Years ago I had the adventure of hanging out with James Crumley in Omaha Nebraska. Mr. Crumley was at the time the author of The Dancing Bear and several other great mysteries. He was the King of Western Alcoholic Detective Writers and he was my idol. I had just won an award that night and I was trying to drink with him. Late in the evening we were talking about writers we liked and I mentioned a native american writer whose last book I had been "disappointed in" (I was trying to impress him with how discriminating and hip I was) and Crumley said, "Stop talking kid. She owns me."
"I kind of know what you mean about the last book but fuck it. Stop talking. She owns me. I've been through so much great shit with that woman that I don't ever think a bad thoughts about her. You understand? You got friends like that? "
Then he went on and told stories about things that he and this writer in question had been through that were astonishing to me, not only in the breadth of their comradeship but their willingness to break most social conventions as well as many state and federal laws. I'm not saying they were all true, but they were great stories.
In fact I do have a friend like that. Richard Nelson is someone I met more than thirty years ago. He moved to Sitka, from Tennakee, with his partner Nita, and her son Eathan. Nels, was looking for Surf. By that time he had written his northern books. Hunters of the Northern Ice, Hunters of the Northern Forest, Shadow of the Hunter, and I think he was finishing up Make Prayers to the Raven. When we first met we didn't talk about writing or anthropology, but talked about berry picking spots, outboard motors, surfing, salmon recipes. Soon Nita and I worked in the same office, and we were all apart of the same group of friends that was like a family.
We camped together and put up fish, venison and berries together. We told outrageous jokes and ate tremendous meals. Loosely this group included about 12 of us in the late eighties. We lived together in Hawaii one winter, where Nels worked on The Island Within and I wrote, The Woman Who Married a Bear in a spiral notebook in pencil. We surfed every morning getting to the break at Queens Pond or Majors Bay before dawn so that we could be at our desk during the heat of the day.
Nels and I rarely talk about writing, but we talk about the day to day adventures. I love to hear the stories from his travels and always ask him about poisenous snakes and about his youth when he was a full on skinny nature geek and in exchange I will tell him stories about lurid crimes that happen just down the street from his house that shock and amaze him.
But we are very different people. Once many years ago, I was waiting out some tests from the doctor and he took me out in his skiff, and we passed by a dozen gulls circiling some prey on a calm patch of water. It was a fine sight. Nels put his hand on my shoulder and said, "No matter what happens, this natural world will always be here for you." I remember thinking at that second , "You dumb Bastard, this natural world is trying to kill me every second of every day! AND are you suggesting that by "here for me" means "to feed me to the gulls!!"
That about sums up the difference between us.
But that's why I'm glad that he is around. Nels is oriented towards the light. Me? I'm a flashlight that casts shadows most of the time. There are times.... more and more where I switch over and feel the spark of pure energy move through my field of vision, and I have to suspect it has to do with Nelsons continued influence.
In all of his writing, the images he creates are lit from within by the most genuine passion and respect for the wild.. His writings are well crafted love letters, and still, he is the least self conscious writer, the least professionally ambitious I have ever heard of. The only other contemporary person who could compare was Nanao Sakaki who was a wandering zen poet, in the tradition of the Chinese Wilderness Poets of the Tang Dynasty. Nels is that kind of mad-man-saint-nature-freak except he's from Wisconsin and he eats jam and bread with every meal.
Every once in a while I'll bump into someone who will criticize Nels for not being modern enough in his style, or for being naive or for not giving a fully rounded view of his subject. I think of Crumley. But first I offer this... To criticize Nelson for being naive is like picking on Mark Twain for being funny. Being naive is Nelsons thing. The bumbler getting off the plane in Wainwright, that's the story, or weren't you paying attention? Nelson is old fashioned, in that he never criticizes a friend, and he won't criticize anyone who showed him generosity. So... he can't be a modern journalist. His manners are too good. But there are other people who are more qualified for those assignments; those who have lived in the difficult circumstances and can tell the more difficult stories.
But that's not to say he is perfect. He's not. Neither am I, I have not been a perfect friend and he has forgiven me and thats a fine old trait as well. So when the few and far between start to carp, I lean back and say, "Stop talking Kids... he owns me."
Fog in the morning
the new sticky apple leafs
are jewel encrusted.