Sitka man named first state writer

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2000

SITKA -- Richard Nelson has won several awards for his writing, but his most recent honor -- being named the first Alaska State Writer -- is particularly rewarding.

''For a person who is as saturated with Alaska as I am to be thought of as the Alaska State Writer, that's a pretty giant thrill,'' the longtime Sitka resident said.

The position was created by the Alaska State Council on the Arts to replace that of state poet laureate. Under the council's new plan, the state writer job will be filled in alternating two-year cycles by prose writers, poets and playwrights.

Nelson, 58, was the unanimous choice of the council's literature panel, said chairman John Straley, a Sitka-based mystery novelist.

''His early books ... are classics where scholars and students turn for useful information,'' Straley said. ''His newer books are gems of creative instinct. Through his writing he's done a valuable service to the people of Alaska.''

Nelson is the author of seven books, including ''The Island Within,'' which won the John Burroughs Award for nature writing, and dozens of magazine articles. He was also the writer and associate producer for an award-winning public television series based on his book, ''Make Prayers to the Raven.''

Other honors include the 1995 Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction writing, and the 1998 Sigurd Olson nature writing award for his latest book, ''Heart and Blood.''

Nelson, who grew up in Wisconsin, said there's no question in his mind what his most important role as state writer will be.

''I want to get out there and shout to anyone who might listen to pick up your pencil and write about what you're experiencing,'' he said.

''That goes for everybody -- the old folks who have these amazing lives to record, the young folks whose senses are so acute and for whom the world is new and they can see all this stuff and write about it, the people from Native communities. I just want to say write it down, take pictures of it, record it.''

The job also has its daunting aspects, Nelson said.

''Any one writer can't hope to even pinch the skin of this place,'' he said. ''It's so huge and so complex and diverse that it's just a little scary to be called (state writer).''

Nelson, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, first visited Alaska in 1961 as a 19-year-old assistant on a Kodiak Island research project. Alaska had only recently become a state, and he remembers it as a smaller, wilder place.

''After I got back home I just walked around and I couldn't get it out of mind,'' he said. ''I kept thinking, 'I've been to Alaska.'''

A few years later Nelson jumped at a chance to spend some time in the North Slope village of Wainwright, and after that in Athabaskan villages as a student of Native elders.

The experiences provided the material for his first two books -- ''Hunters of the Northern Ice'' and ''Hunters of the Northern Forest.'' During this time, Nelson first learned about hunting, which would become a passion of his and a focus of his writing.

''Heart and Blood,'' is an exhaustive study of deer in America and the complex relationships between human and animal populations. In it, he deals at length with the ethical and moral issues that go hand in hand with hunting the animals.

Though he still gives public readings from ''Heart and Blood,'' Nelson is now hard at work on shorter, magazine-length pieces.

''For 'Heart and Blood' I sat in this chair at this desk for four years and that's just way too much time indoors,'' he explained. ''As a nature writer, my work is to be out in the places I love.''

Nelson said he thinks the most important writing in Alaska now is about the state's environment and its Native communities.

''That's where I think the growth of literature in Alaska is going to be really important -- people capturing the essence of life in Alaska at this time,'' he said. ''These writers ... are putting down in writing a way of life that will not exist 50 years from now.''

He cites his own experiences 35 years ago in Wainwright as an example.

''That way of life that existed is gone,'' he said. ''I'm not saying that with any judgment. It's just that Alaska is changing rapidly and this literature that's emerging in Alaska today is going to be a treasure for future generations of Alaskans.''

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