In The Collector, an earlier book about botanist David Douglas, Jack Nisbet artfully traces Douglas’s 19th century expeditions to the Pacific Northwest to collect and to study native flora and fauna. As I wrote in a review in these pages, Nisbet excels at this kind of integrated writing that combines historical knowledge with entries directly from Douglas’s own journals. In his current book, David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work – An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in the Pacific Northwest, Jack Nisbet again returns to Scottish naturalist David Douglas. Nisbet explains why: “I realized I had only begun to touch the dynamic worlds [Douglas] saw.” Nisbet writes beautifully about his subject:
“For years, it seemed as though wherever I went, I could not escape from Douglas’s persistent presence—from the withering chatter of his namesake squirrel to the smell of a particular wild onion; from the thrill of his blue clematis in early spring to the way his spiny short-horned lizard sat calmly in my palm.”
David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work connects Douglas’s historical explorations with Nisbet’s contemporary ones. Nisbet opens the lens of history, as the text becomes a parallel experience where the reader visits places both in historical and contemporary time, effortlessly traveling between the two. Nisbet’s evocative vignettes follow David Douglas’s journals out into the field: onto a pilot boat called the Columbia to follow Douglas around Cape Disappointment, up trees in search of the perfect Grand fir cone, and through spring snow. I had particular fun comparing Douglas’s historical tone with Nisbet’s contemporary voice. Nisbet writes, “Summer winds today blow at least as hot on the eastern fringe of the Columbia Basin as they did in Douglas’s time.” And Douglas writes of the area, “The whole country is destitute of timber; light, dry gravelly soil, with a scant sward of grass.”
David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work is gorgeous, including beautiful maps, pictures, and illustrations. It is a text of beauty fit for a carved cedar coffee table. Nisbet inspires us to tromp outside, but one is tempted to view the elements vicariously. Nisbet quotes Douglas: “The weather was so terribly boisterous, with such a dreadfully heavy sea, that we were obliged to lay by, day after day.” Nisbet helps us trace history in our current time suggesting, “We are all travelers, really.” He’s right, but Nisbet helps us be better, more informed travelers.
David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work is a companion volume to a major exhibit about Douglas at the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, which continues until August 24, 2013. For information about writer, naturalist, and teacher Jack Nisbet, please visit www.jacknisbet.com.
by Renée E. D’Aoust, an Idaho Master Forest Steward; for information about the Idaho Master Forest Stewards Program, please visit: www.uidaho.edu/extension/forest/content/masterstewards