“Many of the smaller ones perched on my hat, and when I carried my gun on my shoulder would sit on the muzzle. During my stay I killed forty-five all of which I skinned carefully.”
I really wish I hadn’t read that extract from David Douglas’s diary describing the birds he killed during his few days on the Galapagos Islands in 1824. Douglas happens to be a bit of a hero of mine. I get a powerful kick looking up into the huge trees he brought back from his travels in what was then the wild woods of the Pacific North West. He went to such trouble to collect seed without destroying the forest it is sad to discover he was blasting eagles and owls and other grand feathered things off the face of the mountain. But I guess no-one is perfect.
Re-reading two biographies of this strange Scot, I feel there is a lot more digging to be done into the psyche of the man who seemed to burn himself out in his relentless search for new plants. Seeds he could pack in tin trunks. Shooting was the best way he could find to collect birds for research back home. Oh, and yes of course, he had to eat as he was climbing the mountains through warring tribes. Roast eagle anyone?
But when you compare Douglas with the rest of the guys he met on his travels, he seems far ahead of his time. He was critical of the Hudson’s Bay Company for its scorched earth approach to hunting: they trapped beavers to extinction and ruthlessly secured the dependence of native Americans by trading in alcohol. Douglas preferred to trade in tobacco, learned the languages of different tribes and seemed to get on well with quite a few chiefs.
The first time I read the story I saw some black humour in his bizarre death in a pit dug to trap wild bulls on Hawaii. This time it seems simply tragic – his eyes were so badly damaged by snow blindness they bled when he was climbing volcanoes on the island but he still kept going. He was 35 when he died and he left only a brother. And thousands of trees and garden plants.
I have all this in mind because I’m working with Anna on a new guide book for Dawyck Botanic Garden, a wonderful place full of plants grown from seed collected in the (fast disappearing) wild including the stuff Douglas sent back from his travels up the Columbia River. Hard not to get a thrill looking at the old Douglas firs at Dawyck and maybe there is some poetic justice in the fact that the garden is full of birds. Even the odd eagle.
Add comment March 18th, 2008