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Discovering David Douglas

Pete Springer/OPB

His name graces an Oregon school district, an iconic tree, a Vancouver park, and the scientific nomenclature of more than 80 local plants and animals, but most Northwesterners have only a cursory knowledge of the Scottish naturalist David Douglas.

Two decades after Lewis and Clark, Douglas was the first European visitor whose sole job was to investigate the natural history of the Northwest. Investigate he did: he ranged throughout the region — racking up 7,032 miles by foot, boat, and horse — collecting 650 species in Oregon alone that were diligently catalogued and sent back to England. These specimens transformed English gardening and landscaping, but what did Douglas’s “discoveries” mean for the Northwest?

That’s one of many questions Jack Nisbet tackles in his new biography of David Douglas. In Nisbet’s telling, buttressed by Douglas’s letters and journal entries, Douglas is a man of “self-effacing humor” and a “consuming interest in the world around him.” He is a “practical naturalist” who, after blowing out a grouse egg for his collection, scrambled the contents for a meal. (The scramble was added to a “comfortable supper” of dried buffalo and fresh grouse.) But Douglas wasn’t just focused on plants and trees. He mingled and traded freely with tribal members, sampling their cultures and soaking up their languages.

Nisbet fleshed out his narrative by following Douglas’s itinerary throughout the region, visiting each site in the appropriate season.

What questions do you have about the land that first Douglas saw? Or that Nisbet traveled with Douglas’s observations in hand?

Where do you see the lasting effects of this collector on the land and landscape that he so diligently catalogued?

NOTE: This show will be taped in advance — on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 10am — for broadcast during the holiday season.

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