I visited Richard Nelson last January on a small island near his home in southeastern Alaska. Though we were in the middle of a dark, cold, wet winter, Nelson was out hiking, surfing, hunting, and exploring the coast. I followed along with as little complaint as possible, pausing to join him for an occasional peanut-butter-and-salmonberry sandwich or a candy bar, and then moving on.

Nelson first ventured north on a summer expedition to Kodiak Island in 1961, as a college sophomore in biology. He was back two years later as a research assistant on an archaeological project in the Aleutian Islands. His increasing fascination with the North and Northern cultures turned his interests from biology to anthropology. “After all,” he says, “it was not nature in and of itself that intrigued me, but the way people interacted with it.”

During the next fifteen years, Nelson traveled and lived among many native peoples of the North, including Inupiaq and Kobuk Eskimos, the Gwich’in, and the Koyukon. Four books grew out of these experiences: Hunters Of The Northern Ice, Hunters Of The Northern Forest, Shadow Of The Hunter, and Make Prayers To The Raven.

Nelson’s newest book, The Island Within, is a more personal exploration of his relationship with nature and home. It received the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing in 1991. He is currently working on a book about North American deer.

Since receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology, Nelson has taught at the University of Hawaii, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, The Universities of California at Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

I had joined Nelson to learn more about his experiences. I was able to prolong one of our breaks just long enough to get my tape recorder out. As it happened, we came to rest on two soaked logs in the muskeg, talking between bites of sandwich and watching for deer.

— Jonathan White


WHITE: What first led you to live with native people?

NELSON: I was studying at the University of Wisconsin when a professor asked if I wanted to go live with the Inupiaq Eskimos on the Arctic coast. It was part of a project funded by the air force to learn how these people hunted, traveled, and survived on the sea ice. The air force wanted to write a manual to aid pilots who might crash on the ice.

I was twenty-two years old. In order to write about how the Eskimos hunt and travel, I felt I had to learn how to do those things myself. So I bought dogs, made a dog sled and harnesses, and learned how to drive a dog team. I also bought a rifle, and the Eskimos taught me how to hunt in their way. It was really my first year living away from my home in Madison, Wisconsin.

My ideas about how to live, and especially my ideas about hunting, completely changed in that year. Not only had I never hunted, but I was always emphatically opposed to it. I found myself living with people whose whole lives centered around hunting. We hunted seals and caribous in winter and bowhead whales and walruses in the spring. I went along with them and hunted exactly as they did.

I was struck by how much the Eskimos know about animals and their environment. I had never encountered that level of knowledge — especially not in the biology department of the university. Eskimos study animals as intensively as any biologist, but their knowledge is not as esoteric. It’s based on hunting these animals for survival.

I was also impressed by the passion with which the Eskimos pursued animals, not just in the hunt, but in their desire to learn about them. I had never experienced anything like the intensity of their relationship to animals.

The greatest hunter in the village where I lived was an old man named Wesley Ekak. His sense of animals was so profound that the distinction between his humanness and the animal’s animalness seemed blurred. One spring, for example, we were camped on the edge of the ice, hunting for whales. We hadn’t seen one in three or four days because the ice south of us had closed up. There were six or seven of us inside the tent, and the old man — he must have been about seventy at the time — was lying on his caribou-skin mattress with his eyes closed, smoking a cigarette. Suddenly he said, “I think a whale is going to come.” Then, after a short time, “I think it’s going to come up really close.” To my amazement, all the men raced to ready their hunting gear. I felt so ridiculous that I got up, too. I remember saying to Ekak, who was the only person who hadn’t moved at all, “Well, I guess I’ll go out and see if you’re right.” Before I got five steps out of the tent, a whale blew right in front of me, just off the ice.

It was the only whale we saw in three days. No one mentioned a word about it except Ekak, who said later, “There was a ringing in my ears.”

