Richard Nelson spent many hours by Thimbleberry Lake recording bird song. “The Listening Place” is perfectly situated to hear not just birds, but raindrops, wind, and all the other sounds in nature’s orchestra — and, you can’t beat the view. (Debbie Miller photo)

It’s been a little over a year since noted Alaskan naturalist and author Richard Nelson died (11-4-19). The joyous — and no doubt noisy (Nelson was an ardent fan of the drumming circle) — celebration of his life planned for last spring was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But in the meantime, Nelson’s friends have created a much quieter tribute to the person who made us stop and listen.

Debbie Miller – (on the Thimbleberry Lake Trail) He was incredibly devoted to getting up at daybreak, because he always wanted to hear the very first song. No matter if we were in Australia, the Yukon, or Brooks Range…

Debbie Miller was Richard Nelson’s partner for the last nine years of his life. I first met her a couple of years ago while she hiked with him right here on Thimbleberry Lake Trail in Sitka. I ran into “Nels,” as he was called by his friends, often on this trail — and I guess  I wasn’t the only one.

Richard Nelson recording spawning salmon in Sitka’s Indian River. In over 100 episodes of “Encounters,” Nelson took pains to record amazing natural sounds with a parabolic dish; however, most of his audience was held rapt by his vivid, reverent, and often-witty narration. (Debbie Miller photo)

Hikers on trail: I’m Laura. Debbie. Hi Laura…

Laura Schmidt and Linda Behnken are also regulars.

Behnken – And I remember so often running into Nels on this trail when he was recording, and it was just such a sweet… I just stood there this morning and thought about him.

And Connie LaPerriere.

LaPerriere – That’s the other thing, I thought about all the times I met him up here, yeah coming up with his little dish and everything, it was so awesome…

LaPerriere’s son, Zach LaPerriere, is the wood artist who created the enormous yellow cedar bench that Miller and I are visiting today. Miller and the Sitka Conservation Society opted for a functional monument — and enduring. Sitkans  can sit on it and take in the lake and the mountains, but so will their grandchildren, and probably their grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Wood artist Zach LaPerriere was 19 or 20 when he read “The Island Within.” “All my classmates wanted ‘to get off the rock’ so to speak,” says LaPerriere. “And all I wanted to do was stay in Alaska. Then along came Nels’s book and it articulated everything I felt, and more.” LaPerriere milled the yellow cedar slabs by Heart Lake, where the tree fell some 50 years ago. Volunteers from the Sitka Conservation Society rowed them across the lake and transported them to his shop, where he built the bench. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

KCAW – So we’re on city land, and this was negotiated with the city?

Miller – Yes the city gave us a permit for everything from getting the tree — the yellow cedar tree, we counted the rings at 640 years old, that was actually by Heart Lake. This was a fallen tree, a dead tree, because Zach never uses live trees. And both of us were pretty surprised that this tree was that old.

Bench, by the way, is an understatement. These hewn slabs and their concrete foundations may weigh around 2,000 pounds.

Miller has named it “The Listening Place.” People who knew Nelson can easily picture him here; people who have never heard of him may get a nudge.

Miller – His name is on the bench in “The Listening Place” but I picked a quote that he really loved from The Island Within, which I think many consider to be one of his greatest works. “It is the ancient wisdom of birds that battles are best fought with song.” I think that carries a really powerful message, that brings great peace when you think about it. Just the beauty of birds and their songs, who establish territories by singing (not by fighting). And he loved that quote, which is one of the reasons I picked it. So my thought is that if someone comes a hundred years from now and they sit on this bench, maybe they’ll look and they’ll be curious. “Why is this place ‘The Listening Place’? Who was Richard Nelson?”And they’ll see that it says The Island Within on the plaque and they might go to the library, they might pick up the book, and they’ll go, “Oh, now I understand.”

Encounters with Richard Nelson: I’m in a big forest of aspen trees, in the interior of Alaska, in the valley of the Tanana River. When I look off toward the south, through the still-open, leafless aspen trees…

 Richard Nelson’s legacy probably will be as a former state Writer Laureate, the author of The Island Within and Make Prayers to the Raven, and several other major cultural anthropologies, hundreds of articles, and a handful of documentary films.

(Note: A complete bibliography of Richard Nelson’s works can be found in Raven’s Witness: The Alaskan Life of Richard Nelson, by Hank Lentfer.)

But his radio program “Encounters” is what still resonates in our heads. Each episode was a half-hour long with Nelson vividly describing the courtship behavior of a bird or mammal, the importance of rainfall, or the mysteries of the aurora. Getting it right — in one take — sometimes took days. Just finding the subject and approaching it with his parabolic microphone was an undertaking. 

Encounters with Richard Nelson: … a ruff of very black feathers around his neck. It looks like one of those airline pillows, or one of those fancy collars worn by a Victorian English queen when he spreads it out, as he has right now. And that ruff is where the Ruffed Grouse gets its name… (as if on cue, the grouse drums his wings in the courtship call).

Miller – I only was lucky enough to go out with him once, on one program that he did up near Fairbanks, actually, and I was just there to help him. And it was amazing. It was the Ruffed Grouse program. And it took several days to find the bird, that would cooperate with this parabolic device and not be scared off. He finally found this one male, ruffed grouse and we nicknamed him “Elvis” because he would only sing to Nels, and I think there was something going on there!

Debbie Miller rests a moment at “The Listening Place.” Made from yellow cedar, the bench will outlast several generations of humans. But Miller hopes future Sitkans will read the plaque, “It is the ancient wisdom of birds that battles are best fought in song,” and be inspired to seek out Richard Nelson’s published work. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

This is why “The Listening Place” makes so much sense as a memorial. The wood of the bench will weather from brilliant yellow to gray over time, and people will arrive here who won’t remember Richard Nelson, and probably won’t pick up one of his books. But Nels will have the last laugh, because we will always stop and listen here — and it’s the act of listening that can open our eyes.

KCAW – I do think that when you pay attention, that’s when you receive the gifts.

Miller – Yes.

KCAW – Whether you’re out hunting, or putting a bench in and pausing to reflect on a friend, if you just wait and observe — that’s when you get the gift. That’s when the buck steps out from behind the brush, or whatever.

Miller – Right. That’s a beautiful way of putting it. Reminds me of this 100-year old lady who was interviewed in Central Park, of all places, in New York City, and the reporter asked her, ‘How do you successfully live to be 100 years?’ and she said, “I go outside every day and something always wonderful happens.” And I think that’s how Nels viewed nature: Go outside every day, and if you listen and are observant, something really wonderful happens. You discover something.

Encounters with Richard Nelson: The grouse will strut back and forth on the log, but ours has been standing pretty still here for the last hour… (grouse drumming)

Music: Elvis Presley, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”