Book Review – The Collector by Jack Nisbet

The CollectorHave you ever had a book you’ve waited years to read? This is mine.  I remember seeing it at Borders Bookstore when it first came out in 2010.  I picked it up, read the back, and flipped through the pages.  It was in the Northwest Natural History section, right by the front of the store.  Near Wheedle on the Needle and Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. I loved the beautiful illustration of a Douglas Fir cone on the front cover.  It was about David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest.  The recommendation on the front called it ‘exhilarating’ and I was sold.  I really wanted to read this book.  Over the next few months every time I saw The Collector I would categorize it in my mind in the ‘to read’ section and would often touch it as I walked by.  I had already claimed it, if not bought it.  But then Borders closed and it was lost in my imaginary book pile for awhile.  Until last month when I visited Powell’s Books in Portland for the first time.  I was shocked at the size of the store. I was starstruck with the amount of books in one location. I was shaken with excitement and this book was uncovered in my memory.  I inquired about the Natural History section, located The Collector and it became mine after a $16.95 exchange.  Sometimes I get tired of reading about people and I just want to read about plants.  Enough with the character development, just give me a forest. Give me a cone!  Give me a leaf and a bud and a season and I have a story.  But it turns out that this book is more about the man and less about the plants. And that is just fine, because the man was all about the plants.  The man, David Douglas, was a Scottish botanist/explorer who described and categorized many plants right here where I live, in the Pacific Northwest.  He came to the Northwest in 1824 and since then his name is synonymous with this part of the country, as in the ever-present Douglas Fir.

Douglas Fir
Douglas Fir

I don’t want to start at the beginning though, but rather at the end.  The end of the book.  (Spoiler Alert) He dies! It’s unbelievable.  It’s disconcerting.  It’s so sad.  In the middle of his travels, while exploring and observing and doing what he did best, suddenly David Douglas has a freak accident without any witnesses, and he’s gone.  No more Noble Fir, no more Salal, no more Brown’s Peony!!!  No more discoveries, at least.  I was not ready for this ending and actually had tears come to my eyes as I read it.  Just like that?  His life was over just like that? Yes, I know it was almost 200 years ago.  Of course he has died since then.  But the manner of his death was so shocking and unexpected.  He was so full of life and enthusiasm, with packets and cartons filled with newly discovered plants and seeds.  There was so much momentum in his life when it came to an abrupt end.  So tragic.

If you enjoy plant names, you’ll like this book.  It’s filled with references to men like William Hooker and Archibald Menzies, who were contemporaries of Douglas.  We get to find out the story behind the people behind the plant names, such as Pseudotsuga menziesii.  “When modern naturalists set out to study the flora and fauna of the Northwest, many of the names that roll off their lips and out f their field guides first flowed from the pen of David Douglas.” The author, Jack Nisbet does a satisfying job of telling the story of  Douglas.  This book is written from letters and journals written by Douglas and his friends.  One thing I would have liked was more plant information.  He told us where the plants were discovered, how their seeds were collected and shipped back to England, but I wanted to know how they influenced the gardens of England.  He briefly mentioned this with a few plants.  I would have liked a showcase of a few of his discoveries with more details about where they were growing, where they ended up, the importance in the retail industry and possibly how they influenced plant breeding.  Give me more!

The collector recounts the life of Douglas, giving his early history, but mainly focusing on his natural history explorations in North America. His first collecting trip was to the Northeast of the United States and this just whet his appetite. Soon thereafter he was sponsored by the Hudson Bay Company and sent by the London Horticultural Society to the Northwest.  David Douglas began collecting even before he arrived in the Northwest.  During the long ocean passage from England to the Northwest, his ship docked in several ports for supplies.  One stop was in Rio, Brazil where Douglas said “my pockets (were) filled with the granite of Rio; my hat outside and inside was pinned full of insects and both my arms full of plants.”   I like that the first plant he noticed when he stepped off the ship in the Northwest  was the leathery green leaves and pink blossoms of Salal, our ever-present shrub. He noted that the local pronunciation was not Shallon, as recorded by Lewis and Clarke, but rather Salal.  He referred to lupine as the “most magnificent herbaceous plants I have ever beheld.”

Lupinus latifolius

 I didn’t realize how much work he actually did to make his trip possible.  He walked, he hiked, he climbed, he rode horses and often foraged for his food.  He suffered from cold and heat and physical exhaustion.  Nisbet reports that “Gathering seeds was not the only painstaking work at hand, for he also had to analyze each new plant he found, determining its genus and then comparing its characteristics to the limited species that had been identified in the botanical manuals of his day.  His primary references were Thomas Nutall’s Genera of North American Plants and Frederick Pursh’s Flora Americae.”  I admire his dedication and persistance.  He also recorded many of the native american customs and uses for plants.  Besides visiting the Northwest on two separate occasions, he spent several years in central California and was exploring the Hawaiian Islands on his return trip when he died so prematurely.

David Douglas—The Collector

According to a fascinating blog post I recently read by Naturanaute on Plant hunting, ” 15-30% of the world’s flowering plants (around 70000 species) are yet to be discovered, which means that finding, describing and even cultivating these unknown plants is essential to gain a better understanding of global biodiversity.”  David Douglas was a pioneer in this field and it’s exciting to realize that even in our day, new discoveries are being made.  I really enjoyed reading this book.  For any natural history enthusiast it was a well written and exciting adventure.  Hearing descriptions of the early flora and fauna of my country was priceless.  I’ll end with the beautiful closing words of Jack Nisbet “The thrill of such discoveries lifted him (Douglas) from the sagebrush summer into Blue Mountain snow squalls, where he could disappear in a riot of June wildflowers.  On the shattered basalt atop Mount Blalock, the collector knelt close to judge the progress of one season’s royal peony seeds.  During the course of some future excursion, when the elements had toasted them to perfection, he would gather a few.  That was one of the ways Douglas would share part of this place with the rest of the world: he would take those seeds home, and encourage them to sprout anew.”

3 thoughts on “Book Review – The Collector by Jack Nisbet

  1. Sounds like an engrossing tale- I like reading about the plant hunters too. Their stories are always so adventurous and dramatic it seems. Nice tip and great review!

  2. Wow! It really sounds good! I love that I now know where the name Douglas Fir comes from. Also the HS in Portland, David Douglas High. Also that he was a Scottsman. I have a little Scottish in me as my maiden name is Bruce. One thing your story made me think of is how I take all the wonderful plants available to us now in the retail market for granted. I don’t think much about all the work involved to even bring some of the ‘classics’ to us! Reading this gave me a new perspective. I might try to get a copy through my library. Thanks!

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