What struck me about hunting was that for the first time in my life, I was engaged in the entire process of keeping myself alive; it was a tremendous breakthrough in my understanding of where my life comes from. I was involved with the laborious and lengthy process of finding an animal, killing it, taking it apart, and then learning how it becomes food. I had never done any of that before. Food had always come out of the store. The deep sense of satisfaction I discovered in that process has never changed.

WHITE: You later lived with the Koyukon in the Alaskan interior. What had changed for you in your approach to that study?

NELSON: By the time I went to live with the Koyukon, my orientation toward working with Native Americans had changed. I no longer felt it ethically justifiable to go and live in a community, study the people, and then simply depart with the knowledge. That approach leaves them with nothing in return except the entertainment value of having a buffoon living in their community.

WHITE: It’s clear from many ethnographic studies that there is much we can learn from native cultures. But do we tend to idealize them? Are the native peoples you lived with really as conscientious about environmental issues as is commonly believed?

NELSON: It’s fashionable among certain academics and skeptics to argue that Native Americans were just as bad as we are. As an anthropologist, I think there is enormous ethnographic evidence to suggest that Native Americans did and still do have a very strong sense of conservation. The principles that guide the Koyukon in their interaction with the natural world are universal. These principles are practiced by traditional peoples everywhere in the world.

Naturally, in any culture there are individuals who follow the moral code to the letter, and there are individuals who completely disregard it. Almost any Koyukon can tell you of a time when he or she violated the code of respect toward an animal and suffered for it.

But for the most part, the Koyukon practice a sophisticated, empirically based system of conservation — of so-called resource management. In Western culture, we are rediscovering it by a different route; we’re coming to see the resounding wisdom in these older ways.

WHITE: If it’s true that our sense of nature — and indeed our experience of nature — is determined by our cultural bias, can we ever fully understand, much less follow, the example of native peoples?

NELSON: We can’t trust the idea that we really understand what someone from another culture thinks or believes, or how they perceive the world. I don’t know if we should even try. We’re deeply different groups of people. Perhaps the only way to truly understand another culture is to be raised in it. As an ethnographer, I was always frustrated by how little I could understand. Ethnography never grasps the whole truth about another culture. But when we look at the premises on which a balanced relationship to the natural world is based, we can find a common foundation for determining right from wrong.

The natural world responds to us in a universal language. If we’re behaving badly, the world will tell us. If you’re a trapper, your luck will disappear if you trap out all the beavers. You’ll get a message back the next year that you made a mistake. A Koyukon hunter once told me with great pride, “I’ve trapped this country for fifty years, and it’s as rich today as it was when I first started hunting here.” If you overuse or disrespect the environment, you’ll get a message back. Isn’t that exactly what’s happening to us now, on a much larger scale? The message comes to us in the form of cancers that invade our bodies, in the changing climate, in the erosion of soil, in the diminishing capacity of the earth to sustain us. The message is that we can’t go on living like this.

WHITE: In Make Prayers To The Raven, you write that the Koyukon believe the world is alive and ever aware.

NELSON: The Koyukon believe that everything in nature has a spirit — every plant, every animal, the physical earth, everything. If you do something disrespectful toward an animal or a plant, you will offend its spirit. The offense will bring you bad luck; for a hunter, that generally means bad luck in hunting. The animal you offend won’t allow you to take it. It’s as if the animal becomes invisible. If you see it, it’s just a fleeting glimpse; or if you get a chance to shoot at it, you’ll miss.

In our culture, we believe if you treat other people disrespectfully, it will come back to you in some way. If you’re disrespectful toward a person, that person will avoid or shun you. The Koyukon apply the same principle to the whole world. They believe principles of ethics and norms of respect are applicable not only to humans, but to the entire world in which they live.

The Koyukon world is imbued with spiritual power. They are never removed from it, whether they’re dealing with a brown bear, a shrew, a tree, or a raven. I have this image of a forest of eyes. When you’re out in the forest, the Koyukon believe that all the trees know you’re there. The tree you’re leaning against knows you’re leaning against it, and the animals on this island know what you’re saying.

