Book Review: Native Echoes

Spirit, Land, and Contemplation

Native Echoes: Listening to the Spirit of the Land by Kent Nerburn. St. Louis Park, MN: Wolf nor Dog Books, 2017. Paperback, 142 pp., USD $18.95. Reviewed by Nancy L. Roberts, State University of New York at Albany, United States

This quiet, contemplative work offers profound insights about “the power of the great natural forces that surround us and shape our hearts and spirits” (Nerburn, Author’s Preface). Kent Nerburn, who has lived and worked among Native American peoples in his northern Minnesota home, bridges Native and non-Native (Judeo-Christian) cultures in eloquent prose that invites comparison to Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard.

In a new preface to this edition (earlier published in large part as A Haunting Reverence by New World Library, 1996, and University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Nerburn explains that he sought “to meld the richness and insight of our western spiritual tradition with the Native heartbeat of our American land—a search, if you will, for an authentic American spirituality” (Author’s Preface). His literary journey takes him across a varied terrain, from a young Indian boy’s funeral by “a northern lake on a windswept point of land” (7), to a buffalo ranch where he encounters a mysterious bull that trails him, staring with “dark, flat eyes” (75), to a farmhouse, “abandoned, swaybacked, empty,” where the wind “is filled with banshee howls, screams, and distant laughter” (93).

The book is divided into twenty-five short chapters, organized into six groupings: Whisperings, Wanderings, Solitudes, Darkenings, Awakenings, and Solaces. Nerburn explains that he wrote the book “during the coldest winter in recent memory” (Author’s Preface), and he fully evokes that season in a piece entitled “Winterwatch” (57–59), in the Solitudes section: “We know it is coming. We can see it in the animals’ eyes. The sky is too cold; the wind, too raw. Leaden clouds loom heavy on the horizon. Darkness grows stronger than light.” From the northwest, he perceives “a sound there, beneath hearing, like the distant rhythm of an approaching army. In its cadence is the heavy breath of winter” (57). In another piece he describes freshly fallen snow as “a prayer shawl donned upon the land” (61).

And, elsewhere, “If you would live in winter, you must give yourself to blue” (65). Because, he explains:The blue-hued snow betrays its water source within. . . . Even the wind blows blue—cool, edgy, soothing and serene. And above it all a cobalt sky vaults insurmountable in cloudless brilliance, casting shadows long and lavender across the land. It is the palette of a genius painter, this winter day; a Chinese watercolor, but with edges sharp and cutting as a knife. (65) In the “Legacy” chapter (part of Solaces), Nerburn characterizes an old pine tree as “virtuous, unwavering, singular in his devotion to the sky,” with “a growing weariness within him” (133). No longer do children “play beneath his branches. He is too dark; his needles are too sharp. . . . They run to him only when sticks are needed for a fire. His dead limbs snap like fingers, burst quickly into flame” (133–34). But Nerburn refuses to cut down the “old brittle” tree that, a neighbor warns, could fall on his house. The tree brings to mind the spirit of his father, who in old age once sat underneath this very tree.

Nerburn is a keen observer of these powerful natural forces all around us. One night in a blinding snowstorm on a remote road, he picks up an old man who needs a ride to the Indian reservation some twenty miles further. Yet he finds he is more alone than ever because of the man’s unnerving silence: “His eyes are avian, seeing far and minute, looking for a single movement or a hint of meaning in the violent storm that rages around us” (86).

Born and raised near Minneapolis, Nerburn earned a bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude) in American studies from the University of Minnesota and Ph.D. in religious studies and art at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley.

His website explains that for many years he created over-life-sized sculptures from tree trunks and lived in Europe where he could study the works of his “heroes, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Rodin” (Nerburn, kentnerburn.com/kent-nerburn/about/). When he returned to Minnesota, he lived in the pine and lake country near the Canadian border and worked for several years on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation. His job “helping students collect the memories of the tribal elders” (Nerburn, “About”) was transforming, as it introduced him to Native American spiritual traditions that he has long found compelling. He writes:
My work has been a constant search, from various perspectives, for an authentic American spirituality, integrating our western Judeo-Christian tradition with the other traditions of the world, and especially the indigenous spirituality of the people who first inhabited this continent. Someone once called me a “guerilla theologian,” and I think that is fairly accurate. I am deeply concerned with the human condition and our responsibility to the earth, the people on it, and the generations to come. I believe that we are, at heart, spiritual beings seeking spiritual meaning, and I try to honor this search wherever I discover it in the course of my daily life. (Nerburn, “About”)

Nerburn turned from sculpting to writing about twenty years ago because he felt it would let him reach more people. Since then he has written seventeen books on spiritual values and Native American subjects. They include a trilogy of spiritual essays: Simple Truths; Small Graces; and The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life (recently reissued as Ordinary Sacred); and Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace; and Road Angels: Searching for Home on America’s Coast of Dreams. He has also written Letters to My Son (essays); Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, which won the Minnesota Book award for creative nonfiction in 1995; and The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows, which won the same award in 2009.

Native Echoes is an excellent introduction to the work of this gifted writer. Nerburn’s prose offers masterful sensory description and metaphor that, with his thoughtful reflections on the natural forces that shape us, make his work a compelling addition to the canon of literary nonfiction.

Literary Journalism Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 2018