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

In my career as executive director of the Bloedel Reserve, I had a number of opportunities to present programs about Northwest plant collectors, including Archibald Menzies, Thomas Nuttall, Lewis & Clark, and David Douglas. How I wish I could have had this book when preparing those talks. The task would have been so much easier with Jack Nisbet’s new book as a model.

In addition to his extensive research on the topic, historian Nisbet brings a unique combination of talents to his assignment. He is a teacher who frequently works with Native American school children and tribal groups, associations that have given him uncommon insights into the relationships that Douglas had with various Northwest tribes. He also reflects the talents of a naturalist: a sincere appreciation for and knowledge of the wildlife and plants that Douglas encountered and collected. He presents the story in a way that keeps the reader captivated, interested, and wanting more.

While I consider myself a capable botanist, I am not a collector. I am, however, fascinated by the stories of those early botanical explorers who came and collected plants in the Pacific Northwest. I find the stories of their struggles and perseverance spellbinding. Nisbet brings the explorer’s story to life with a portrayal of Douglas’s disappointments in the seemingly endless series of disasters that cost him his collected seeds, herbarium voucher specimens, animal skins, eggs, and more. Sometimes, these were the result of pack animals falling down steep slopes, or canoes being over-turned, or thefts by rats or local thieves. At other times, his precious cargo, safely loaded onto ships headed back to his homeland, was lost due to some form of maritime disaster.

The book offers an interesting view of the plants that were considered desirable, from a European horticultural perspective, or that Douglas seemed intent upon finding. He did his homework, prior to his forays, and had the opportunities to talk with those of experience, such as Menzies, Nuttall, John Scouler, and Robert Brown. Some taught him valuable skills; others gave him clues on what to look for. Nisbet weaves all of this together—the appetizers and the main course—along with occasional excerpts from Douglas’s diaries and journals.

Although Nisbet’s book was not intended to be a botanical study, I would like to have seen the use of a few more botanical names to let me know exactly which plants Douglas was dealing with. Occasionally, Nisbet does this, as in an encounter with Paeonia brownii, which happens to be the only peony native to the Pacific Northwest. For other interesting plants such as Trillium, where there are a number of native species, specific epithets appear. Regrettably, common names for plants have not been successfully standardized (as they have for birds or butterflies), so a reader like me is left with an incomplete picture.

However, the story of Douglas’s travels in the Northwest is remarkable, and Nisbet tells it well. I have already ordered some of Nisbet’s other books: Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson across Western North America (1994), and Visible Bones: Journeys through Time in the Columbia River Country (2003).

Richard A Brown, Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden
Seattle, Washington