From the Koyukon view, animals possess qualities that Westerners consider exclusively human. They have a range of emotion and distinct personalities. They communicate among themselves, and they understand human behavior and language. Animals are constantly aware of what people say and do; their spirits are easily offended by disrespectful behavior.

The Koyukon won’t say, “I’m a good hunter.” First, that would be bragging. Second, it would be taking credit for something given to you. If your friends give you a lot of gifts at Christmas, you don’t say, “I’m really good at Christmas.”

WHITE: You’ve written about the many rules that govern conduct and preserve the spiritual balance between nature and the Koyukon. Can you give some examples?

NELSON: For the Koyukon, bears are among the strongest animals spiritually. And the strongest and most dangerous of all bears is the brown bear. In a place like this, a Koyukon would be careful not to say anything bad about brown bears. For fear of causing offense, they’d be reluctant even to say “brown bear.”

Stephen and Catherine Attla, two of my most important teachers, came to visit me once in a little village in southeastern Alaska. We were out in my boat, floating down a river, when Catherine started acting strangely. “There’s something over there, there’s something over there,” she said. Several minutes later, Stephen and I saw a brown bear right across the river. In the Koyukon way, it was bad manners for her to look at it, point at it, say its name, or in any way indicate to us where or what it was.

The Koyukon believe that life leaves an animal slowly. It doesn’t die the minute an animal goes still. With powerful animals like bears, it can take years for all the life to go out of it. During that time, its life lingers. It’s aware of you, and there are certain rules that need to be followed. For example, a bear hide keeps its power for a long time, and so the Koyukon as a rule don’t take them. When they kill a bear, they leave the hide out in the woods. When they hunted black bears in the old days, they would leave the hides out in the woods for as long as a year. It would take that long for the life to drain out of it, and only then would it be safe to be around.

An old man once told me that every hair on a brown bear’s hide has a life of its own. He meant this literally; he claimed that was why bears have such vitriolic tempers.

WHITE: So an animal doesn’t just represent spirit, it is spirit.

NELSON: The Koyukon say, “When you say an animal’s name, you’re calling its spirit.” I can’t say I know exactly what that means. Yet if I make an insulting remark about the brown bear, they might say, “Good grief, you’re going to pay for that.” The invisible spiritual life of the bear is as real as the physical world around it.

I was sitting on the edge of a muskeg once with an old man named Grandpa Joe. We were talking quietly when a bird landed in a nearby tree and started making a lot of noise. I picked up a pair of binoculars and walked out onto the muskeg to get a closer look. I had never seen such a bird before, so I asked Grandpa Joe what kind it was. He looked and then listened for awhile. Finally he said, “I don’t know!” Perplexed, he got up and walked closer. Then he started talking to it in the Koyukon language, saying, “Who are you? What are you saying to us?” He was deeply concerned, because for the Koyukon strange events in the natural world are potential omens. He talked to it for awhile, referring to it by some kinship term, and then said, “I wish you would surround us in a circle of protection.”

The Koyukon understand that we interact with nature and that we’re part of a broader community; talking to nature is perfectly normal. Our inability to grasp this interaction is evidence of the depth and poignancy of our loss. The most important transformation in all of human history may be the loss of this recognition of the spiritual in nature. Surely it has the greatest consequences. That’s why regaining respect for nature is the most important thing we could ever do.

WHITE: If everything is so aware, is there a sense in which the deer is choosing to be taken? Is the deer giving itself to you when you hunt?

NELSON: Both the Koyukon and the Eskimo say that animals give themselves to the hunter. When a hunter has a long history of respect toward a particular kind of animal, those animals will give themselves to him or to her. The Koyukon won’t say, “I’m a good hunter.” First, that would be bragging. Second, it would be taking credit for something given to you. If your friends give you a lot of gifts at Christmas, you don’t say, “I’m really good at Christmas.” You say, “I’m lucky to have friends who are so generous.” Similarly, the Koyukon hunter will say, “I had luck. I was lucky.” Some will even say, “I am lucky with a certain kind of animal.”

