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Jack Nisbet

The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest

collectorOct 2009. 288 p. Sasquatch, Paperback, $16.95. Hardcover, $23.95. (9781570616136). 508.795.

Awards: One of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association 2010 Books of the Year

“David Douglas was one of the brave and talented breed of naturalist-gardener-explorers who in the decades before Darwin laid the foundations of modern botany – and died, tragically young, apparently from the curiosity and impetuosity that made him so outstanding. Here is a rich tale, excellently told”.

–Colin Tudge, author of The Tree

“We’ve long needed a modern biographer of naturalist David Douglas and who better to write it than Jack Nisbet, one of the Northwest’s great storytellers. Douglas followed in the wake of explores like Captain James Cook, with whom he shared a tragic end of life in Hawaii, and Meriwether Lewis, whose botanizing was dwarfed in its breadth and depth by the Scotsman’s efforts. In crossing Douglas’s path with DeWitt Clinton, John McLouglin, George Simpson, Sir John Franklin, and Spokan Garry, Nisbet has authored a narrative tapestry.”

David Nicandri, Director of the Washington State Historical Society

“Jack Nisbet’s brisk, thrilling account allows us to walk, ride and paddle along with David Douglas, the tireless 19th-century Scotsman whose name is attached to Cascadia’s iconic fir. Nisbet takes us on the ultimate naturalist’s tour of a largely untamed, unnamed, and unknown Northwest, land of giant salmon, circling condors, and 14-inch pine cones. What nature-lover doesn’t wish they could see the region as it was when explorers first arrived? Well, here you go.” –Knute Berger, author of Pugetopolis

Intrepid. Indefatigable. Enthusiastic. Enduring. The adjectives used to describe pioneering botanist David Douglas are nearly as extensive as the list of plants this resourceful explorer introduced to the world. From the towering fir that bears his name to lowly alpine mosses, Douglas’s extensive horticultural discoveries fueled the insatiable British and European appetite for exotic plants and secured his legacy as one of the most prolific and fearless plant-hunters of the nineteenth century. Historian and naturalist Nisbet traces the unlikely evolution of this audacious adventurer from his early days as an apprentice gardener in his native Britain to the rough-and-tumble years spent traversing the daunting terrain of the Pacific Northwest and beyond in search of new species of trees, shrubs, flowers, and herbs. The result is an exhilarating biography that provides an entertaining portrait of the unfettered determination that drove one of the giants

in the field of botanical exploration and infused the young nation he viewed with a keen and zealous spirit.

— Carol Haggas, BOOKLIST (September 15, 2009 issue)

The Douglas-fir takes its name from David Douglas, but we don’t know much about this hardy explorer of the Pacific Northwest. Until now, that is, thanks to Spokane’s own Jack Nisbet, one of our most important historians — and a contributor to The Inlander.

Nisbet has long been captivated by that moment when Europeans first came to our corner of North America, but just before massive settlement. His research on the way native tribes lived, as observed by the first visitors, has painted a rich panorama of Plateau cultures. David Douglas is one of those first visitors, and while this book is his story, it’s also another chance to tour the world that was lost when America was “discovered.”

Like David Thompson, the subject of Nisbet’s classic Sources of the River, Douglas is a one-of-a-kind character who left behind a trove of written recollections — something missing from most early visitors, who tended to be illiterate seekers of beaver pelts. Along his journeys — which read like epic adventures — he collects species like mad, feeding the obsession with all things horticultural that was gripping English society back home. Many plants plucked here made their way into English gardens three decades before James Glover ever laid eyes on Spokane Falls.

Nisbet’s depth of knowledge and meticulous research even leads to a surprising conclusion that Douglas may have left something much more personal behind, as local lore says he fathered a child with one of the daughters of Jaco Finlay, the Canadian fur trader who was the first white resident of the Spokane area.

Douglas was like one of our modern-day adrenaline junkies you see profiled in Outside magazine — always seeking the next adventure, which took him from Old Scone, Scotland, to the Athabasca Pass, to Hawaii, and, sadly, to an early end. But Douglas still casts a long shadow over the Pacific Northwest, and Jack Nisbet has, as usual, filled in the details beautifully.

–TED S. MCGREGOR, JR. Pacific Northwest Inlander September 24, 2009

We need all the help we can get imagining this country when it stretched out, untouched by industry. With every passing year, the species mentioned by explorers and naturalists, the smells and sounds and the sheer profusion of wildlife become more dreamlike. David Douglas grew up in Scotland, the son of a stonemason, and studied botany in Glasgow with the great naturalist and fern expert William Jackson Hooker. In 1823, at the age of 24, he sailed with Hooker to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent 10 years collecting and keeping a journal and naming countless species (most notably the Douglas fir). He explored areas skirted by Lewis and Clark and was one of the first naturalists to collect species. What’s left at book’s end is the sense of plenty, of endless variety and beauty that accompanied these vistas.

–Los Angeles Times September 27, 2009