Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson

Mountaineers. Aug. 2020. 256p. ISBN 9781680513073. $24.95. BIOG
Lentfer, lifelong Alaskan and author of Faith of Cranes, offers this tribute to friend, anthropologist, and environmental writer Richard K. Nelson (1941-2019). Readers will be fascinated to learn how Nelson, who grew up in Wisconsin with an interest in reptiles, developed into a scholar of Alaska Native cultures, and how those academic pursuits would morph, more generally, into studies of humankind’s relationship to nature. Those interests would be expressed in acclaimed books (Hunters of the Northern Ice; The Island Within), activism, and, much later, radio programs; Nelson would earn recognition as host of the public radio series Encounters. Lentfer, a biologist by training, provides a generous sampling from Nelson’s books, letters, and journals. Drawing on these, and not infrequently his own imaginative license, the author gives compelling shape to his subject’s vigor and curiosity, showing the contradictions of his life, including Nelson’s dislike of winter. Along the way, readers can savor his brilliant, sensitive observations of Alaska Natives, along with the state’s flora, fauna, and land.
VERDICT For those unfamiliar with Nelson’s thought and work, this book serves as an engaging introduction, and probable precursor, to more exhaustive critical biographies to come.

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