There’s a word in the Koyukon language, bik’uhnaatltonh, which means “something took care of him.” If a hunter has good luck, and gets a good moose or a bear, people will say, “Something took care of him.” Isn’t that different from our own tradition, where we take personal credit for our skill in getting what we get out of the earth?

These ideas form the basis of my own life as a hunter. I won’t say I absolutely believe there’s a spirit in everything in the natural world, but I believe that I should behave as if there were. One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Aitken, who writes in Taking The Path Of Zen, “Even if it could be shown that Shakyamuni never lived, the myth of his life would be our guide.” I follow the same principle with respect to Koyukon beliefs: these things may or may not be true, but I should behave as if they were.

WHITE: When hunting, it seems that you can’t focus too much on any single thing, but that you must be aware of many things at once.

NELSON: The Eskimos taught me the best lessons about attention. When hunting seals on the sea ice, it’s dangerous to focus all your attention on one thing. You never know when the ice is going to shift or crack. If it does, it could be fatal. Or a polar bear could be stalking the same seal you are. Or it could be stalking you.

Hunting is the most focused activity of my life. Neither bird-watching, photography, nor hiking demands the same level of attention from me. When I’m hunting, several hours pass without my noticing. I’m a fidgety person — not the sort who can sit around — but hunting for me is almost hypnotic. It’s like a walking meditation. But my attention is not exclusively on deer, because here on the island I need to be aware whether there’s a bear around. That’s much more important to me than knowing if there’s a deer around, because out here I’m not necessarily on top of the food chain.

I use my eyes more intensely in hunting than in anything else. I’m always looking to see if a branch has been nipped off, or to see if there are any tracks or fresh droppings, or I’m watching my dog to see what she’s doing. I’m also watching ravens, because the Koyukon say ravens tuck their wings and roll halfway over in the sky when there’s an animal below. They’ll make a particular sound, too, that goes gaaga! gaaga! The Koyukon believe the raven is saying ggaagga, which means animal. I follow a raven if it’s doing that because more often than not I find a deer there.

WHITE: Hunting seems both a physical and a spiritual seeking — an invitation to encounter our own mortality, our own animalness.

NELSON: My sense of connection to the natural world comes mainly from being a hunter. Remember, I grew up thinking that hunting was wrong. But I now feel that when you assume responsibility for the taking of a life to nourish your own life, you’re engaging yourself fully in the natural world. Whether we know it or not, we are all equally rooted in the natural world. An Australian Aborigine, a Pygmy, or a Bushman living with stone tools and hide clothing stitched with sinew is no more bound to the natural world than a person living in the middle of New York City. Every one of us is 100 percent connected to the natural world at every instant of our lives. The difference is in the level of ignorance and denial. We’ve forgotten our connection to the natural world in part because we’ve delegated the responsibilities of killing our food to someone else.

When you go out and harvest your own food, you get a deeper awareness of what makes up your body. The body that I harvest comes into me and becomes my body. I don’t know anything that teaches this lesson better than actually going out and hunting — or fishing or gathering food or growing a garden. Although I do all these things, nothing has the force and power of hunting. When you hunt, it’s so much more evident that the life you take into yourself is the same kind of life you possess. A plant can fully nourish my biological life; my biological life, in turn, supplies nutrients to sustain the life of a plant. The plant and I have exactly the same kind of life. We pass it back and forth between us. In my case, it so happens that a lot of the plant food comes to me through deer. The deer eats the plant and I eat the deer.

As a culture, we have forgotten that each of us lives by taking other life. There isn’t any alternative. Rather than simply wringing our hands over this fact, it’s more important to live in daily awareness of it: to sit at the table and experience gratitude for the other lives that nurture our lives; to recognize that the process of life and death is a beautiful process in which we are all fully engaged. There is no life of any kind without death. Each life is nourished by thousands of little deaths, and each life in turn becomes one of the many deaths that nourishes other life. That’s the way it is. If we’d stop worrying about it and immerse ourselves in this process, I think we’d be much healthier as a culture.

WHITE: Causing death challenges our conscience. Why is it so much more difficult to cause the death of a warm-blooded, furry animal than a plant?

