What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received.
—Richard Nelson, “The Island Within”
His friends saw him as a rare soul, wise and joyful, full of light and as connected to the earth and sea as anyone could be. Richard Nelson, a cultural anthropologist and beloved Alaskan, died on Monday after a long fight with cancer and its complications. He was most famed for his decade-long public radio program, “Encounters: Experiences in the North,” recorded in the wild, often with breathless charm. He apprenticed himself to Iñupiaq, Gwich’in and Koyukon people to learn and share their ways. He lived for years in the Interior village of Huslia.
“Such a magical guy he was, half wondrous child and half wise elder, funny, gracious, kind, smart, ecologically aware, culturally sensitive, and above all an excellent listener, naturalist and defender of all things beautiful and wild,” said one friend, author Kim Heacox, who met the man they all call Nels in 1987 at the Sitka Writers’ Symposium and became friends a dozen years later. The Anchorage Daily News published the essay Heacox wrote after Nels died.
“Next to Alaska, Nels loved Australia,” Tom Griffiths, a writer, environmental historian, one of Nelson’s Australian friends, wrote in the group email chain that spread with the news. “Nels taught us so much, not only about life, but about how to live. He died young, he died in full vigour, he never grew old.”
Nelson made annual trips to Australia and spent months there this year with his long-time partner, Debbie S. Miller. Wherever he went, Griffiths remembered, he generated conversation “that changed the way you think, how you listen and what you notice.”
Nelson etched himself into our ears and minds. Miller suggested to the email group that everyone listen to a favorite “Encounters” show to keep his messages and inspiration alive.
There were more than 100 episodes. Jerry Tone, a Seattle friend, fellow adventurer and early supporter of “Encounters,” picked a caribou show from mid-summer 2004 on the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He helped organize the trip and experienced Nelson’s world first-hand with his wife and two of their kids. “Great to re-listen and be reminded of how much fun we had, how happy I was that the kids could share such a special place with him.”
Nelson’s talent was well-recognized. He was Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 1999 to 2002, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation and a John Burroughs Medal for his memoir, “The Island Within.”
“Nels contributed so much on behalf of all that is Alaska — books, sound recordings, films, Ted Talks, lectures — but most of all, he shared his love, passion and enthusiasm for life with friends and family near and far,” Miller said in an email. “So grateful for all that was Nels.”
This year, he received Rasmuson Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award, a singular honor for an artist with decades of exceptional creative work, someone who also has given back. In his adopted hometown of Sitka, public radio station KCAW underscored his impact in its on-air obituary.
An earlier Distinguished Artist, Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Luther Adams, used the title of one of Nelson’s ethnographic works, “Make Prayers to the Raven” for an ensemble composition. Miller said they played it at the hospital, “gorgeous, soothing, Alaska-born music.”
When Nelson took the stage in May to receive the Distinguished Artist Award, he told about learning from Koyukon people, about listening to a tiny singing bird at the top of the spruce tree and seeking out both the Koyukon name and later the English name, ruby-crowned kinglet.
“That one tiny bird with its little voice singing from the treetop has power!” he told the audience of artists in May. “And that’s what we are all trying to do. … There may be nothing more powerful, nothing more inexorable, nothing more vitally important than art.”
Adams, the composer, wrote to the group of Nelson’s friends on the email chain that he was in his studio working “the morning after Nels’ spirit took flight.” He saw a raven fly by riding the currents and offered a quiet prayer.
“Rest well, my friend. You did good work. And we will do our best to carry on.”
The flight, Adams noted, didn’t end just yet. His story continued.
From the east, another raven appeared. Swooping upward, they danced together above the peak.
I called out to them: “My relatives. These are dark times. But the world is still filled with light. And we are not alone.”
The ravens called back, as they disappeared.