Into the woods with Stewart Wechsler
By Maggie Nicholson
A shiver of black interrupts the sunlight. The disruption is caused by infinitesimal wings, which break the light with a quiet drop. The shadow vanishes. “Echo Azure,” says Stewart. A blue butterfly appears.
“How could you tell?”
“After a while, you can recognize them by their shadows,” says Stewart. “How do you recognize your friends? You see their face all the way down the street. You know them. It’s like hearing their voice from a great distance.”
Stewart Wechsler was born on Long Island in 1956. He was his mother’s fourth baby and her final try for a girl. Stewart’s father, post World War II, wanted to be a fine artist. He began working in advertising, which paid very well. Eventually he started his own agency. Despite his success, in his heart was a pool of regret. He gave Stewart advice. “Follow your passion, and not the money,” he said.
Stewart and his older brother Doug were naturalists as young boys. Their father purchased a home surrounded by acres of wild land. The boys were content to wander freely, and the area was rife with snakes, butterflies and salamanders. From Kindergarten through 6th grade, Stewart spent days and nights in the fields and woods, catching butterflies for his collection. At the end of 6th grade he moved on to bird watching. “If the butterfly is rare enough to still not be in my collection, it’s too rare to kill,” he reasoned.
Doug, red-haired and already practicing ornithology, competed with his little brother on road-trips. It was a game: seeing who could spot and classify the bird first. Doug now manages the bird photography collection for the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. Their oldest brother, Roger, owns and operates Samish Bay Cheese, an organic cheese company in Skagit County, and their third oldest brother, Neil, owns Washington’s Montlake Bicycle Shop.
For a while Stewart operated an airport shuttle. His mother, wounded by the loss of her house during the Depression, gave Stewart conflicting advice. “Follow the money,” she said.
While running the shuttle, Stewart kept nature books tucked between two of the front seats. Whenever a child would board, he’d pass them one. Their faces would ignite with joy. Stewart says that as Homo sapiens, we experience three instinctual truths that define our relationship with nature. ”One, we instinctually love nature. Two, we instinctually see the beauty in nature. And three, we are more fascinated by nature than anything else,” he says. “Maybe you love your mother more than you love nature,” he says. “But that is part of nature too.”
These days, Stewart has turned his attention to the reintroduction and conservation of plants indigenous to the Puget Sound lowlands. At the Center for Urban Horticulture, Stewart came upon a list of indigenous plants compiled by Arthur Lee Jacobsen. Of the 512 Native plants listed, 146 were classified as lost. They had not been seen growing wild in decades.
Stewart removes from his canvas bag a stack of papers, aligned with the scientific names of plants native to the lowlands. It serves as a reference and checklist. He is interested in the plant life that would have been present up to 2,500 feet above sea level before Columbus’ arrival. He points to a spot nearby our seat outside.
“Do you see the tall grass?” he asks.
“It is part of my guerilla planting,” he says.
He removes small manila packets from his canvas bag. Each packet has a plant’s name scrawled across the top in pen. The manila packets contain seeds. The packet on top is labeled ‘Lathyrus vestitus ssp. bolanderi,’ or ‘Bolander’s pea.’ Stewart says he kept an eye out for thirteen full years before finding it growing wild. Arthur Lee Jacobsen, Stewart’s friend and mentor, knew of the last place Bolander’s pea had been seen locally. Stewart scavenged the area, navigating thickets of plants in search of the pea. He wondered if blackberries had buried them. A few local butterflies like to lay their eggs on pea plants. Butterfly host plants like Bolander’s pea and nectar plants like Mock orange inspire particular affection from Stewart, who is still an ardent butterfly catcher.
Stewart’s interest in indigenous plants stemmed from his study of butterflies. It is the harmony of plants and organisms together, the balance of the host and hosted, which makes the conservation and reintegration of native plants so attractive to him. Indigenous plants have evolved together over hundreds of years, co-existing in mutual benefit. They grew together and cultivated relationships with one another. The image of absolute original plant life, which would have existed hundreds of years ago in the absence of foreign influence, inspires Stewart. He refers to the initial ecological plant systems as communities. When tracing backward in time through the scantily assembled records, he uses plant communities as organizational tools. ‘Snowberry and oceanspray,” he says. “Ah, yes, this habitat. I know this community.’ It assists with the addition of other native plants, which have been rendered nonexistent, to the correct community.
“Have you heard of the phantom orchid?” Stewart asks.
The phantom orchid contains no chlorophyll and bears a pallid complexion. It rises from the ground: a milk-white stalk absent of leaves and bursting with blossoms. It should not ever be plucked or disturbed, because the orchid is dependent on symbiotic mycorrhiza. It receives its nutrients solely from a deeply invested relationship between underground fungi and its roots.
When the phantom orchid is not in bloom, there is no visible evidence of its growth. It has gone unrecorded for seventeen years and then reemerged. The phantom orchid is one of the indigenous plants on Stewart and Arthur’s list. It becomes further endangered as more of the natural, undisturbed forest floor becomes disturbed. Stewart asks if I would like to see one.
The phantom orchid, a ghost both in coloring and dearth, cultivates in my heart the stolen fervor of all secret things. We hike, unhurried, through the forest. Stewart knows the ancient names for every plant, flower and shrub. He picks and hands me a maroon thistle berry. He says it is good to eat. The fruit is sweet and tart.
When we reach the orchid, it feels like meeting an ancestor. Its stem is as pale as moonlight. It is short and leafless. Blossoms rise in every direction along the smooth, waxy stalk. We crouch among the twigs and stare at the orchid. The phantom flower, invested so foundationally in its habitat, is a microcosm of what Stewart hopes to achieve with his preservation work. He is working to reestablish a harmony in Seattle’s ecological system reminiscent of its original state.
Around the pale orchid and in small magnetic groups, the Echo Azure butterflies drone. The blue of their wings are slivers, fazing in and out of sight.
“Could you catch one now?” I ask.
Stewart readjusts his thick black watch and gazes at their fractured movements.
“There’s a sixty to sixty-five percent chance I could catch that one,” he says, as the butterfly proceeds to land on its own accord atop the handle of his mesh net.
If you’d like to go on a nature tour with Stewart or if you’d like to hire him to take a group out, visit his website at www.stewardshipadventures.com. He has two excellent programs coming up, which are listed on his website.