The book jacket blurb for “Ancient Places” describes these essays as the “genesis stories” of our region – which made me think I’d be learning about the geological forces that shaped our region in ancient times, and perhaps the emergence of prehistoric flora and fauna.
To be sure, there is some of that. Spokane natural history author Jack Nisbet name-drops Gondwanaland, for example – the supercontinent that existed between 200 and 500 million years ago. He reports from the Stonerose fossil trove and associated sites in the Okanogan Highlands. Moving up in time, he refers at some length to Glacial Lake Missoula and the Ice Age Floods. Readers will learn more about the “Sanpoil Volcanics” and the “Dolomite Question.”
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Nevertheless, I’d argue that “Ancient Places” is a misleading title. The general organizing principle behind this book seems to be more anthropocentric – with an emphasis on chronicling different ways humans interact with the land. Nisbet centers his work on the Northwest interior and how Native Americans, early explorers, later prospectors, even later settlers, and now we, have variously depended on and degraded, modified and in turn been impacted by, the geography of this place.
For some it’s about survival – being so attuned to the land and the seasons that you know when to go where to dig for particular roots, pick particular berries, or fish with success.
Nisbet writes about Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery, and how the men traded with tribes for a bread-like staple made out of biscuitroot. With a botanist, Nisbet searches for biscuitroot growing along the Columbia River and learns firsthand how difficult it is to harvest – at least at the non-optimum time. He incorporates Native American creation stories into his essay and 200-year-old journal entries from explorers and missionaries. He discusses the Native American tradition of First Feast and the many different ways of preparing the root. After 20 pages, most of you will know more than you ever could have imagined about this unassuming flowering perennial.
Another essay combines information on historic mining practices in the Huckleberry Range with a reflection on – what else? – going berry-picking there.
But Nisbet also writes about people who are simply entranced with natural history and want to truck in it somehow. Take Ellis Hughes, a pioneer who identified a giant meteorite on property neighboring his farm, slooowly stole it, and then charged 25 cents a pop for anyone wanting to gawk at this chunk of space junk. Nisbet reveals that this turned out not to be the first removal of the Willamette Meteorite, nor was it the last – today it is on view as a star attraction at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
There are several more pieces like this, that tie together natural history with human history, and personal anecdotes with scientific fact.
Nisbet is a good researcher and a gifted writer, but his relaxed approach leads to detours. These essays are a literary cabinet of curiosities, undisciplined in focus, but interesting to peruse.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.