The following is a book review of The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest, by Jack Nisbet.
If you grow up near forests in the Pacific Northwest, the Douglas Fir tree may be the first native plant you recognize by name. It most definitely was for me. It’s groovy bark and “mouse-tail” cones are not only abundant, but easily recognizable. And, if you hang out long enough amongst these trees you are likely to run into the Douglas Squirrel as well, sitting in its branches or scampering up and down the trunk. In The Collector, Jack Nisbet interprets the journals of David Douglas as he travels from England, to the Galapagos, to the estuary of the Columbia River and throughout the Northwest. Douglas was a botanist and a passionate one at that. His attention to detail, determination and sheer obsession with collecting kept him in the region for years as he sent shiploads of seeds and pelts back to England. Nearly 200 years later we commonly refer to these local flora and fauna by his name and, particularly in this case, it is nice to learn why.
I read this book in between sessions as a Field Instructor for a Portland area Outdoor School program where a few of us had been developing an “explorer” themed, science based field study. It seemed like the perfect transition to go from exploring our history, to natural history of the place, to inquiry; which was our desired end goal for students. It became clear in looking at the life and work of David Douglas that explorers were often also avid scientists and their methods of detailed collection and recording were one way to learn an immense amount about a place. And, most of us at some time in our lives have probably participated in this type of study. You go out into the field and spend hours and hours counting lichen cover on rocks or other possibly important, but not so stimulating activities. So what is it that we are missing these days? As a student and teacher, I would say it is that sense of adventure, of being an explorer, of having a passion and drive to find out more, to inquire. It is that sense of wonder we are all searching so hard to uncover and instill in others that brings science to life. Perhaps now, our goal is not to encourage students to explore new lands, but to know their backyards and ecosystems a little more clearly. And in doing so, be driven by genuine interest and seek out authentic inquiry. For then, maybe, sitting and observing, collecting and recording the amount of lichen on a rock will provide the meaning and joy that explorers like David Douglas felt every time they placed another fir cone into their bags.