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The Oregonian
Thursday, October 29th, 2009
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The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest

by Jack Nisbet

David Douglas: A Collector in Restless Search of Pristine Lands

A review by Bob Hicks

The man who gave his name to the magnificent Douglas fir was in the second wave of white adventurers in the great Pacific Northwest, and you get the feeling, reading Jack Nisbet's fascinating new biography, The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest, that he regretted his tardiness. Oh, to be first and most!

Born the son of a stonemason in 1799 in the village of Old Scone, Scotland, Douglas seemed a true child of the century that was about to disappear. Enlightened, ambitious, opportunistic, with a restless spirit and a scientific mind, he might have been a character from a Henry Fielding novel -- a little headstrong, even obstinate, yet amiable and determined to make his way in the world.

By the time Douglas reached the mouth of the Columbia River on April 15, 1825, after an ocean voyage of eight months and 14 days, seafarers such as James Cook, Robert Gray and George Vancouver had long beat him to the Northwest punch. So had the French Canadian trappers and voyageurs. So had another Scotsman, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and the Americans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who had made their arduous cross-country treks to the Pacific before Douglas was born or when he was in knee pants.

And of course, so had the great mercantilists of the Hudson's Bay Company, who were there and waiting when Douglas arrived. It was the Company that had sponsored Douglas' visit, as an emissary from the London Horticultural Society, to catalogue and collect botanical specimens for the scientific taming of this vast and strange new land. The young botanist's purpose, Nisbet writes, was "to capture some of the New World's unpredictable vigor and infuse it back into the Old."

The vigor that Douglas sought was biological: new plants that might grow well in the Horticultural Society's extensive gardens or be adopted into European agriculture; and skins and skeletons of North American animals and birds. Douglas collected them obsessively and sent them back to England on Hudson's Bay vessels. But another sort of vigor was in play, too: the arduous and exhilarating philosophical and physical vigor of being in a place that almost no European knew.

Like so many gentlepersons and self-made successes of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Douglas kept a detailed personal journal, and those notes form the spine of Nisbet's book, which reads like an unfolding adventure into an unknown world. It's a good organizing principle, because we discover this lost, not quite idyllic, not quite virgin Northwest as Douglas discovered it.

Some of what he felt and saw is familiar: "Douglas waded through the dense and gloomy forest, gazing up at cedars, hemlocks and firs of intimidating size while lamenting the absence of the deciduous hardwoods that had brought him so much pleasure on the Eastern seaboard."

He discovered scenes of unparalleled plenty. At the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers he watched native fishers spearing salmon -- almost 2,000 in a single day before he gave up counting and left, while the fishing went on. He shot bald eagles for dinner and seals for sport. In the high reaches of the Colville Valley he stumbled on a grouse nest with seven eggs. "The practical naturalist blew one of the eggs for his collection," Nisbet writes, "then scrambled its contents to complete 'a comfortable supper' of dried buffalo and fresh grouse."

And always, everywhere, there were specimens to collect: "I can hardly sit down to write, not knowing what to gather first."

Yet amid the plenty already was evidence of irreparable loss. Along the lower Willamette, which a decade earlier had been considered the finest place for hunting west of the Rockies, beaver were now scarce. A smallpox epidemic brought by Europeans had ravaged the region and its natives in the 1780s; widespread malaria would further devastate the tribes in the early 1830s. Douglas was exploring and codifying a rapidly disappearing world -- one whose original inhabitants, human and animal, were becoming increasingly marginalized.

How strange it must have seemed to nation-state Europeans to enter a country with no clear borders but many tribes in a shifting pattern of small-scale alliances and disputes. Combine the sense of nationhood with the European values of scholarship and advanced technology; take into account the European habit of organized aggression; mix in simple cultural differences such as what you eat and how you smell: Little wonder that instead of meeting on equal terms, Europeans so often approached the native population from an assumption of superiority that quickly descended into violence and disdain.

Douglas made two long sojourns in the Northwest, traveling into what is now southern Oregon and far north past the headsprings of the Columbia River in present-day British Columbia, across the Rockies via the Athabaska Pass and over the prairies almost to the Great Lakes, which he had reached from the other side in an earlier, more "civilized" expedition to New York, up the Hudson, across lower Ontario and into Michigan Territory.

On his journeys he met the likes of the great New Yorker DeWitt Clinton, the pioneering American naturalist Thomas Nuttall, and the commanding figure of the Oregon Territory, Dr. John McLoughlin. He stopped in the Cape Verde Islands, in Rio de Janeiro, rounded Cape Horn, met a hermit on the island that inspired "Robinson Crusoe" and marveled at the wildlife on the Galapagos Islands a decade before Charles Darwin arrived there. He explored (and collected) broadly in Spanish California. He was no longer happy, it seems, in stable England: He must see more of the unsettled lands.

On July 12, 1834, while exploring volcanoes in Hawaii, Douglas was trampled to death in a pit trap by a wild bull. He was 35. Murder, many people murmured. Douglas had enemies, and he was carrying money. Nisbet presents a plausible alternative explanation: Always eager to see something new, Douglas lost his balance and fell in.

Maybe it was time. Nine years later the little village that would soon become Portland sprang up across the Columbia River from Fort Vancouver, Douglas' base for so many of his adventures. The great wilderness he had known was history. Civilization had arrived. Time to move on.

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