Richard “Nels” Nelson, a writer, cultural anthropologist and host of radio show “Encounters,” has died, according to friends.
“The only job description that fully fit with his temperament and enormous skill set was that of being in exuberant contact with the wild world,” his friend, Gary Nabhan, wrote in a memorial Facebook post Tuesday.
Nelson’s work focused on Alaska Native culture and the wild world. He wrote a number of books about people and the natural world in Alaska, including “Make Prayers to the Raven,” a study of the customs and culture of the Koyukon Indians and “The Island Within,” a memoir about an unnamed island in the Pacific Northwest. He was Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 1999-2001.
Nelson hosted the radio show “Encounters,” which aired on public radio stations nationwide, for more than a decade. In 29-minute segments, he gave breathless accounts of his experiences in the wild. In one memorable show about moose, a grizzly bear suddenly appears. “That moose is running straight toward me,” Nelson narrates, “It’s gotten wind of the grizzly bear and holy mackerel life is exciting!”
The show had a unique style. In an interview marking the tenth anniversary of Encounters in 2013, he told an Alaska Public Media reporter that he had trouble interviewing other people, so he decided to interview himself.
“So that turned out to be how Encounters evolved, purely by accident,” Nelson said. “But as far as I know Encounters violates a lot of rules in radio, of just a single voice for half an hour.”
Nelson, recipient of a number a number of literary prizes, had recently received the Rasmuson Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award.
“Even when he took the stage in May to receive the Distinguished Artist Award, he was seriously ill. But no one would have known it. He told about learning from Koyukon people, about listening to a tiny singing bird at the top of the spruce tree and learning both the Koyukon name and later the English name, ruby crowned kinglet,” the foundation wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
“That one tiny bird with its little voice singing from the treetop has power!” he told the Rasmuson audience in May. “And that’s what we are all trying to do. … There may be nothing more powerful, nothing more inexorable, nothing more vitally important than art.”