The location of the Spokane Astronomical Society on Friday, May 3, has been changed to the Jepson Center on the west side of the Gonzaga campus, Room 017 on the lower level. See the Coming Events page for further details.
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
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.
My new book, David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work was introduced this past weekend at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association annual meeting in Tacoma. It will be available in bookstores November 6.
See the calendar for readings and presentations around the region this fall.
The exhibit David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work is now open and is scheduled to run through August 2013, when it will travel to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
For school or group tours, contact Cara Spink at www.northwestmuseum.org/index.cfm/education
To arrange a tour of the exhibit with Jack, contact him separately at email@example.com
David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work, an exhibit that explores Douglas’s adventures in the Northwest between 1825 and 1834 will open at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane on September 22, 2012.
Jack’s latest book, a collection of essays with the same title, will be in bookstores in early November, 2012.
See calendar for upcoming events related to both the book and the exhibit.
“A Remarkable Garden: David Douglas and the Shrub-Steppe of the Columbia Plateau”
The summer 2012 issue of Rock Garden Quarterly has an article about dryland plants collected by David Douglas on the Columbia Plateau and the tribal uses that he observed.
For an online view, visit www.nargs.org
“David Douglas on the Heels of the Corps of Discovery”
The summer 2012 issue of We Proceeded On has an article touching on the connections between the floral collections of Meriwether Lewis west of the Rockies and those of David Douglas two decades later.
The May 2012 issue of American Surveyor includes an essay about David Douglas’s surveying and geomagnetic activities during his second visit to the Northwest in 1830 – 1833.
“Fearful Excitement: The Surveys of David Douglas”
For an online view, visit www.amerisurv.com