS: It's normally fast, but I think you can step out of it. The average person out here-- [? there are ?] probably more salesmen than anywhere. On this side of it, this side of the city where most of the apartment complexes, are I think you've got a faster-moving people, the salesmen, maybe the pilot, the stewardess, the secretary, the successful this and that. But they're not making $100,000 a year. They're in a middle-income bracket, maybe even a lower-middle income bracket.

And those people-- you move fast for the money you're making. But you can step out. You've got your jobs. You've got to work at your jobs to stay here. These aren't people that have already made it. They're people that are making it. Therefore, you might have a great fast time for three days week over the weekend.

During the week, you step out. You're back in your job. You're working 8:00 to 5:00. You're slowing down. You're having dinner with your friends, maybe the guys you work out with the company. Things slow down. But if you want to ever get back into it, there's no end to what you can-- no end to what you can get into.


You've either got to be the way your peers are out here or be able to develop into being that way. You've got to be more or less sociable. You've got to be outgoing. You've got to want to do strange things. You've got to want to be busy a lot of the time.

And if you're not, because a lot of the people around you are, it's easy to have you overlooked. And if you're overlooked, it's pretty lonely if you're out here for that purpose. And I think a lot of people are, to have a good time. And you're not, and you see everybody around you that is. That's lonely.


I describe myself as someone-- and you'd laugh, but I describe myself as something as basically shy. I really do. I think of myself like that, yeah. I think of myself as-- when I start something, I may put on a front to act confident so that I'm more easily accepted. But it's not until I'm accepted that I feel at all confident. And out here when you're developing so many relationships on so many different levels, every time you start one, I feel like I'm very unconfident until-- oh, out here--

SPEAKER 3: --that's why you're here, Mike, is because the village provides that opportunity for you to meet people. It provides the opportunity where you can be accepted. And I think there's a certain type of person that lives here in the village, and it's the person that needs to be accepted by others.

It's a person that's maybe hassled by the hubbub and the rapid movement of an urban society. And here he can come in and retreat. He can be alone if he wants to. And yet there's-- like Mike said, there's opportunities to congregate with others and be accepted. And I think you get that congregation of lonely people, and they have a good time.

MICHAEL JENNINGS: Do you think people out here really are lonelier than, say, other areas?

SPEAKER 3: Yes. I think they're looking for something. And I think the people that move out of here are people that perhaps thought this lifestyle was something they wanted and just never could adjust.

SPEAKER 1: And when people can't adjust, can't fit themselves into a city lifestyle, no matter how comfortable the amenities, how outgoing the company around them, sometimes they choose another kind of trip, northward and inward. Naturalist author Sigurd Olson and University of Minnesota sociologist George Donahue offered differing views of what that journey means to Minnesotans and the larger society as well.

SIGURD OLSON: Up at my home in Ely, we have a constant stream of young people who come through. But these young people say this-- we don't want to make a lot of money. We want our work to have more meaning.

We want to live closer to the Earth. We have a certain reverence for life, for all living things. I still don't mind taking checks from mama and papa, and they [? hated ?] the establishment. But that's because I'm on the way to my full realization, and they know it.

But there are countless, thousands of these young people, I would say, hundreds of thousands of young people who have developed a new lifestyle, a new attitude toward the Earth, a new matter of priorities, a new matter of trying to find work that's meaningful to them and that the evolution of the mind and the spirit is far more than the idea of getting a good job with fringe benefits and security in the offing.

I am convinced that the American people, and I might as well say the people of the world generally are going through a cultural revolution. Never before have people felt the way they do now towards the world in general. Never before have they been so disturbed about the environmental crisis.

Never before have they realized that the lives that they are heading toward may not have the meaning and the fulfillment that they hope. Of course, there are many factors-- our long war, three long wars, the fact that there are so many discordant elements in our society, the loss of the old integrity, the old values, and so on. They realize this, and they want to do something with it. And I say, thank God.

GEORGE DONOHUE: One reason this draws such notoriety is because it's so infrequent. Because if it were the common everyday thing, what, it wouldn't gain that notoriety. As a matter of fact, if it became a common, everyday activity, then the social structure would have changed rapidly in the country as a whole.

