David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work

David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work – An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in the Pacific Northwest by Jack Nisbet (Sasquatch Books, 2012)

    Awards:

  • Named as a finalist for the 2013 Washington State Book Awards in the History/General Nonfiction category.

“In June 1824, the Governor and Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to transport David Douglas, a young Scottish employee of the Horticultural Society of London to its “Columbia District,” to assist the society’s efforts to identify and import potentially valuable ornamental plants from North America’s Pacific Northwest. His three trips to the region between 1825 and 1833, and the fond friendships he formed with other naturalists, help explain why many of the Pacific Northwest’s most familiar plant species were first scientifically collected and described by David Douglas, and why so many species in the region—most famously the Douglas-fir—are named after him. It is also partly because of him that trees such as the Douglas-fir and the Sitka Spruce have become among the most valuable commercial forest trees in the United Kingdom and Europe, and why so many plants from the Pacific Northwest are valued ornamentals there today.

 

Jack Nisbet’s David Douglas examines Douglas’s legacy from the perspective of a nature-lover. Although the book presents no reinterpretation of David Douglas, it is beautifully written, lavishly illustrated with many high-quality full-colour reproductions, and available at a remarkably low price. The book should be welcomed by anyone interested in Douglas.

 

David Douglas has not lacked for biographers. George Athelstan Harvey (1947), William Morwood (1974), and Ann Lindsay Mitchell and Syd House (1999) had published biographies before Jack Nisbet contributed his own biography The Collector in 2009. Those with a purely scholarly interest in Douglas will prefer The Collector (ably reviewed by Brownstein in BC Studies) to the present volume. Nisbet’sDavid Douglas will be especially attractive to the educated and curious members of the public (and academia) who are interested in Douglas, but who also love the natural world of the Pacific Northwest (particularly of Oregon and Washington), who enjoy thoughtful discursive storytelling, and who appreciate a well-produced book. Oriented around Douglas, it is not a biography per se. It is neither chronologically organized nor geared towards understanding David Douglas as a person. Nisbet evocatively transports readers back and forth from the natural world that Douglas encountered in the 1820s and 1830s to the same places in the present-day. Those who love the intersection of human history and natural history are in for a treat. Jack Nisbet and Sasquatch Books are to be congratulated for producing such a handsome book.”

 

– Review by Ted Binnema

“In The Collector, an earlier book about botanist David Douglas, Jack Nisbet artfully traces Douglas’s 19 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.”

 

– by Renée E. D’Aoust, an Idaho Master Forest Stewards; for information about the Idaho Master Forest Stewards Program, please visit: www.uidaho.edu/extension/forest/content/masterstewards