The Man Behind the Tree

A book about David Douglas (he of the semi-eponymous fir), with an illustration of an oak leaf, as seen on my Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menzies) dining table. SO tree-y!

A book about David Douglas (he of the semi-eponymous fir), with an illustration of an oak leaf, as seen on my Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menzies) dining table. SO tree-y!

While walking through Costco on our usual toilet paper/paper towel/tub o’ mixed nuts/AA battery shopping binge, I came upon a very attractive book mixed in with the Tom Clancys and the 153 or so shades of gray generally available there. A full-color drawing of a Garry Oak leaf and acorn graced the cover: David Douglas, A Naturalist at Work, by Jack Nisbet.

I found the book to be quite engrossing, and it more than adequately filled the quiet hours during the eye of the holiday hurricane. Intended as the monographical companion to an exhibit at a Spokane museum, the idea that the author might retrace the steps of the naturalist extends the intention of the work beyond biography alone; and as the book opens, we find the author swinging high in the whip-thin leader of a Grand fir, attempting to harvest a ripe seedcone.

David Douglas was a fascinating figure. Of quite modest background, he was an adept and lifelong learner who first made contact with and then gained the respect of some of the more notable scientific thinkers of his time. To learn the overlapping cirles of early 19th-century scientific influence fleshed out my knowledge of history quite a great deal, and having seen hookerii, menzies, nuttalli, and scoulerii on my nursery plant tags, I enjoyed very much discovering how plants went from my ‘backyard’ to Scotland and England, and then made it back to my local nursery and from there into my literal backyard.

More than a plant collector, Douglas was also a visionary who offered assessment and opinion as to possible commercial purpose for the plants he described, drew, preserved, seed-harvested, and packed for shipment back to Great Britain. Employed for a botannical task, he expanded his mission to identification and harvesting of regional fauna and collected samples of the native culture, folkways, and handcrafts, and later taught himself the surveyor’s arts and participated in the mapping of the earth’s magnetism. Assisted and protected by the British military and the Crown-chartered Hudson’s Bay Company, Douglas developed congenial and collaborative relationships with the indigenous peoples of his travels. He also had a most adventursome palate, sampling virtually everything he encountered. Farina (what we call Cream of Wheat) must have been a popular staple of the day, for very little of what he tried tasted like chicken, but most of it apparently tasted like farina.

The volume is sumptuously illustrated with contemporary photographs plus full color plates of Douglas’ and others’ sketches, drawings, and journal pages. Save for one drawing captioned as a “Flathead village” but identified on nose-to-page examination of the sketcher’s notes as ‘Blackfeet Village,’ I found all the plates in lovely and ample support of the text; the Flatheads and the Blackfeet, bitter enemies during that time, likely would not have appreciated the conflation.

David Douglas was known to have been at his weakest in polite social and/or academic society, and so exists in his own (laboriously completed) writings as a less-than fully rendered character. He seems to have been bit shy, and therefore spoke and wrote relatively little of himself in an age where adventurers, explorers, and even scientists were analogous to the Twitter-driven celebri-sensations of our own time. I found the between-the-lines Douglas to be grand, even cinematic: I have no trouble imagining the David Douglas movie, perhaps a nearly-silent Werner Herzog study or a bombastic Master and

Coming soon to a theater near you: David Douglas, the movie?

Coming soon to a theater near you: David Douglas, the movie?

Commander-style epic. I wanted to know more, and I wanted more narrative history. Sadly, I think the best of the author’s travels ended at the top of the Grand fir.

With over a thousand acres of Pacific Northwest forest behind my backyard, there is much that David Douglas saw that I myself see every day. Having purchased a lovely raincloak from his native friends, fashioned of the soft and water repellent furs of what the tribes knew as Sew-el-el, Douglas became focused on trapping the elusive and curious little creatures for identification and for potential promotion to the fur industry. Failing in his efforts to trap them, he purchased and sent back to Scotland several specimens, to be named and classified by Sir John Richardson as the genetic singularity Aplodontia rufia…my nemesis, the Mountain Beaver. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how something can go from an ‘elusive curiosity’ to a pestilential nuisance which causes tens of millions of dollars in annual damage to the forestry industry as well as being a living prophylaxis against my own restoration plantings: the animal’s job in mature climax forest is to control competing and sometimes allelopathic undergrowth such as bracken fern and ensure forest succession, whereas today it can feast, unimpeded, upon Christmas tree farms, logging replants, and my own and many others’ back yards. How they couldn’t be trapped, well, I’ll grant Douglas a lack of Hertz Rent-a-Centers where Havahart traps can be had for ten bucks a week, but I find them pretty easy to catch. I guess he didn’t have Red Delicious apples for bait, either. I can only regret that the Hudson’s Bay Company, having proved efficient at pushing the North American Beaver and the Pacific Sea Otter to the brink of extinction, didn’t find commercial value in the pelt of the Mountain Beaver. That’d be pretty sweet.