And if it does become quite frequent and threatens the existing structure, still you might say you'll see the same struggle between the existing industrial democracy and this type of behavior as you see between the agrarian democracy and the development of the industrial democracy. The fight between the small town and the large Metropolitan area is evidence of the switch that we've gone through.

Now, if we begin to switch back, you'll see a similar struggle. But right now, I think it's by-- there is a lot of frustration. It may be an individual case here and there, and it points up for the people when they look at it, this nostalgic. Oh, they live through the place that adventures. They read it in the paper and say, gee, isn't that great?

And they get a curious satisfaction out of it, in a sense. They may want to go there, or they may not want to go over there. But you see, we always get vicarious satisfaction out of reading what someone else has done, whether it's Perry at the North Pole or [INAUDIBLE] at the North Pole or whatever it happens to be the case. And there are those individuals who will go out and indulge in that type of activity and provide this vicarious satisfaction for the rest of us.

SPEAKER 1: Cultural Revolution or an exception that proves the rule and provides the rest of us with vicarious satisfaction-- people trying to create a new life in the wilderness are not likely to view their venture in terms of its broad societal implications. For them, it's a personal matter.

KRISTIN NELSON: I think we've both been interested in a long time, for a long time in living in the woods. I know it's-- well, I moved up here about four years ago and so did Cassandra. I know I started looking down back roads the first year I was here hoping that I'd find a little homestead or something like that.

And I moved up here with the idea of staying here for a long time, and I liked-- the main reason I moved up here was I knew about the countryside here and the beauty and somewhat the isolation, I liked, and the ruggedness in a way and the fact that there aren't too many people around.


And anyway, so I just have always had that in the back of my mind. Although, I really didn't-- we didn't really get started with it, or I didn't really get started with it until Cassandra-- or get to the point of actually buying or bidding on a piece of land until Cassandra was interested.

And she was very determined one summer, and so we hunted around and talked about buying land together a lot, went through many ups and downs and finally decided to buy it, and from that point on, began to make plans that suited this kind of land, this piece of land. Because before you get a piece of land, you hardly know what you're going to end up with.

SPEAKER 1: Kristin Nelson and Cassandra [? Stary ?] own a piece of the backwoods north of Duluth. They bought it at auction a couple of years ago. This summer, they'll be building a cabin from some old barn lumber they were told they could have for free, if they would just tear the thing down and haul it away.

KRISTIN NELSON: The design of the actual building sort of is determined by the lumber that we found as far as the size. And I don't think we're really being that experimental with our design basically, but we are going to try to be very-- have well-planned space for what we do have.

And Cassandra has read a lot, and we've both done a lot of talking to people. We both have friends who've done something like this or are thinking about doing it. Or there are a lot of people now, especially young people who are moving out into the woods. So there's a lot of information if you just want to spend the time talking to people.

And local people who've been out in this area long time are really helpful, too. They can tell you shortcuts and stuff like that you can't really read about in a book. Or like here, it's unique when the frost goes so deep. How do you plant a foundation? And I think the local people have been more helpful than books.


In the meantime, [CHUCKLES] well, we have a teepee, which we lived in last summer. And we're planning on living again this summer and maybe other summers too, even when the building's up. And right now, you can see it really in front of you here in various bits and pieces because we have just started putting it up.

We moved it again this year. Last year, we set it up. And we found out even though we set it up in the highest part of this clearing, it was one of the wettest areas when it rained. So we moved it to a place that had better drainage, which was closer to the bottom of the clearing.

And then last summer, if you remember, there was so much rain. [CHUCKLES] The last night I slept in it, my air mattress floated through the door. [CHUCKLES] There's a lot of strength in a teepee, too, the cone shape. We went through some pretty strong winds last summer, some pretty bad storms. And you really feel good in a teepee because it just doesn't-- a regular tent is flapping, and everything feels like it's going to fly away.

But the teepee really feels strong. And there's a rope that comes down. It's tied to the poles where they all cross at the top. And it's staked into the ground, so there's further-- besides the cone shape, there's more ways of anchoring it down. It's really nice to have a fire in it, too, which is something you can't have in a regular tent.

