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.
As we have learned more each day and watched the impacts and spread of COVID-19, it has become apparent that we all need to take action now to protect our communities.
We have made the difficult decision to postpone the Celebration of Life for Richard Nelson.
We are planning to reschedule, but are waiting to evaluate how the situation changes before we set dates. We will keep you updated as soon as we have plans. We all were looking forward to celebrating and remembering Nels, but we believe that he would not want anyone to compromise community health or well-being.
In the midst of this stressful moment for human society, life is jubilantly returning to Sitka Sound. Humpback whales are playing in Silver Bay and young sea lions can be spotted along the shoreline. We're fully in herring weather, as Nels described in an Encounters episode:
It's a spring afternoon, one of those days when the weather makes itself a character in every story. It’s clear right now with sunshine pouring down but just through a blue hole in the clouds. There are squalls running around—sometimes rain, sometimes snow, sometimes hail, sometimes blustery winds.
In this season we are constantly reminded of Nels' joy and spark for life, as well as his understanding that we are not separate from the natural world but rather a part of it like every other creature. We are striving to approach every day with the kindness he always demonstrated, despite the challenges we face.
If you have any questions, please email Ellie at [email protected]. For the next few weeks, the Sitka Conservation Society will be working remotely as much as possible to attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Please contact us through email rather than phone calls.
Photo by Lione Clare Photography
Photo by Andrew Thoms.
“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.” — Richard Nelson in “Heart and Blood”, his book on living with deer in America.
The following is written by Andrew Thoms, Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director:
I struggle to express the full gratitude I have for Richard Nelson and all he has done for Alaska.
Richard Nelson built himself a vast and profound knowledge of Alaska through learning from elders, studying the science, and living in Alaska and its environment firsthand. He shared the wisdom that he built with the rest of us through his gifts as a storyteller. Since the dawn of our existence, storytelling has been how our species learned to be a part of the environment by using, depending on, and caring for its resources. Nels carried on this legacy by continuing the age-old human tradition of passing down environmental knowledge through stories. He did this in both traditional and very modern ways.
Nels’ stories connect us with one another by assigning words to the elements of the natural world that amaze us, that we admire, fear, or are comforted by. He was able to articulate the phenomena we want to know more about, as well as the elements of nature that we simply don’t understand. His words help us to better see and understand the world around us—while also embracing its mystery. He nurtured our connection to place through emotion, science, transcendental spirituality, and art.
In his stories about deer, Nels passed along those core values and ideals of what it means to be part of the natural world. He taught us to understand how animals live, how to think about the animal with respect and reverence, and how to “see” the animal and understand its relationship to the habitat it lives in. He taught us how we should think and relate to the animal when we hunt it and how to make the taking of that animal like a communion with the natural world.
Photo by Andrew Thoms.Read more
The inspiration, guidance, wisdom, and “ways of seeing” that you have given us will live on forever.
Long-time Sitka Conservation Society Board Emeritus Richard “Nels” Nelson passed away on November 4th, 2019. Nels served on our board of directors for close to 40 years, and he has enormously influenced our organization.
Photo by Ben Hamilton.Read more