Richard Nelson's 'Listening Place'

Words by Debbie S. Miller

Heart Lake. Photo: Amy Li.

“I am never alone in this wild forest, this forest of elders, this forest of eyes.”  

So wrote Richard (Nels) Nelson in the Island Within, a reflection of his deep relationship with the forest. Through Koyukon teachings, Nels believed that trees had a spiritual power and he felt their presence and wisdom. He was bound to the forest through what he described as a “covenant of mutual regard and responsibility.”

As we defend the Tongass National Forest from road building and industrial clearcutting, Nels’ powerful words inspire us along with his exuberance, joy and enthusiasm for all that is wild in nature.

The Thimbleberry Lake Trail was a favorite for Nels. He walked the familiar loop past Heart Lake, down to Silver Bay, hundreds of times. On many occasions, he recorded the voices of songbirds in the forest and thickets. He loved pausing to listen for new voices, like the Tennessee warbler that we heard in July of 2019.  That was a first, and he was ecstatic!

One quiet spot on Thimbleberry Lake always drew Nels because it was a little off the main trail and a great place to listen for Lincoln sparrows and other nesting birds in the spring. Cradled by the forest and mountains, the resonance on this sheltered lake can be extraordinary, from the reverberating calls of ravens and eagles, to the spiraling voice of a Swainson’s thrush. This was a perfect place to listen.

Carpenter and wood craftsman Zach LaPerriere sawing pieces of cedar for the bench. Photo: Lione Clare.

Thanks to the artistry of wood craftsman Zach LaPerriere, there is now a memorial bench at this Listening Place to remember Nels. In September, Zach found the perfect fallen yellow cedar tree near Heart Lake. In counting the growth rings, this well-seasoned beautiful tree was at least 640 years old, born during the Bubonic Plague. With great care, Zach cut the planks and Katie Riley and Amy Li helped haul the wood to the rowboat and they paddled the heavy load to the dock. This was not an easy task!  Several weeks later, the bench project was complete. Zach reflected, “Using wood in the right way doesn’t get much more sustainable than this project: we used a dead tree that came from just over the hill from where this bench sits, we cut the wood on site, we packed it out by hand, and we brought it right back to here as a finished product.”

On October 29, members of SCS’s Community Conservation Corp spent the day preparing the Listening Place site and improving the Thimbleberry Trail. While it was a chilly, autumn day, not a raindrop fell, and the crew was in good company with several eagles bathing at the lake, kingfishers rattling above the surface and ravens flying overhead, their calls echoing. Some of Nels’ many friends stopped by to watch the progress, and share some cookies and hot chocolate.

Zach is a master woodworker. He impregnated rods in the bench to prevent decay, and he built a hefty base with cement footings so that this cedar bench will stand the test of time, just like Nels’ legacy. He also inset a bronze plaque with a quote from Island Within: “It is the ancient wisdom of birds that battles are best fought with song.”

This was a favorite quote relating to the music of birds and peace.

L-R: Andrew Thoms and Community Conservation Corps prepare site, engraving on 'The Listening Place' bench, photo of the bench installed. Photos: Lione Clare.

Just after Zach finished the final touches, something magical happened. A beautiful rainbow started to form, arching above the lake. Zach, Andrew Thoms and I all felt Nels’ presence, as though he was smiling through this brilliant rainbow.

Zach’s mother, Connie, put it best the next day. She visited the Listening Place and saw the wonderful bench that her son had crafted. When we talked about the magical rainbow, she added  “…and Nels was the treasure at the end of the rainbow.”

Nels thrived on sharing the world of nature with everyone he knew, and with strangers he met along the way. The Listening Place and memorial bench gives all of us a chance to pause, reflect and listen. With deep listening, we can better appreciate our forest world and be inspired to protect the wilderness that Nels so cherished.

Zach LaPerriere and Andrew Thoms look out upon the rainbow over Thimbleberry Lake from 'The Listening Place.' Credit: Debbie S. Miller.

This project happened because of the Living Wilderness Fund and the donors who graciously honored Nels’ legacy through financial contribution. We honor legacy of Richard Nelson through the Living Wilderness Fund. Gifts can be made to SCS in memory of Richard Nelson here.


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  • Debbie Miller
    published this page in Stories 2021-04-02 16:05:14 -0800

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