That's a very-- many, many's the night. That was the thing we looked forward, too, after cooking our supper and just walking down to the teepee and lighting the fire. And we have an apple orchard. This place is homesteaded a long time ago, and they planted about 20 tree orchards. And it hasn't been tended for years. So when we pruned it the first year, we took all the prunings. And that wood is used for our teepee fires. It smells very good, and it doesn't smoke very much. It's really nice wood.


I have a lot good expectations from last summer, but it's, like, a little uncomfortable now because I'd rather the teepee were up. And I [CHUCKLES] don't have to go through that sometimes, that you have to put it up several times before it hangs. And I just feel kind of lazy today. I'd just rather sit and lie in the sun or something like that. I feel a little awkward and somewhat impatient.

There's a much more peaceful, relaxed feeling that you get when you've been out in the country for a while. And I noticed, like, as soon as we plan on going to the city on a day, our attitude seems to change. And our whole tempo changes, and it just is a lot less natural feeling or something.


Right now, I would like money mainly not so much for myself or so I'll eat enough. I don't feel like I'm going to starve or anything like that. And taxes are very cheap out here, and this place doesn't demand money at all, demands time.

Mostly, I just want money so I can get the equipment I need to make pottery. Because that's really an important thing to me. We're hoping the building will only cost us about $400 by the time it's done. That's probably somewhat low estimate. I don't know. Maybe it's just right.


But I don't know. What else is there that we need money out here for after that, except to feed ourselves and to carry out whatever projects? There's a number of things we certainly could do. We could build a high-rise apartment.



Well, I think the strongest thing it means to me is that it means I have a place of my own, and it doesn't-- that's immediately what getting the land sort of gave me a sense of, place of my own, place where I could do things, try things, and have goals and stuff like that that I set up. And that felt really good, a lot of security in that for me.

But I found over the past year that I don't think this place will really feel secure to me, year round especially, until we have the cabin up, because the teepee isn't practical to live in the rest of the year. And we really aren't out here much when it turns colder, because there really is no good shelter here. And it's fairly exposed, and I think that'll change a lot with the meaning of this land is to me as soon as the building is up.

I can think about it, but the feeling, I think, once the cabin is done, I'm thinking will be a lot different. I really-- for me, it means a place where I can go, where I can get away from people. That's a lot of it. It's isolated, and it's private because privacy means a lot to me. And it's a place where I can do things with trees and plants because I really like doing that, and I usually have lived in rented places where you can't do much.

And it's also a place where I can do pottery. Because often, if you make pots in town, you've got firewardens to contend with and all kinds of people. I'm pretty independent person, and I think I-- [CHUCKLES] this kind of place fits in with me.

It's sort of like paradise to me, except it's not really [CHUCKLES] because it's a real place. And there's a beautiful apple orchard, but there's bears that come and eat all the apples and break all the branches. [CHUCKLES] So my fairy tale world is shattered.


Cities mean noise to me and action, more action than I generally like handling on the one hand. On the other hand, it means exciting things, interesting people or maybe new people to meet. And right now, I was living in a commune for the last two years. And I just moved out of that and I have no more city home anymore. This is my home now. And I'm thrown off kilter by that right now. I'm just sort of, boy, this is it.


And what is the city going to mean for me now and from now on? What is it going to-- what part is it going to play in my life? I don't really know.


SIGURD OLSON: We've forgotten what natural rhythms are, that people aren't supposed to move that fast. But the North still has these cosmic rhythms. I think of what Bertrand Russell wrote-- "speaking of cosmic rhythms," he said, "if you can develop a cosmic sense, then all of the little irritations of m all the trivia can be lived with.

If your cosmic sense is broad enough so that you can look at the Earth and look at the universe and look at mankind and yourself, then so many of the little things that drive us up the walls aren't so important anymore."


SPEAKER 1: Music from the albums "Environments, Disk 2" on the Atlantic label and "Tapestry," by The Electric String Ensemble on Columbia. Comments by Sigurd Olson from a speech at Scholastica College in Duluth during the Humanities Forum, spring 1973.

A Sense of Place was written and produced by Claudia Daly for Minnesota Educational Radio under a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission. Engineering by Glenn Owen.


Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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