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The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest [Paperback]

Jack Nisbet

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Book Description

31 Aug 2010
Jack Nisbet first told the story of British explorer David Thompson, who mapped the Columbia River, in his acclaimed book Sources of the River, which set the standard for research and narrative biography for the region. Now Nisbet turns his attention to David Douglas, the premier botanical explorer in the Pacific Northwest and throughout other areas of western North America. Douglas's discoveries include hundreds of western plants--most notably the Douglas Fir. The Collector tracks Douglas's fascinating history, from his humble birth in Scotland in 1799 to his botanical training under the famed William Jackson Hooker, and details his adventures in North America discovering exotic new plants for the English and European market. The book takes readers along on Douglas's journeys into a literal brave new world of then-obscure realms from Puget Sound to the Sandwich Islands. In telling Douglas's story, Nisbet evokes a lost world of early exploration, pristine nature, ambition, and cultural and class conflict with surprisingly modern resonances.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of the Douglas biographies 7 Mar 2011
By Dr.Science - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
By way of introduction, I've read most of the biographical material on Douglas as well as his writings. There have been six biographies written about him, and this is the best of the bunch. Here they are:

The first was by his friend and mentor, William Jackson Hooker, and was published soon after Douglas' untimely death under the title "A Brief Memoir of the Life of Mr. David Douglas, with Extracts from His Letters." This work is available free on the internet and I highly recommend it. It's brief, sympathetic, and hits the high points.

Perhaps because Douglas' journals went unpublished until 1914, and then were put out only in an expensive limited edition, he did not attract another biographer until 1947 when H.T. Hervey published "Douglas of the fir: a biography of David Douglas, botanist." This was an excellent work, and the later biographies repeat much material first presented by Hervey. It is long out of print and you will likely have to get it through a library.

The third Douglas biography is more of a curiosity than a work of reference; it contains much wild speculation that is unsupported or actually contradicted by the historical evidence, and overall seems to be an effort to turn Douglas' life into a pulp romance. Among other things it reveals that Douglas had a passionate affair with a dusky native lass on the shores of distant Gray's Harbor. You can read this and more in W. Morwood's Traveler in a vanished landscape;: The life and times of David Douglas.

Next up was DOUGLAS OF THE FORESTS. THE NORTH AMERICAN JOURNALS OF DAVID DOUGLAS by John Davies, which mostly consists of excerpts from Douglas' journals but also covers some biographical ground. It's a decent work, but mostly of interest because Douglas' own journals have only been published in rare and expensive limited editions (fortunately they can also be downloaded for free on the Internet).

After that we had David Douglas: Explorer and Botanist by Ann Lindsay, reissued a few years later under the title The Tree Collector: The Life and Explorations of David Douglas. Regrettably, it was not well fact-checked, and contains numerous false statements that betray the authors' general lack of familiarity with either botany or the geography of western North America, but which also contains some interesting facts which were not earlier published, and are revealed in the writings of Douglas' contemporaries.

The best came last, though: Jack Nisbet's "The Collector" easily displaces Hervey's work as the best Douglas biography, for it was prepared by a modern, rigorous historian with access to a breadth of material and interpretation that the earlier authors could not reach. Moreover, Nisbet has previously written a good number of books on the region's history and, apart from the synergistic effects on this research effort, it has allowed him to develop as a capable and engaging writer. It contains information not discovered by any prior writer, such as the news that Douglas had a son during his travels in the Pacific Northwest; it also does a far better job than any prior biography of placing Douglas within the society of his contemporaries both on the frontier and in the world of London's Linnean Society. Highly recommended.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Read 7 Mar 2010
By Linwood Laughy - Published on
A fine read for anyone interested in Pacific Northwest botany, fur trade history, and/or -ethnography. Plant life appears as if on a spring walk in the countryside, along with fun and fascinating related information. Hudson Bay and other historical personages delight at the turn of a page or the floating a river -- folks like John Work, Jaco Finlay, Samuel Black, Donald McKenzie, Edward Ermatinger --all observed by David Douglas in their natural habitats as well. Forts Vancouver, Okanogan, Colville, Spokane House, and several others make their appearance, connected by exciting travel on the rivers of the Northwest. The ethnographer will enjoy as well the many bits of Indian culture sprinkled throughout the book. All of these delicious details are wrapped in the passion of Douglas' life wandering far-flung landscapes in search of botanical discoveries.

The author makes extensive use of supporting documents, especially Douglas' own journals. These journals impart to the book a steady pace, which sometimes begs for a bit of literary disruption. But again, a fine read, well researched and well written, and a welcome addition to any bookshelf.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book 8 Jan 2010
By matthew berberich - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent book for the naturalist. Tons of names in horticulture we use today of people who were alive back in David Douglas day. Fast easy read with poetic descriptions of the Pacific Northwest.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Collector; David Douglas and The Natural History of the Northwest 3 Dec 2010
By Harold Ochs - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An excellent book for those interested in the flora and fauna of the northwest. Informative regarding the topography as well. Interesting reading. I hated to put it down to do other things.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating reading especially recommended for any natural history collection 20 April 2010
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
THE COLLECTOR: DAVID DOUGLAS AND THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE NORTHWEST surveys David Douglas's discoveries of hundreds of western plants and tells how the son of a stonemason who lived in a rural Scottish village became the premier botanical explorer of the Pacific Northwest. His early fascination with nature and botany and the moves that would led him to become a leading authority make for fascinating reading especially recommended for any natural history collection.
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