Sitka’s Richard Nelson passed away on Nov. 4. For years, the anthropologist, writer and naturalist would take listeners across Alaska on an intimate journey to places many would otherwise never experience. His show “Encounters” was a 30-minute exercise to get us to think more deeply about the world around us.
News of his passing on Monday spread quickly through Sitka; he has called the community home for years.
“Last night, when I heard the news, I went home and I listened to ‘Encounters’ programs, and I was so comforted by them. His enthusiasm for everything — from the rain, to a gull, to a raven — the things that we experience every day here in Southeast Alaska,” said Lisa Busch.
Busch is the executive director of the Sitka Sound Science Center. But before that, she co-produced “Encounters” with Nelson, whom she knew as “Nels.”
From capturing the sounds of a polar bear eating the flesh off of whalebones, to being cornered by a charging moose, Nelson went to places and, sometimes, took personal risks to capture the moment. And listeners were right there with him.
“One of my favorite ‘Encounters’ episodes is the one he did on tides, where he went into Sergius Narrows and sat on a rock with equipment, that he didn’t break for once, and recorded the change of tide,” Busch laughed. “And it was so dramatic.”
In the episode, you hear the sound of the tide rising around Nelson as he narrates.
The listener doesn’t need to see a picture. The sound is enough: “The sound we’re hearing is a reminder that we live in the midst of unimaginably vast forces,” Nelson says into the microphone, as a gull squawks overhead. “Most of the time we’re totally unaware of them, but occasionally they do let us know who is in charge.”
“The way he could see the natural world and understand the processes of the natural world and then take all of the love that he had for the environment of the Tongass around Sitka,” said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. He partially owes Nelson his job: Nelson was on the Conservation Society’s board for 40 years.
“(He was) a huge influence on me, and a huge influence on the organization, and a huge influence on people all around the entire state of Alaska and the country,” Thoms said.
Thoms recalls an episode of “Encounters” where Nelson sits at the edge of a forest in an estuary and hits record.
“The salmon in the rivers, and the bears fishing for them, and eagles and ravens flying overhead and calling. It was that episode where he really outlined how everything fit together so perfectly,” said Thoms. “He was there and you were there with him, right in the middle of it.”
Nelson did a lot more than produce a popular nature program. He held a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of California, and he spent years living with Interior Alaska Native communities. He wrote a series of ethnographic works on the Iñupiat, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan people.
More recently, he was working on the film “Singing Planet” with Hank Lentfer of Gustavus. Lentfer was with him when he passed.
“I’m not sure how many times I heard him say, ‘This is the best damn day of my life,’” Lentfer said. “And he was sincere each time. He could have the best day over and over again. It’s inspiring to be around somebody who is doing that, and he encouraged me and taught me and inspired me to keep having the best days of my life too.”
Busch, his former collaborator on “Encounters,” said that for all of her friend’s accomplishments, he had a deep humility, and he taught her the importance of listening.
“Sometimes I step outside my door, and just like everybody else in Sitka, you might hear a kingfisher or a squirrel or a thrush and maybe you don’t think anything of it,” said Busch. “But, for me, I often stop and think, ‘What would Nels say about this?’ How excited would he be and enthusiastic would he be about this sound and what it means to us? And what it means to our heart and spirit?”
Nelson died Monday in a hospital in San Francisco after a long illness. He was 77 years old.
Alaska has a lot going on right now.
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