Reviewed by Eileen Pearkes
Jack Nisbet, Time Traveler
Hidden in the beautiful landscape of the inland northwest are countless stories of those who have walked here before us, delighting in the region’s natural riches. Jack Nisbet’s new book allows us to lift the cover on some of these stories and peer into the deeper past while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the present.
David Douglas, A Naturalist at Work is in part a companion volume to the wonderful exhibit about Douglas currently running at the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture. It is also a larger celebration of the way plants and people can move across time. In the era of Internet research and websites galore, a book that can compete with these distractions and absorb readers is indeed a treasure. Nisbet has written just such a book.
Those who have been following Nisbet’s column in this publication over the past few years know more than the bare sketch of facts underlying this book, but they do bear repeating: Overseen and supported by the Hudson’s Bay Company of fur traders, the botanist David Douglas explored the Columbia Basin from the mouth of the Columbia to its source mountains in 1825-27, collecting plant samples, seeds, bulbs and animal specimens to enrich British understanding of the colonial world. His journals provide a remarkable and articulate view of what he saw and experienced in a landscape that had not yet been dramatically affected by agriculture and industrial resource extraction.
Under Nisbet’s expert hand as researcher and writer, the relatively limited content of the journals unfurls like an opening bloom. Exploring tribal cultural practices, the natural history of certain plants, the Fur Trade, cross-cultural marriages and even such obscure tidbits as terrestrial magnetism, Nisbet leads the reader into a fascinating world. Botanical illustrations, maps, photographs and sketches accompany the text, providing just the right visual cues to excite the imagination.
History can so easily become a quaint side-story that seems beside the point in the modern day-to-day. It’s a skill – even an art form – to be able to engage people in the past so that it seems to matter as much as it actually does. David Douglas, A Naturalist at Work performs this task admirably. Nisbet’s ability to move back and forth across time, from the present-day (when he meets with tribal leaders, rides in a tug boat at the mouth of the Columbia or climbs a grand fir tree in search of an illusive cone at its crown) to the deeper past (when he returns to the pages of history) is the best part of this book. Engaged and engaging, the author becomes his subject – David Douglas the curious traveler and Jack Nisbet the time traveling naturalist. Readers can sink into the experience of learning and understanding more about the place where we live.
My one quibble with the book is a very small one: I wanted more details about the illustrations to be close beside them. Who made that beautiful watercolor of the Grand Fir cone in the prologue? Who sketched the man making camp beside a waterway, found on page 55? Is the painting of the Rocky Mountain Sheep from Douglas’s own journals? All of this information is available at the back of the book, but somehow, the visual materials feel slighted without the reader easily able to satisfy her curiosity. Then again, as a fellow author and history magpie myself, I might have higher levels of interest in these details than the average reader.
Salutations to Jack Nisbet, for having once again produced a book of high standard and considerable interest. Anyone who purchases a copy for their “local literature” bookshelf will be happy they did. Run, don’t walk to your laptop to order a copy on line. Or better yet, go see the exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane and buy your copy in the gift shop there.