"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."
The book is a good account of Douglas’ life and gives lots of information on his achievements and impact on the scientific community. The book is, however, slightly boring and not a read I would recommended to elementary students. The subject matter is easy enough to understand, but the writing is late high school and college level.
I was excited to see this book because I live in the Pacific Northwest and I was hoping to learn some more local history: I was hoping that I would learn about the plants around me, about the history of settlement here, and about Native American culture. Unfortunately, although all of these things are integral to David Douglas's story, Jack Nisbet didn't bother expounding on any of them.
Instead, the book is basically a summary of Douglas's journals, essentially just a list of everything he did. He went to this place and collected this plant, then he went to that place and slept in a tent, then he went somewhere else and climbed a tree. Nisbet provides very little narrative structure or extra information about anything Douglas encountered. The book doesn't even have any pictures of plants, so I learned nothing about native flora, other than Douglas sent seeds back to England. Native Americans are mentioned quite frequently, but they are discussed rather abstractly, and I didn't feel like I learned much about their culture. There is a little bit of information about how British settlers got along with Native Americans, but it is only mentioned in passing, and I didn't feel like I got a good overall picture of their relationship.
I hoped that the story of David Douglas would be used as a springing board for the history of the Pacific Northwest and its fascinating plant life, but instead, this really is just the story of David Douglas and his journeys. It is more of a list of events and actions than a true story with any narrative structure or argument.
Personally, I find myself pulling back at times from these early narratives that describe a very different time and sensitivity, when maybe shooting a bald eagle or some seals for dinner was just fine in everyone's mind. My hairstyle helps me take the pose of a "sensitive ponytailed man".
Our visit to the Northwest was over before we got to see much of the region, but I was starting to get a sense of the wildness ... somewhat like the backwoods of my native Vermont, but with larger mountains, trees and 100% more ocean waters. Without the white men who explored and collected all those samples, our country's advancement and growth would have taken so much longer. If I had a glass of libation, I would raise it to these brave men that boldly went where men of their complexion had never gone before. Remember, many of these men were lost and never heard from again, or, like Douglas, died traveling the wilderness in search of knowledge, and a little fame.