“Through a half-dozen or more books, Jack Nisbet has shown himself to be an astute interpreter of Pacific Northwest history, an insightful naturalist and an excellent storyteller. Two of his earlier books, “Sources of the River” and “The Collector,” brought the epic work of Hudson’s Bay Company explorer David Thompson and naturalist David Douglas into contemporary focus. His new book of lively essays, “Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest” (Sasquatch, 256 pp., $21.95) engages the past and present of the Inland Northwest.
Landscape and its pivotal role in the history of the region have been a primary concern for the Spokane-based author. In these essays, specific Northwest places — the track of ice-age floods, fossil beds of the Okanogan Highlands, traditional native fishing grounds at Kettle Falls — become central characters.
Nisbet lets his curiosity range widely here. He tracks historic records of the largest meteorite to land in the Northwest, a 15-ton monolith half-buried in Northwest Oregon, and the nutty if herculean scheme of its discoverer to winch it onto his property, where he charged the curious 25 cents to view it. The meteorite now rests in the more dignified confines of the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Earthly metals were the objective of mining engineer William Manning when he traveled to Idaho’s Salmon River country from his native Ontario in 1897. Along with pursuing a successful mining career, he befriended Chief Joseph, the legendary Nez Perce leader, Chief Masselow of the Kalispel tribe and other notable tribal leaders. Through gifts and acquisitions Manning became one of the principal collectors of Native American artifacts in the inland Northwest. His collection forms a significant part of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane.
Nisbet combines historic research with field work, personal interviews, and the kind of local knowledge that is gained only through decades of living in a place. He pays attention to stories told by longtime residents and tribal people, as well as geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists and university researchers.
Entomologist Laurel Hansen invited the author into her Spokane lab. The result, with Nisbet supplying historical background from fur trade journals and tribal stories, is an essay on thatching ants, those ubiquitous mound-building ants of the countryside that comprise the largest genus in North America. Another essay on biscuitroot, the genus Lomatium of the Blue Mountains, moves gracefully between natural history, historical accounts, interviews with contemporary Native Americans and personal rambles.
Seattle readers will appreciate a delightful piece on the late Wes Wehr, painter, composer, memoirist, friend of artist Mark Tobey and poet Elizabeth Bishop, and affiliate curator of paleobotany at the Burke Museum. A self-taught enthusiast, Wehr’s field discoveries helped place the Okanogan Highlands on the map for its world-class fossil beds, and he had at least one ancient plant named for him.
In fact, Nisbet shares more than a few of Wehr’s polymathic traits: a scientist’s curiosity, an artist’s eye for detail and a writer’s sense of what shapes a good story. These essays offer a generous sampling of the range of Nisbet’s talents.”
– Time McNulty, The Seattle Times