What Richard Nelson Taught Us

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.

Nels describes hunting as an act of sadness, joy, and respect. Taking an animal for nourishment is a part of a cycle of life which, to Nels, was the highest manifestation of living as part of the natural world. Nels stressed that we are not apart from nature, we as a species are not ‘the other’, we are among the other creatures facing the same challenges in the same conditions and with the same elemental needs. Nels taught us how to feel the lives of the deer and the paths it walked in its life amongst the tall trees of the temperate rainforest and along the wild coasts. He helped us to imagine how this animal once sat in a bed under a shore pine relishing the sun and looking out over ocean bays and islands and undulating mountain slopes and snowy peaks. Nels learned all this firsthand from Alaskans who taught him the skills to live with the land. He learned it firsthand following, observing, and being in the world of deer. He learned it firsthand in the aftermath of the shot, in those most intimate moments with the animal. He learned it firsthand giving away the meat and preparing it for himself and his friends.

His stories contain that practical knowledge that we all need to know about the earth, its species, and its systems. They contain the values that should guide us—the ones that when forgotten, lead us awry.

Caution, respect, humility, enthusiasm, joy, sadness, alarm, and connection are all virtues that emanate through Nel’s stories. As humans, we gravitate towards these feelings. Nels drew us into his work and on a personal journey that left the reader or listener with more in their souls. In this way, Nels helped me understand how stories were told in the past and how they guided the hunters and gatherers. He helped me see how those stories themselves became ways-of-being, defining what is ethical and what is right. Finally, Nels was able to relate all of these learnings to our modern world. His work cautioned us with what will happen if we fail to look deep into time immemorial and understand that we are indeed part of the Earth, brothers and sisters to the deer, governed by the same laws of nature.

A celebration of life will be held in Sitka, Alaska for Richard Nelson on the weekend of April 25, 2020. Friends, colleagues, and family will get together in Sitka to remember Nels, to celebrate his life and accomplishments, and to commune with the natural world that he loved so much. If you would like to attend this celebration, please RSVP here.


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