The Collector (Sasquatch Books, 2009; $23.95), Jack Nisbet’s engrossing history of the naturalist David Douglas (from whom the Douglas fir takes its name) is an unexpected treat, a treasure trove of botanical wonder and a vivid look at the Northwest as Europeans saw it in the early 1800s. Douglas, the Scottish son of a stonemason, came to the Northwest to gather samples for the Royal Horticultural Society. Here, he was enthusiastic and tireless in his jaunts across the countryside. From Fort George to the southern Willamette Valley to the upper Columbia River (and later in California and Hawaii), Douglas collected hundreds of plants and some animals, sending specimens back to England and giving scientific names to species previously unknown to Western science.
Douglas’ accounts detail not just the plants he carefully dried and the animals he collected (by his own admission, Douglas was a good shot with a musket), but the lives of those he encountered: trappers, voyageurs and members of the Chinook and other tribes. What emerges, as Nisbet traces Douglas’ endless trips to collect ever more specimens, is a vision not just of how the Northwest must have looked to the young botanist — overflowing with life, from immense salmon to towering pines — but a sense of how Europeans and Native Americans interacted in the Northwest. This piece of history reaches beyond botany, just as Douglas ventured beyond European forts, wandering as far afield as guides would take him.
If The Collector has a flaw, it’s simply that there are few images, save a few helpful maps. Nisbet’s research is thorough, his use of direct quotes from Douglas’ journals wonderful, his narrative sharp and clean and steadily paced. But I turned pages hoping for sketches of Brown’s peony, flowering currants, the giant sugar pine cones that drew Douglas to the Umpqua. We in the Northwest are probably familiar with at least some of the flora, fauna, mountain ridges and rapids Douglas describes, but sketches and images of the region and wildlife as Douglas saw it would add immensely to The Collector.
Jack Nisbet discusses “David Douglas in the Willamette Valley” at 7 pm Wednesday, May 12, at OSU’s Memorial Union, Corvallis. — Molly Templeton