Everyday objects and extraordinary journeys

by Steve Rumsey

The word "relic" conjures up a host of connotations, from human remains to a historic souvenir. It can denote a custom from the past, the remnants of an ancient language, or a fragment of a whole. It can represent the last of a dying species, or an indefatigable survivor.

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—Jack Nisbet



Northwestern writer Jack Nisbet brings to the tired tomes of American history the unadulterated wonder of a child who takes delight in everything he sees. His award-winning book, Sources of the River, described the life of David Thompson, an explorer and fur trader who was the first to map the Columbia River from its headwaters to the sea. Now, in Nisbet’s latest book, Visible Bones: Journeys Across Time in the Columbia River Country, he examines a variety of everyday artifacts — a promontory beside the river, a fossil, a native plant — and uses each to tell the story of the country around the Columbia River across time.

By tracing the journey of a trilobite from its birth in the sea hundreds of millions of years ago to its ascension into the Rocky Mountains as a fossil and eventual inclusion in an American Indian’s personal kit, he provides a look at the history of the Columbia River region on a time scale not often appreciated. In another chapter, the story of a native tobacco plant takes him to the very edge of the most private and essential heart of traditional Indian culture as it exists to this day.

Whether he’s recounting how astonished farmers near Spokane fished mammoth bones out of their spring in the late 1800s, or showing how the lowly muskrat has gone its web-footed way through centuries of change, he ties together varied threads and provides a long view of the Columbia River country. The perspective Nisbet shares encourages a wiser way forward into our shared future, and helps to renew our own sense of wonder at the landscape around us.

Visible Bones: Journeys Across Time in the Columbia River Country
Jack Nisbet
246 pages, hardcover $23.95.
Sasquatch Books, 2003.

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