One of Alaska’s most prolific writers and its preeminent naturalist, Richard Nelson never published anything about himself. But he was always willing to share stories about his extraordinary journey in Alaska, around a campfire or in his extensive letters and journals.
Author Hank Lentfer worked with Nelson for the last ten years of his life, recording sounds for Nelson’s popular radio program “Encounters,” and for an audio archive maintained by the National Park Service. And when Lentfer didn’t have his microphone trained on wildlife, he pointed it at Nelson.
Lentfer has compiled his collection of audio recordings and Nelson’s own unpublished writing into a new biography, Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson.
I am one of those people who thought Richard Nelson could bend time. Listening to someone talk about a deer for a half-hour sounds like a recipe for a nap, but “Nels,” as he was known around Sitka, could suspend our awareness that time was passing at all.
Encounters: Just ahead of me, about 40 yards from here, is a Sitka black-tailed deer. It’s on the outer coast of Alaska on a mid-winter morning…
He did over one-hundred episodes of his public radio program Encounters, about deer, beaver, whales, glaciers — you name it. The natural world was his palette.
For someone with such broad interests, Nelson started out on a narrow track: Herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. But he ended up accepting a job studying sea ice survival for the Air Force, in far northern Alaska.
“So going to the Arctic was a pretty serious left turn for a budding herpetologist,” said Lentfer. “But his sense of adventure didn’t allow him to say no. And what he found when he got to Wainwright is: Every person in that village was an astute naturalist. And living in Madison Wisconsin his obsession with the natural world was a bit freakish. And in Wainwright he found community, and he was no longer a freak. Everybody there was a naturalist.”
Listen to an extended interview with author Hank Lentfer.
That was in 1964. Nelson was 22 years old. Lentfer says that Nelson honed his gift for listening among the Inupiaq, and developed his craft of writing about what he learned. Nelson died in the fall of 2019, leaving behind boxes and boxes of journals — over 18,000 pages of notes — in Lentfer’s care, along with his blessing that Lentfer write his biography.
“The biggest problem really was what to leave out,” Lentfer said. “I started a file early on labeled ‘Must Use Stories.’ And that was like a 30,000 word document. I ended using about 40-percent of those stories that had to be in the book, and then I did a big revision after the first draft and probably lost another 20-percent. It just took a lot of time and a lot of dead ends to figure out what the actual story was.”
And it’s not just the written word. During his year living among the Inupiaq in Wainwright, Nelson sent home audio letters — re-recorded on reel-to-reel tapes that his father had sent him every Sunday after recording the Green Bay Packers game off the TV. Public broadcasting had not even been created yet, and Nelson was sharing stories that would have all the flavor of Encounters. This is an excerpt of a letter Nelson sent home from Wainwright, where he’s cooking up some soup for his dog team.
Dog soup: And tonight was probably the most exotic dog soup I’ve made yet, with Friskies and cornmeal, and seal guts, a seal head, seal blood, some caribou meat, and the oil that comes out of rotten walrus blubber when it thaws (laughs).
The Wainwright experience led Nelson to write two major ethnographies: Hunters of the Northern Ice, and Shadow of the Hunter, the latter a fictional work that pushed the boundaries of the discipline. In subsequent years, Nelson would shift his attention to the Koyukon peoples of Interior Alaska, with Hunters of the Northern Forests, and his classic Make Prayers to the Raven.
Nelson wrote his final two books in Sitka: The Island Within and Heart and Blood, this last book likely the most compassionate study of deer ever written by a person who essentially lived by hunting them. And then he put down his keyboard and picked up a microphone to work on Encounters, which he produced at KCAW.
Hank Lentfer — an author in his own right — was Nelson’s student in audio. He credits Nelson with initiating his “audio awakening.”
“For me, listening keenly is a reminder of the world in which we are always embedded,” Lentfer said. “And it’s so powerful to get out of the human echo chamber, which is what Nels did so well through his writing and his radio work.”
More Encounters: There are few animals anywhere that have the deer’s mix of artfully-contained physical power — as I look at the musculature in this deer’s shoulders and haunches — combined with explosive speed and almost preternatural grace and elegance…
Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson is published by Mountaineers Books, and available in bookstores everywhere.