An admiring, brisk portrait of 19th-century Scottish plant collector David Douglas.
Historian and teacher Nisbet (The Mapmaker’s Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau, 2005, etc.) brings Douglas into focus in the early 1820s, when the Horticultural Society of London sent him to the Americas to gather specialized knowledge of the flora and fauna. The explorer brought enormous energy and enthusiasm to the rigors of his profession and did brilliant work, but also made mistakes and behaved crapulously. He wrote fairly well, if a bit floridly (“it rained a little during the night, which cooled the atmosphere and added a hue to Nature’s work, which is truly grand”), a trait shared by his biographer (“the mouth of the Detroit River, where the tongue of Ontario licks beneath Michigan’s rising shoulder”). Nisbet’s well-researched narrative has considerable bounce and drama, summoning a fully fledged image of Douglas from 1823 to 1834, mainly in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a portrait of a true adventurer: clothes in tatters, his knee infected and eyesight dimming, chewing a plug of tobacco as he comments on the plants, animals and humans he meets, the construction of native canoes and tribal cooking, assiduously chronicling everyday tribulations in his “journal of occurrences.” The author also clearly draws Douglas’s transformation from collector to celestial observer and cartographer when, despite his talent for bringing home the goods, neither the Horticultural nor the Linnean Society would assign him a new mission. Eventually a patron sent him on a fact-finding trip to Hawaii, where he died after falling into a bullock trap, where, unfortunately, there also happened to be a trapped bullock.
Nisbet’s writing could use some polish, but he provides a solid piece of scholarship and synthesis.