Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Parallel lives

Long-standing readers of this blog (sit down, take the weight off your feet) will recall my interest (obsession?) with the life and works of David Douglas, botanist & plant collector extraordinaire, 1799-1834. I've followed him around the world, from his birthplace in Scone to where he died in Hawaii and his grave in Honolulu. If you have a flowering currant or California poppy in your garden you have a direct connection to Douglas. If you live in a house built in the UK since the late 1800s you have an even more direct connection because all your structural timbers are probably from species introduced by Douglas.

Anyway, later this summer I'm off following him again, to York Factory on the shores of Hudson's Bay. To mark this I thought I'd give you some contemporaneous accounts from his 1827 journal of his trek across the continent from the Pacific Northwest to Hudson's Bay.

Douglas has a very laconic style. Always travelling in hard, nay harsh, circumstances he makes light of his difficulties. This is a man who observes that "...so much worn out was I three times by fatigue and hunger that twice I crawled, for I could hardly walk, to a small abandoned hut. I had in my knapsack one biscuit."

Later, on the Columbia River, he observes the effect of the native's diet - "Lewis observes that when eaten in a large quantity they [Camass roots] occasion bowel complaints. This I am not aware of but assuredly they produce flatulence.; when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by strength of wind."

He ends 1826 on the Multnomah River above present-day Portland, Oregon ending a hard-bargaining session with an Indian with the immortal words "He had my blessing and promise of a sound flogging should I ever meet him in a convenient place."

Now let's pick him up contemporaneously. Here he is on May 13th, 1827 on the Athabasca River, on his cross-continent journey with the voyageurs of the Hudson's Bay Express. He has already spent two months coming up the Columbia, over the Rockies through the Athabasca Pass and is now working his way down the Athabasca River.

"Sunday 13th. Close and cloudy. By making an early start 10 miles was gained to breakfast; shortly afterwards we left the canoe and cut over a low point of wood and arrived at Assiniboine at two o'clock. Mr Stuart killed a male partridge. I make some small slug and procure a pair of this fine bird."

Watch this space for more from David Douglas, as well as normal service from his mate Woody Wilbury at Allotment 81.

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