NELSON: When we kill an animal, that death is in a sense our own death. We look at it and we can’t help but see our own mortality. The death of a warm-blooded, furry animal is particularly vivid and poignant. I don’t think any of us can take an animal’s life without projecting ourselves into it.

I am passionately in love with deer, but I also kill them. I appreciate the fact that I am made out of the animal I love. Somewhere, both literally and physically, a deer looks out through my eyes; someday my body will feed deer, too. The whole cycle will come around. We don’t own life, we just take its shape and then pass it on.

WHITE: You talk about the Koyukon sense of respect, which encourages an awareness of and direct participation in the cycles of life and death. Yet many people in our culture are not only physically removed from this cycle, but have developed the perverse notion that any kind of death is wrong.

NELSON: Death is viewed as destruction. We feel we are destroying something when we kill an animal or a fish or a plant. The Native American tradition recognizes that life is not destroyed, but only passed along.

I get great pleasure from knowing that my body is made in no small measure from deer. I am passionately in love with deer, but I also kill them. I appreciate the fact that I am made out of the animal I love. Somewhere, both literally and physically, a deer looks out through my eyes; someday my body will feed deer, too. The whole cycle will come around. We don’t own life, we just take its shape and then pass it on.

I’m not saying it’s easy for me to hunt deer. It’s very hard, both psychologically and emotionally. But I feel a responsibility to confront the process of my own life through hunting.

Each year millions of deer are killed to protect crops of corn, grapes, and lettuce. Any time an American sits at the dinner table, there’s a fair chance deer have been killed to protect the food on the table. Because deer are killed to protect grapes, you can’t drink a glass of wine made in the United States today without participating in the lives — and the deaths — of deer.

Although animal-rights activists will say otherwise, there isn’t a shred of evidence that we could sustain agriculture in many parts of the United States today without some kind of predation on deer. Both deer populations and their nonhuman predators were nearly wiped out by the turn of the century. In the absence of nonhuman predators, and with the enactment of hunting laws, deer populations have increased tremendously. In some parts of the country, their numbers cause severe damage to crops. In Wisconsin, the agricultural economy would be wiped out in as little as three to five years if deer hunting were prohibited.

WHITE: When we were out the other day and you killed a deer, I was struck by the responsibility of it all. After it was gutted and cleaned, we carried it; I felt its presence very strongly all day. What are some of the thoughts you have after you kill an animal?

NELSON: After I take an animal, it hangs for a few days in my basement, and whenever I go down there I think about it. I don’t think of it as a senseless conglomeration of bones and meat and fat; I still think of it as an animal. I try to talk carefully around it and to treat it with respect.

People think hunting is simply going out and killing animals. That’s one part of it — certainly the most emotionally powerful and compelling part — but working with an animal and making it into your food, or using the hide and making it into things that you use, has its own power. The process of taking an animal apart — what they call dressing or butchering it — is a really moving process. I love doing that. There is a lot of skill involved; it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.

I feel a strong need to use everything we possibly can from the deer. I take the bones up to the woods behind the house and put them on an old stump for the ravens to find. I’ll put fat up there, too. I always say, “I’m leaving this for the other animals,” or “I’m leaving this back here behind the house for the raven,” or if there’s one around I’ll say, “I’m leaving this for you.” That’s something the Koyukon do. They’re always careful to place any part of an animal they can’t use into the woods in a respectful way. They say the parts are never thrown away “as if they were nothing.”

For the Koyukon, meat is a sacred substance. My teacher Catherine Attla would never walk around outside with meat on a plate in the open air. She always covered it. “You don’t want to act as if you don’t care about it,” she would say. Every bit of the process is sacred.

This sense of respect shouldn’t end with animals or with people who hunt. The same kind of humility and gratitude should be shown by anyone who sits at a table arrayed with living things that died to feed them.

WHITE: In The Island Within, you talk about hunting as a means of finding your way home. It’s significant that you live in the same community as the deer you hunt.

