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David Douglas and Deep Time

When we were growing up, my brother and I devoured all kinds of science fiction. One moment we were waiting at the comic book store for the new pulp installment of the "slow glass" series; the next we spent trying to break down the radioactive process behind a B movie that allowed giant ants to wreak havoc on board a ship at sea. Even as those ants led me circuitously to a focus on natural history, I never lost interest in the kind of playful stellar and particle physics that inspired the classic genre offerings we loved.

As an adult, still without any technical basis at all, I continued to track whatever new wrinkle in physics entered the popular sphere. Like many people, I was able to hang with most of them right up to the appearance of string theory, whose tangled math and murky infinite outcomes dampened my ability to see it as fun. But that was before the work of David Douglas presented me, right in the midst of my home landscape, with its own endlessly variable possibilities.

Anyone who delves into the natural history of North America soon bumps into Douglas, a Scottish naturalist who between 1823 and 1834 combed the eastern seaboard of the U.S., steamed west on the Great Lakes to Detroit and Ontario, and then sailed around Cape Horn twice for successful ventures to the Columbia River, California, and Hawaii. He was at his best in the Pacific Northwest, following fur trade brigades and tribal guides into large sections of the region that had not yet been touched by Western science. Douglas sent hundreds of flora and fauna specimens back for his British cohorts to study, but his real strength lay in keeping plants aliveDouglas sent hundreds of flora and fauna specimens back for his British cohorts to study, but his real strength lay in keeping plants alive: viable seeds and bulbs he gathered from the Columbia drainage have over time developed into favorite garden ornamentals, pestiferous weeds, valuable timber, and, in the case of his totem Douglas-fir, some of the tallest trees in Europe.

Certain groups of people visit groves of those trees in Scotland, sprouted from seeds that Douglas himself gathered, like pilgrims to a shrine. While each clump no doubt represents a spiritual experience, the Scottish trees do not look much like the gnarly, dark Douglas-firs that I touch with pleasure in a dry canyon near Kettle Falls, and neither example matches the shaggy giants that inspire awe on the Olympic Peninsula's Queets River. The same part of me that pretends to visualize space bending around a black hole sees them all as the same species, living in separate realities, morphing to fit the situation. The fact that David Douglas hurled some of their seeds into a foreign universe doesn't really change much at all — healthy Scottish trees represent only one of a dauntingly large number of Douglas-fir story lines.

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Jack Nisbet is a teacher, naturalist, and nonfiction writer who focuses on the intersection of human and natural history in the Pacific Northwest. His award-winning books include the essay collection Visible Bones, the short stories of Purple Flat Top, and treatments of contact-era explorers David Thompson (Sources of the River) and David Douglas (The Collector).

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Visible Bones: Journeys Across Time... Sale Trade Paper $8.98
  2. Purple Flat Top: In Pursuit of a Place Sale Trade Paper $4.95
  3. Sources of the River: Tracking David... New Trade Paper $16.95
  4. The Collector: David Douglas and the...
    Sale Trade Paper $8.98
  5. David Douglas, a Naturalist at Work:... Used Hardcover $10.95

Jack Nisbet is the author of David Douglas, a Naturalist at Work: An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in the Pacific Northwest

One Response to "David Douglas and Deep Time"

    Laurie November 15th, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Very interesting to read about this book; it sounds good - the Doug Fir, so commonly bantered about in conversation, Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii, is named for him.

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