3 Nature Writers Lost in 2020: Richard Nelson11 September 2021
I am fudging this one just a little. The anthropologist Richard Nelson (b. 1941) actually died in November 2019, but I did not hear about it until January 2020, when an archaeologist friend sent me a link to a number of news items in his field.
Reading email on my laptop in some coffeehouse in Colorado Springs, I was skimming the news items when I read of Nelson’s passing — “having asked that he spend his final minutes, after being taken off of life support, listening to the recorded sound of ravens.”
|Richard Nelson recording a gray jay, up close.
(Liz McKenzie for the Rasmuson Foundation).
The type got all blurry after that, and I don’t remember any of the rest.
I did not know him, never heard him speak. His radio program, Encounters, was not on any station around here to my knowledge, but you can get samples online, such as here.
I knew him through books: he wrote a number of them, first in a more anthropological vein, such as Hunters of the Northern Forests.
As his Wikipedia page puts it, “[he] moved from anthropological studies to a more literary style” with Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest.
That was the book that pulled me in, with bits such as the Koyukon people telling him that it was impolite to point at a mountain. (The Koyukon speak a related language to Navajo and Apache; evidently they are the ones who said, “Fine, you go south. We like it here.”)
The video above is based on that book. It is one of a series that you can find on YouTube.
He also wrote Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, among others, with its often-quoted statements that ““When it comes to deer, wildness is the greatest truth. And tameness is a tender, innocent lie.”
A reviewer on Goodreads wrote, “It’s a really interesting look at people’s relationships with deer from all angles (our spiritual and ecological connections with wildlife, the dilemma of controlling overabundant deer, trophy hunting, hunting deer for venison, the anti-hunting movement, etc.).”
I remember the passage about hunting blacktail deer in the coastal Alaska forest with his Border collie Keta:
Now . . . rather than staying close, Keta sidles off and lifts her nose as if there’s a faint musk drifting in the breeze. She comes reluctantly when I gesture toward my heel. Taking her cue, I pause and watch ahead, then move when a sigh of wind in the trees covers the sound of our footsteps. Luckily, the ridge is well drained and densely carpeted in sphagnum moss, so it’s fairly quiet going.
Keta’s behavior telegraphs the scent’s increasing strength: she moves forward, catches herself and looks back, falls in beside me, then shunts away to my left or right like someone pacing at a line she’s been warned not to cross. She probes her nose into the breeze, occasionally reaching to the side for a stronger ribbon of scent. She hesitates and stares intently, aware that something is nearby but unable to pick it out. And most telling of all: she leans back and anxiously lifts a forepaw, possessed by her desire to charge off but yielding to the discipline she’s learned, as if an inner voice were ordering her to wait.
By this time I’m convinced it must be a deer. If it were a bear, Keta would refuse to keep still and she’d woof suspiciously, deep in her throat. I edge along, furtive and stalking, as if I’d already seen the animal. At one point I even try sniffing the air, but for me there’s not a hint of smell. It’s strange, being completely numb to a signal that’s as obvious to Keta as walking into a cloud of smoke. I stop for several minutes to study the ravel of shrubs and trees and openings ahead. But despite Keta’s certainty, the place looks vacant to me.
And that passage concludes,
No scientist, no shaman, no stalker, no sentimentalist will ever understand the deer . . . and for this I am truly grateful. I am possessed by a powerful curiosity about this animal, but what I desire most is to experience and acclaim its mysteries. In our explorations of scientific and practical information about deer, we should always keep in mind what the elders and philosophers teach: that while knowledge dispels some mysteries, it deepens others.
I just wish someone had kidnapped him from the hospital to let him spend his last days with friends on that island, beneath the open sky, hearing real ravens, letting his spirit float free.