We are thrilled to have Jack Nisbet as a guest blogger! He focuses on the intersection of human and natural history in the Paciﬁc Northwest and has written numerous books, including The Collector and his latest book, David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work. Jack will be at Village Books on Fri., Nov. 9, 7pm to discuss David Douglas. In the meantime, he's rounded up five (or so) nature books that he holds near and dear to his heart. Enjoy!
I think of timing as the key element that determines how much influence any particular book has on a person—a continuous rolling series of lucky strikes that show up at exactly the right moment for someone to receive them. Favorites become impossible to choose because they continually change, so all I can do here is relate memory links that surface on a cold clear morning, just after a goshawk has taken flight from a ponderosa pine crown to zoom down on robins working the orange-red fruits of a mountain ash.
South Carolina Bird Life by Alexander Sprunt Jr.
My South Carolina grandmother used to tease the red-eyed vireo in the hardwood swamp below her house by calling it “preacher-bird” because of the way it sang all day. On the marble coffee table in her sitting room she kept a copy of Sprunt’s South Carolina birds, a green tome published the same year I was born. Its beautiful color plates were softened with mildew, and on hot afternoons some of my first sustained reading consisted of Sprunt’s unforgettable quests for the vanishing birds of Missie’s world: passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker, and Bachman’s warbler.
Travels by William Bartram
I dove into Bartram decades later, when I returned to the South with my wife and small child and spent eight years visiting different public schools along his routes through Georgia’s Piedmont and Coastal Plain. I thought I was trying to finish a book about fur agent David Thompson’s travels through the Intermountain Northwest, but Billy B.’s infectious prose and feverish watercolors of snakes, seed pods, and drunken birds kept pushing me to walk more through the river bottoms, and to put more emotional effort into the work.
A Naturalist in Florida and So Excellent a Fishe by Archie Carr
Archie’s description of fishing a mammoth molar from a black tannin feeder creek of the Swanee River—so wry and relaxed that the discovery seems inevitable—helped me to calm down a little bit when swimming through deep time. And the sea turtles that Carr devoted his life to, emerging from years in their separate universe, always met people on the beach.
Three poets out of many:
Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams
This book encouraged me to ice skate on every frozen flood-carved lake in the Columbia Basin.
Village by the River by Li Po
It’s the iron pins.
Clear stream meanders by this hamlet, flowing
Long summer days at River Village, everything at ease.
Pairs of swallows soar above, coming and going as they please.
Paired close, the gulls float with the stream.
My old wife draws a board for chess.
My son bends iron pins for fishhooks.
I’m often sick, but I can find good herbs.
What, beyond this, could a simple man ask?
Translated by Jerome Seaton
In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver
For several consecutive springs I led hikes and canoe trips around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. We would climb Rattlesnake Mountain and view the entire scene one day and then float through it on the Columbia, from Vernita Bridge to the abandoned White Bluffs town site, the next. One of the organizers always began our journey by reading a different Mary Oliver poem. Each carefully enunciated word helped to reveal a timeless landscape that lay behind the nuclear shadow.
Nch-i-wana: Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land by Eugene Hunn and James Selam & family
Clear proof that human and natural history are the same thing.
Kalispel elder Alice Ignace
Alice, who passed away a few years ago, never wrote anything down, but she exemplified the qualities of the books I most want to read—inventive, funny, ruthlessly clear in tone. To walk a mountain ridge with Alice in early October and see her catch a whiff of the redstem ceanothus she was there to gather was like watching the entire world suddenly stop, then flow toward the satiny leaves of the same plant that her grandmother, and her grandmother before that, used to wash their hair. Alice would crush of the leaves in her hands, just as they had, to release that delicious scent forward in time.