Country matters: Fir he's a jolly good fellow

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The Independent Culture
On Thursday 26 October 1826, clouds hung low over the mountains around the headwaters of the Willamette River, in Oregon. Yet for the intrepid botanist-explorer David Douglas, the dull weather was of no consequence, because he made one of the most exciting discoveries of his life.

For days he had trekked through uncharted wilderness in search of a particular tree, Pinus lambertiana, the sugar pine; and when at last he came upon a stand of the giants, he was so astounded by their size that in his journal he cautioned himself not to exaggerate. "Lest I should never see my friends to tell them verbally of this most beautiful and immensely large tree," he wrote, "I now state the dimensions of the largest one I could find that was blown down by the wind. Three feet from the ground, 57 feet nine inches in circumference; 134 feet from the ground, 17 feet five inches..."

Needing cones for his seed collection, he took his gun and began "clipping them from the branches with ball," when suddenly eight Indians appeared, covered with red paint, armed with bows and arrows. Douglas tried to explain what he was doing, but they were so threatening that he levelled his gun at them and with his left hand drew a pistol, "determined to fight for life". After a stand-off of eight or 10 minutes, the leader relaxed, and demanded tobacco; Douglas promised him some in return for more cones, and while the Indians went to look for them, he slipped away.

That night in his camp, he was visited by a she grizzly bear with two cubs. "As I could not consistently with my safety receive them so early in the morning," he wrote, "I waited daylight and accordingly did so" - that is, he shot the mother and one of the cubs, presenting the carcass of the young animal to his Indian guide, "who seemed to lay great store by it."

For Douglas, such encounters were commonplace; and from his own densely packed account, it is clear that he was an exceptional traveller, as tough as he was fearless; yet he was also an outstanding collector of plants and trees, and next Wednesday, in this country, there begins a programme of nearly 40 events planned to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth.

His influence on the British landscape has been profound, for he introduced more than 200 species of plants - among them lupins, sunflowers, evening primrose, Mahonia and flowering currants - and several trees which have proved of crucial importance to forestry in Britain. Not everyone will thank him for bringing home sitka spruce - now the most prolific timber tree in Britain - but everyone who knows Pseudotsuga menzieii must rejoice that such a lovely tree was renamed after him, the Douglas fir.

He was born on 25 July 1799 at Scone, near Perth, son of a stone-mason. As a boy he kept owls and hawks, and his interest in nature led his father to apprentice him, when only 11, to the head gardener at Scone Palace. Later, he took himself to a private school in Perth, and by constant study, as well as by trips into the Scottish Highlands, he built up a wide knowledge of botany.

In 1820, he won a place at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, and there met the great Sir William Hooker, who was appointed to the Chair of Botany at Glasgow University that same year. In 1823, admiring Douglas's intelligence, energy and industry, Hooker sent him to Joseph Sabine, secretary of the Horticultural Society in London, with a recommendation that the young man should be packed off to search for plants in China.

When that scheme fell through, the Society sent Douglas to collect fruit trees and plants in north-east America. He carried out the mission with such success that in the following year, 1824, he was dispatched on a far more ambitious journey, to explore around the Columbia river, in the far north-west of America.

The outward voyage, round Cape Horn, alone took eight months, and when Douglas reached his destination, he found himself in a true wilderness, scarcely penetrated by Europeans. He spent the next three years travelling on foot, on horseback or by canoe, sometimes with a white companion, often with only an Indian guide, living off the land (salmon, deer and birds), menaced by natives bent on larceny if not on murder. Alternately scorched, drenched and frozen, he endured fearful hardships, yet never stopped collecting - plants, seeds, skins - and measuring everything in sight.

His zeal was unquenchable, his success enormous; but when he returned to London in the autumn of 1827, his supporters in high places found him an uncomfortable guest. In society he became prickly and boorish, and everyone was relieved when he returned to the wilds.

Before setting off again for north-west America, in 1829, he conceived the grandiose idea that he would take passage across the Bering Strait and walk home through Siberia. What a story that journey would have produced! Alas, he never got a chance to make it for, during a voyage in the Pacific, he died on the island of Hawaii in 1834, aged only 35. Rumour held that he had been murdered, but the truth seems more prosaic: he apparently fell into a pit dug to catch wild animals, and was trampled or gored by a trapped bull.

His legacy is enormous. Douglas firs have become the world timber trade's most important trees. Mature specimens rise straight and tall as the columns of an open-air cathedral, so handsome that the Forestry Commission now preserves exceptional stands well past their fell-by date. These areas, known as "retentions", will be kept indefinitely for their aesthetic value.

Some of Britain's best Douglas firs grow in the belt of greensand that runs through the Longleat, Maiden Bradley and Stourhead estates in Wiltshire. At Stourhead, several trees are more than a century old, 170ft tall, and growing vigorously. As timber they are extremely valuable, and fetch almost the same price per cubic foot as oak: a big tree can weigh 15 tons and be worth pounds 1,000 or more.

And the tallest tree in Britain? You guessed it. At Dunkeld, only a dozen miles from where its namesake was born, a mighty Douglas has reached a height of 212ft, is still growing, and should carry on for another 50 years.

For information on the bicentennial programme, contact the David Douglas Society at Stormont House, 11 Mansfield, Scone PH2 6UE, or the Forestry Commission office in Perth: 01738 442830