You won’t find the work of the 2019 Rasmuson Distinguished Artist hanging in any gallery or echoing through a concert hall.
Richard Nelson is a scientist and author foremost, but he is also a performer of the airwaves.
Music: Outback theme.
For years, hearing this theme music on radio by the Australian fusion band Outback stopped us in our tracks.
Nelson: Hi, this is Richard Nelson for Encounters, a program of observations, experiences, and reflections on the world around us…
And hearing this voice meant that we were about to go someplace where anyone else but Richard Nelson probably would not go.
Nelson, from Encounters: There are eight bears here, all at pretty close range. Two females — one has two cubs, the other has a single cub. And that single cub is as white as the cub of a polar bear. Almost albino-looking. And then three other bears a little bit smaller than these two big females with their cubs. And the cubs undoubtedly were born just this year. (Chuckling) Nothing between me and these animals but a stretch of absolutely flat stretch of sand, gravel, and water.
In all, Nelson produced 109 episodes of his program Encounters, each one a 30-minute monologue — and occasionally a hair-raising interaction — with something dangerous, beautiful, or simply awe-inspiring in the natural world.
“One of them was when I got between a moose and a grizzly bear in Denali National Park,” he said, after I ask him to recall one of those moments.
(And did I mention that Nelson worked alone? No camera crews, no grips, no armed rangers standing by in a Land Rover.)
“And I was in the wrong place and had this GIGANTIC bull moose running straight at me,” he continued. “And it was a place I didn’t want to be in; I had taken pains to avoid being where I was, but I had to edit out a few extracurricular words as I sprinted out of the way.”
Just hearing Nelson recount this story evokes Encounters. Nelson could focus his energy on much more benign creatures, and still make it sound like he was opening King Tut’s Tomb.
His friend and fellow author John Straley says Nelson is like this in real life.
“It’s not put on. It’s not fake,” said Straley. “He’s just enthusiastic.”
Straley nominated Nelson for the Rasmuson Distinguished Artist Award, which comes with a $40,000 cash prize. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, Nelson is not an artist in a conventional sense at all. The same thought occurred to Straley.
“He is a cultural anthropologist,” Straley explained. “How does his work fit in the artistic category?”
Straley says that he’s been in the audience for some of Nelson’s presentations — often with other anthropologists present — and invariably someone will remark that Nelson’s deep scholarship is packaged in a captivating and enviable persona.
“What makes him different is the creativity with which he approaches his work,” said Straley. “The imagination he brings, and the passion he brings, to his subject. And his subject in the largest sense is Life, and the Wilderness, and the Wild. There is no one else like him.”
Nelson arrived in Alaska in the 1960s to do his doctoral research for the University of Wisconsin. Fascinated with the natural world from childhood, he didn’t find Biology a good fit. Luckily, he found another path with help from the indigenous cultures of the Alaskan Arctic.
“I took up Anthropology to learn about the natural world through the traditions of Alaska Native people, and found that that was EXACTLY what I loved,” said Nelson. “And doing that research led to writing the results of the research, and that got me started in writing.”
What followed were a succession of books, some of which have become either anthropological canon — like Make Prayers to the Raven — or classics like The Island Within, which was Nelson’s debut in nature writing.
Nelson on Encounters with Angus cows: Now this group of cows that we’re with today are all females, with their half- to one-third grown calves. These animals all look very formidable. The closest ones are about 15 feet away from me…
But it’s Encounters where most people hearing this now first heard Richard Nelson, who credits the former general manager of Sitka’s public radio station KCAW Ken Fate — his first producer — for teaching him the distinguished art of radio.
Nelson: And thanks to you so very much for being here with me. I’ll see you next time!
Where no encounter in this world — even in a farm pasture — is too ordinary to hold us spellbound for half an hour.