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The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest
The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest
Jack Nisbet
Sasquatch Books, 2010
304 pp., $16.95

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Paul J. Willis


In the Forest with David Douglas

A restless naturalist.

I grew up in Forest Acres, a housing development on the edge of Corvallis, Oregon. One might expect there to be no forest left in those acres, but fortunately this set of developers had made a mistake and left more than a few second-growth trees that flexed and hollowed in the wind that came in over the Coast Range on almost every summer afternoon. These native trees were white oaks, big leaf maples, and—most plentifully—Douglas firs. The Doug firs in particular defined my childhood in ways that are, well, hard to define. Let's just say it was a rare evening when I did not have to scrub the sap from my hands before dinner.

From an early age I was told that our firs were named after David Douglas, an explorer who had come from Scotland to the Oregon country in the early 1800s to learn about the plants here. And that once or twice he had walked up the Willamette River, right close to our home, probably. On my way to school I would wonder if I were crossing paths, across time, with David Douglas. I was that smitten.

On winter mornings, from our house in the faux forest, we could look across the valley to the snowy peaks of the Cascades. On a good day I could see the summit of Mt. Jefferson, so named by Lewis and Clark, and a couple of the Three Sisters, shining like some kind of promise. By high school I was climbing them and finding a new sense of self in alpine wilderness. At Wheaton College I majored in biology for a couple of years and especially liked my systematic botany class, in which Al Smith would lead us in a lingering way around the campus to identify the local flora. What I didn't like were the many technicalities of the Krebs cycle, and by the end of my college years I had drifted into literature.

But I never did forget about David Douglas, and six or seven years ago, as a sabbatical project, I decided to read his journals and letters and everything I could about him, with an eye toward writing a series of poems about this avatar of my childhood. ...

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