You, sir, have got your ivy into my forest!

You, sir, have got your ivy into my forest!

The region in which David Douglas ranged was already by his day well populated with traders, trappers, military outposts, young settlements, and the earliest homestead arrivals. Douglas made special notes and collections of the plants which followed and established with these invaders: the first lists of invasive and potentially noxious weed species. Ironic, in a way, that among the earliest plant samples he sent back to Britain for their great potential as ornamental and food crop now find themselves spreading rampant in the moors of England and the heaths of Scotland, as Gaultheria
Well, you, sir, have got your sala into my moor! And also my blowsy cottage garden!

Well, you, sir, have got your sala into my moor! And also my blowsy cottage garden!

has proved a little too adaptable to its new Old World home. Doubly ironic that the public efforts at eradication of Salal so closely mimic the IVY OUT! programs of my area, as volunteers mass to pull English Ivy from park and forest land. Wherever you live in the world, if it is in a ‘stick-built’ home it is likely framed with the tree we call the tree Douglas Fir in common nomenclature. The plant has been carried throughout the globe and finds itself adaptable to most temperate climates and elevations. The scientific name is given as Pseudotsuga menzies, after the great Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies, who first described it 35 years or so prior to Douglas’ journeys. The tree itself has not proved invasive, though its value has led to the displacement of native timber species wherever it is grown, a notion Douglas himself foresaw. But like Douglas himself, not all exotic visitors are invasive, and not all invasives are exotic (I’m looking at you, Mountain Beaver).

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6 Responses to The Man Behind the Tree

  1. Corene says:

    Love it. So THAT is what you were reading about this whole time?!

    • calvincaley says:

      You are a nut. I feel an incredible affinity for the man, and have no trouble picturing myself as perhaps an acquaintance on the trail, or an assistant…paddling his canoe, pressing plants and preserving seeds, being the giant White Ghost who steps in between the collector and the uneasy natives. You KNOW how very thinly removed I am from buckskin and furs at this point. This book, taken in succession with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything; The Collector, a pure biography of Douglas by the same author; and The Good Rain by Timothy Egan, has given my winter reading focus and depth, and has given context to things I learned long ago and activities I currently pursue. I feel Million Smart now. And, as soon as I finish what I am currently reading, we can have CONVERSATIONS again.

  2. rainyleaf says:

    I’ve always been fascinated too by this man, who has his name spread all over the Northwest. His tree, the Douglas Fir, stares me in the face each day, giving me a familiar skyline in every direction. But seriously, you really are waiting for the extinction of the Mountain Beaver? Can’t you just train them, make them spread your mulch or something? I like the comparison between English ivy and salal, a strange switch we made. I didn’t know salal was bad-mouthed overseas, such a beautiful plant here! Thanks for this great review, I look forward to reading the book, but it will have to wait in line….I’m finishing Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver and am immersed in the Appalachias and monarch butterflies!

    • calvincaley says:
        Thank you Elaine! Mountain Beavers, having remained evolutionarily unchanged longer than any other land mammal, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Especially since a property like mine, which as mature forest might have only supported a single mating pair, can now support a dozen or so. Douglas didn’t find them tasty and the HBC was getting out of the fur trade and into timber and fisheries, so the Aplodontia rufia does only what it always has, only under spectacularly ideal conditions. If you can see my comment reply above, I recommend all of these books SO SUPER HARD, especially together. They form a sort of Grand Unified Theory of science, history, botany, regionalism, and Where Are We Now…and all the writing ranges from pretty good to excellent.
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