NELSON: You should live in the community where you hunt. The fact that you live there binds you to the plants and animals and the other people who live there, too. There’s a commitment that perhaps wouldn’t be there if you did your hunting and fishing and gathering someplace thousands of miles from home. It would be more difficult to feel that reciprocity.

When you commit yourself to a place and you draw your livelihood from that place, you’re more likely to develop a sense of moral obligation. I like the way Wendell Berry speaks about this commitment to place as “marriage.” This sense of “marriage” characterizes my participation in a community that includes a lot more than just people.

WHITE: Is it possible to gain this same sense of authenticity and “marriage” in an urban environment?

NELSON: Since I don’t live in an urban environment, it’s hard for me to speak with authority. But there are two things you can do anywhere. One is to develop an awareness of where your food comes from and how that binds you to the environment of the entire continent. The other is to establish a personal relationship to your place, and to the animals that are a part of your community.

Even if you live in a city, you live on corn and wheat from Iowa and Indiana, and you are engaged in an ecological relationship. The relationship is less obvious, so it requires more conscious thought. When you sit at a table laden with food, no matter where you are, remember that you’re participating in an ecological interchange.

You also can develop a sense of belonging by attending to a particular part of your environment. For me, it’s an island near my home. If you live in a big city, maybe there’s a park nearby. It doesn’t have to be a wildlife park, but any park where squirrels and birds and other animals live. Pay attention to that place, go there as often as possible, go throughout the year and over a period of years to see how the place changes. Repeated experiences of a place are important. There’s a book by Donald Knowler, The Falconer Of Central Park, in which he tells of the year he spent watching the people and animals of Central Park. It’s a wonderful natural history, and a good example of what anyone could do in an urban place.

WHITE: There’s a passage in The Island Within where you refer to yourself as a stain on the landscape. What do you mean by that, and has your perspective changed since you wrote it?

NELSON: Yes, it has. Sometime after The Island Within was published, I was rereading it and noticed that I had referred to myself as an irrelevant flaw on the island’s face. It really caught me by surprise; why in the world did I say that? When the book came out in paperback, I changed flaw to fleck. Recently I discovered I’d referred to myself as a stain, as you point out, and I’d like to change that, too. It relates to an older way in my thinking.

For a long time I regarded myself as a negative element in the environment. There was some vague sense of embarrassment about being human in the natural world. Unfortunately, I think many of us grew up with this perspective. Because of the damage we’re doing to the environment, we seem to feel that there’s no right place for human beings on the earth. I don’t believe that at all. Human beings have a tremendous capacity for living in harmony with the environment. We just happen to be wildly off track right now.

I grieve for the destruction of nature, but I don’t want to spend my energy grieving. I want to use my energy to look for solutions.

WHITE: I find it revealing that otherwise sensitive people respond to the environmental crisis by condemning the entire human race. As you say, there’s an underlying embarrassment and shame about being human. The guilt we feel can be debilitating. This attitude only seems to intensify our estrangement from nature.

NELSON: It’s dangerous to think of ourselves as loathsome creatures or as perversions of the natural world. We have a rightful place and we need to rediscover that rightful place. In photographing nature scenes, we often try to avoid having a human being in them. A natural place with human habitation blended into it is beautiful, too. In our society, we distance ourselves from the natural world by creating parks and wilderness areas where our only role is to go in and look. And we call this loving it. We lavish tremendous concern and care on scenery, but we ignore the ravaging of environments from which our lives are drawn.

Until we as a culture understand that nature is not just scenery, that this natural world is our community and that we live in ecological relationship to it, I think we’re going to continue in the wrong direction. I’m a big supporter of national parks and national monuments and scenery of all sorts, but I think it’s dangerous to consider nature simply as scenery.

When you have a better sense of the way the environment flows through your own body, you’re liable to work harder at taking care of the environment. The cornfields of Iowa are what you’re made of. If those fields are poisoned, then that poison is running through your body. If the soil of Iowa is eroding into the Mississippi River, so is your body and your children’s and your grandchildren’s bodies.