During the years I have lived in the Columbia country, I have come to see its vast natural and human archives as a reliquary of its former lives, a reservoir of clues that connect this moment to the distant past, this place to territories far away... Each evokes a facet of the region's past, reminding us that this place has not always been as we see it now. Their voices call across time, carrying snatches of the big river's long and larger song." -- from the introduction to Visible Bones
Spokane writer Jack Nisbet likes to travel the less-populated byways of the Northwest, searching for threads in a largely hidden narrative. In his earlier book, Sources of the River, he sought out the remnants of the natural world described by explorer and trapper David Thompson in his journals. For his new book, Visible Bones (Sasquatch Books), Nisbet examined evidence both archaeological and geological and listened to the stories of elders to find points where the natural and human history of the Northwest intersect.
"I'm trying to match the oral history with the written record and with the landscape," he says. "When you start going back into the past, the written record is spotty. I'm interested in how it all meshes together, how humans interact with nature. Then, I try to make sense of how things are now."
As his focus, Nisbet chose the relics of the past, those surviving traces of an earlier Northwest. As he notes in the opening chapter, the word relic derives from the Latin relinquere, meaning "to let go." Nisbet uses a broad definition of the term relic here, one that encompasses both the physical world and the world of stories.
"If you look at 'relic' in the Oxford English Dictionary, [the definition] goes on for two or three pages," he says. "There's all these different notions."
Each chapter is centered on one of these relics -- a trilobite fossil, a California condor, bones from a prehistoric pachyderm. Nisbet follows each trail, traveling through time and geography to weave together the disparate threads of each relic's story.
"I like to trace around subjects," he says. "I had spent time following the stories of the traders, the fur men, and they all follow the same route. I thought it would be interesting to look at species along that route. I chose certain things to follow -- I've always been fascinated by birds, so that led to the condor. The idea with all of these relics is that they don't ever fit into a box."
In the course of telling these stories, Nisbet ranges forward and backward across millennia and miles. He begins with the natural history of our region, as told by the fossil record of trilobites in a mountain creek. In the final chapter, he tells the story of Jaco Finlay, an early 19th-century fur trader who lived at the Spokane House just before his death. The individual stories of his descendants draw together much of the human history of the region since. In between, the stories blend the natural history with the human, using records from one field to complement the stories of the other.
"I believe that's the strength of the book," Nisbet says. "The accumulated story leads to the human family in the last chapter, the people who write history. You have to sit down and look at the story from all different sides, to hear what it's saying."
Nisbet's love for the natural world is apparent in the earlier chapters, but it is later in the book, when humans enter the story, that the narrative flourishes. Earlier inhabitants of the landscape -- Jesuit priests, 19th-century naturalists, tribal elders -- weave in and out, becoming recurring characters in a series of vignettes about the land and the stories inscribed in the natural world. Nisbet, who has also written for The Inlander over the years, excels at making connections among diverse sources, but he leaves it to the reader to put the pieces together.
"It's not my job to draw conclusions or tell people how to live," he says. "Somehow, these relics all have a connection with where we live. They all are rooted here, and their stories all circle back to here."