Kent Nerburn

Moving back to Minnesota, with a stop in Deadwood at the South Dakota Festival of Books

It’s a strange feeling to be going back.

House sold, goods packed.  Pushing against what feels to be the flow of history, both personal and cultural.  No one said, “Go east, young man.”  But maybe “Go east, old man” makes sense.

But someone did say, “Look homeward, Angel.”  And, in some fundamental way, Louise and I are going home.

It will be hard to leave the spiritual lightness and mobility of the West Coast for the heavier forces of the Midwest.  Possibility gets supplanted by watchfulness and survival. Caution dominates over optimism.  A greater gravitas descends, along with the inevitable yearning that has always been the lot of a life stuck in the middle.  But we know this world.  It fits like well-worn clothes — functional and comfortable, but slightly frayed around the edges.  It is where we come from.

I lie awake at night.  Will it be a homecoming or a retreat?  A reversion to the norm?

And then there is that other voice:  “You can never go home again.”  Old friends are the best friends, but the new friendships were launched from the shoulders of the old and have taken us to unknown places.  Will we, as we have become, even exist when we go back to a place where the old friends only knew us as people we no longer are?

And so I sit here in Deadwood, at the South Dakota Book Festival, caught half way.  Portland behind me, Minnesota in front of me.

I did not give much thought to this book festival.  It was supposed to be a chance to go with Louise and another couple to the wonder of this unknown part of the country and the pleasures of this delightful, intimate, festival that I love with all my heart.  But things went awry and I am here by myself, contemplating where I am going and what I am leaving behind.  Blessedly, it is a wonderful place from which to do that contemplation.

Deadwood is surely not my country.  It is gambling and cigarettes and Harleys and drooping Wild Bill Hickock moustaches.  And biscuits and gravy slopped on a plate and served by a waitress who calls me “honey.”  No arugula omelettes with eggs from chickens with names.  No SUVs.  Stores expect you to pay with cash.

But it is also the first taste of great open air and capacity for reflection, things that for whatever reason I never experienced in the west — the grand spaces and expansive landscape nothwithstanding.  It has something to do with the lack of possibility and the quality of emptiness.  Your thoughts don’t bump up against objects or ideas here unless you choose to let them.  You live best when you turn your sights inward.

And I am known here — a literary elder, known, sought out, held in an inordinately high degree of regard.  One man drove 6 hours from Minot to meet me, another sought me out to tell me of visiting his friends in France who were raving over their discovery of the wildly popular French edition of Neither Wolf nor Dog.

I was never known in Oregon.  As an author, I never existed.  It was my own doing.  I never raised my head, and I’m not sure why.  I just didn’t feel the need.

Now I’m back where I’m beginning to feel the need.  And maybe it’s because I’m feeling needed.  It has to do with the Indian connection.  Native folks coming up to me and thanking me for what I do and asking me to please keep doing it.  A “cult author” as another author said to me.  Known not regionally or in standard literary circles, but for the way I illuminate and articulate a tiny but important piece of literary earth.

Minnesota, too, knows and values this piece of literary earth.  And that is where I am headed.

There is no doubt this is going to be hard.  But here, half way, in country I begin to understand and that seems to understand me, I can sense a growing sense of possibility and a distant rumbling of an unexpected hope.

Maybe, just maybe, you can go home again.






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What Robert Plant learned from reading Neither Wolf nor Dog

I have often said that being a writer is like shouting from inside a glass box:  you can see the people moving out there, but you have no idea if they hear you.  Here is an unexpected example of Neither Wolf nor Dog being heard.  Robert never told me this, but it makes life in the glass box feel ever so more worthwhile.


The book that made Robert Plant search for silence
(Credit: Alamy)


The book that made Robert Plant search for silence

Once, when Robert Plant was travelling the US on tour, he briefly stopped by a bookstore in Colorado. In the years leading up to his visit, he’d been between places whilst on the road but was drawn to the south. He described it as having a culture of European immigrants and wound up on a quest to see what had gone on in a time before the Europeans moved through.

The period before the rounding up of the great Comanche empire was of huge interest to him, given the empire, built by the Comanche tribe of Native Americans, fell victim to European colonialism in 1875. Plant was fascinated. “I started trying to track down what happened, the change of power, the hierarchies, the push through to the west coast by the European travellers and the whole frontier spirit,” he told BBC Radio 5. “I was constantly amazed by what I was reading about the tenacity and the wisdom and the guile of the original fathers of the new world.

He was at the end of another very dense book; one concerned more with dates than a sense of adventure and conquest. But then he stumbled across Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, and flicked through its pages. “I started going, ‘My goodness, this is somebody who has actually, as a European stock, European-blooded guy, he’s been around these people enough to express the words that I can’t quite get out,’” he said.

He was amazed at how Nerburn charted both the guilt and the adventure in tandem: “The whole idea of being so uncomfortable with getting too close to something that’s so profound, that you just feel like some sort of spaceman trying to even comprehend what these guys carry with them, the way they touch the earth.”

Once he’d finished the book, he decided he had to meet Nerburn, if not to ask him more about why silence was so important to Native Americans. “It’s [been] a treasure,” Plant said. “I don’t really do it great service. Since Kent and I have met, I spend quite a lot of the time babbling and enthusing, and being the same ‘RP’ that I’ve been for many years. But I do find my silence. I live close to the Welsh borders, and I know the special places to go, to be, to actually recharge.”

Famous for his shockingly high shrieks with Led Zeppelin, silence is an alien concept for Plant. He described the sheer volume of his performances at times becoming too much, “almost like it was every second had to be filled with some musical comment”. He mentioned that in the early days of his career, insecurity and nervousness led, “like most Western communications,” to too much noise.

But, with the book’s spiritual take on the importance of silence, he learned to find it. “It’s got more and more fluent, my time in silence since,” he said. “I’m very pleased with that.”




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