Last Saturday, I met a man who reminded me of three famous people in one—Johnny Appleseed, Henry David Thoreau, and Andy Goldsworthy. His name is Andy Huber and he lives on Pumpkin Ridge outside of Summerville, not far from my home in La Grande, Oregon. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of wild orchids, the Thoreau of walking far and intimately in one forest, and the Goldsworthy artist arranging sculptures in the woods and meadows.
There, the resemblance stops and the individualism that’s all Andy Huber emerges. I joined him for a bird walk, thanks to the Friends of Ladd Marsh. The first Saturday of every month, birder Mike Mahoney leads a walk that may or may not be on the marsh. This time, he took our group to Andy’s place that’s a private nature reserve with an open invitation for all who want to be tutored by Andy and this wild and growing wilder enclave above the Grande Ronde Valley.
As soon as Andy strolled down from his home tucked discreetly in the trees, I felt his good cheer welcome. I liked his wide felt hat with a chin strap below his tidy white beard. Something rather impish in his eyes and smile suggested a playfulness, a reminder to take life not so seriously. He wore blue jean coveralls and carried a shovel to dig out any weeds that might dare to show up on the walk. He spoke softly and with modesty—telling us he could not hear the birds well, and had his notebook in hand to write down all we saw that day. He thanked us for sharing birds with him, as he prepared to share in ways that would prove astonishing.
Before we even walked into the fir and larch forest where great gray owls had nested last season, I could already witness the tender and unusual care Andy has given to this land. Next to us, native bunchgrasses and camas grew from the rooftop of a garage you’d never know was underfoot. Beyond that? A circle of gleaming quartz and other exotic monoliths drew my friend Mary McCracken and me to examine them close up, and to linger by one bench with these words etched on it: “Grow wiser from a place where nature thrives and diversity is supreme.”
That was the quote of the day, and not the only one we would see as we hiked through the shadowy, north-facing forests, up into the open meadows with vistas of Mt Harris, the Elkhorns, and the Wallowas, and then into the south-facing ponderosas.
Here and there, the Andy who is like the Andy Goldsworthy has sprinkled both sculptures and wise words on small signs that could feel intrusive, but instead add to the experience. He’s selective and the quotes only show up sparingly. The sculptures are miniature Stonehenges, or the center of a labyrinth marked with branches in a meadow, or one or two lone rocks placed just so. Unlike Goldsworthy, who arranges his finds from what’s around him, this Andy brings in exotic gems from around the world—like malachite, lazuli, and one rose quartz that weighs 1200 lbs.
Surely, these rocks belong where they came from, right? Not here. They form part of what makes Andy and his place so special. They fit, in the way that brilliant scarlet macaw feathers fit in the stones of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, thousands of miles away from the homes of the birds. Thousands of years ago, the Chacoan people traded to bring in the exotic and rare to illuminate their Pueblos. Why shouldn’t Andy display these powerful gems in the rough?
As far as quotes on the trees? Perhaps, Andy Huber is part Dr Seuss, too, with that favorite line: “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” Dr. Seuss (The Lorax)
Andy speaks for the trees in other ways, too, by taking school children out for field trips and inviting people to partake in a philosophy of forestry that is patient, reciprocal, and always humble.
That brings me to the orchids and the Johnny Appleseed. As we walked through the moist forest of pileated woodpeckers, Townsend’s warblers, western flycatchers, and white-breasted nuthatches, Andy showed us the wild orchids that grow naturally, and with his help. They are called mountain ladyslippers, Cypripedium montanum.
These orchids are wedded to intact forest soils and the intricacies of mycelium that webs below the surface. It takes three to five years for an orchid to emerge and, another five years or so before the plant is ready to bloom. That’s why digging them up or planting the seed in a garden fails spectacularly. Orchids remind us of the complexity of a wild forest.
Andy’s goal is twofold. He tells us that this forest felt the impact of logging about a half-century ago. Since he moved here not so long afterwards, he has helped guide the return of the forest to old growth conditions, aiding the process in subtle ways gained from both academic and experiential knowledge. As part of his effort, he’s restoring orchids from seeds, an impossible act of faith that reveals the possible when one takes the long view beyond our own life time. Eleven species of orchids thrive in the forests here, under Andy’s respectful watch.
In the forest by the edge of a meadow, Andy paused by a circular clearing about the size of a large bonfire.
“What do you see here?” he asked the group.
I stepped forward and he gently held out his hand to caution me to stop. This was a delicate place where no human foot should intrude. Bursting upwards from the pine needles, we saw them—the new stems and leaves of wild orchids. Five years ago, Andy planted the seeds as part of restoring the circle where he’d burned a small pile of trees and limbs carefully thinned from the forest. The orchids are growing. And in five more years? I’ll have to come back to see the ladyslipper blooms.
Patience. Wisdom. Observation. Those three qualities Andy appears to have in spades, along with a quirky sense of artistic fun.
He has something else, too, that Thoreauvian quality of being content to “wander far in Concord” as Henry wrote. For Andy, his world is all here in these forests and meadows. By being present each day, he notices nature, records and learns from what he sees, and then? He takes another step that goes beyond Thoreau.
Andy engages in “re-wilding,” a term I have become familiar with thanks to my friend Sandra who is writing a book about this practice of restoring forests in ways that yield to the wisdom, work in tandem with the dynamic forces, and defer always to the complexity beyond our comprehension. The forest is the tutor. People will always be the apprentice.
An example of Andy’s re-wilding hand lies in the way he thins trees that help open up the forest just a bit for the biggest trees to thrive and become their most ancient selves—generations from now. In the moisture-loving, dense mixed fir and larch forest, fire is not the force that it is in the ponderosa pines where low intensity fires naturally would burn say every 10-15 years, clearing the understory Here, thinning may come in the form of windstorms that break off trees perhaps 10 or 20 feet up or more.
And that’s exactly what Andy’s thinning looks like. As we walk, we see the trunks of smaller trees cut off at an angle about 10 feet or more up. Every tree pillar shows abundant life thriving, because the trees were not cut low at typical stump height. Woodpeckers joyfully attack them, and that was the initial motivation for Andy.
“I started noticing the pileated woodpecker holes low in the standing dead trees, not up high where I thought they would be,” Andy said. “I looked closer and saw the reason…ants! Lots of them.”
To have plentiful ants for woodpeckers, you need dead trees. Why not then add more dead trees to the forest instead of less? That’s the way Andy observes, takes notice, and then tries out an innovative and ecological practice.
Spring and early summer bird walks tend to be early morning affairs when the territorial singing is lusty, yet on this day none of us felt like hurrying on. Instead, we returned to Andy’s home past noon. Even then, birds continued to gift us with their presence in this forest of rewilding, shiny gems, and mystery orchids. A red-naped sapsucker landed overhead in a fir, then flew on to one of the few cottonwoods. A western flycatcher peered down at us, its white eye ring adding a look of inquiry.
Inquiry. Curiosity. Two more words to guide the day, as Andy guided us on a journey we can continue wherever we go, starting in our own backyard.
Find out more about Andy Huber and his Grande Ronde Overlook Wildflower Institute Serving Ecological Restoration…Gro-Wiser