The Timeliness of an Untimely End

by Walter Ezell

Jim Fowler did a great many memorable things in his 74 years, but the way he left us is among the most memorable. He left us while returning once again to Mt. Mitchell to appreciate the wild profusion of the purple fringed orchids that bloomed, once upon a time, in early July but of recent years in late June. We have this photo of him rejoicing in the profusion on the slope below the Mt. Mitchell restaurant, July 1, 2006,

Jim and Platanthera psycodes orchids at Mt. Mitchell State Park, North Carolina

and this one, in the same spot eleven years later.

Platanthera psycodes (Small Purple Fringed orchid) -- Jim Fowler amidst dozens of orchids!

And we have this image from 2009, showing his pickup truck parked in the same place he left it again this year on that last day when he was taken with a heart attack.

This is Jim’s last photo. The EXIF associated with the photo says he took it at 2:57, but the clock on his camera was 3 minutes slow. He took it at exactly 3 pm, June 25, 2021.

A passer-by saw this man lying by the road and reported to the park headquarters a mile away. By the time a ranger arrived, a doctor from Greensboro had seen the crisis and was administering CPR.

It all happened so quickly. The medical examiner recorded an approximate time of death as 3:15. Jim died attended by caring people, surrounded by the beauty he returned to year after year. He was there, on that final day, doing what he loved.

This was not the only strange convergence in Jim’s memorable life. There were the stamps. Jim was a lifelong stamp collector, with dozens of albums. In the early ‘90’s when we couldn’t find software that would readily create custom stamp album pages, Jim, a software engineer, wrote the computer program called AlbumPro.

Jim Fowler's last photograph

Stamps. Photography. Orchids. Three of Jim’s passions. So why wouldn’t the U.S. Postal service issue 10 stamps with Jim’s photos of orchids? We went to Coral Gables, Florida last year for the dedication ceremony. This was a convergence that Jim called a trifecta.

But all this is mere biography. What we will really remember is his kindness.

As a young man Jim flashed smiles wherever he went. His was the unearned beauty of youth. In his senior years he had a different beauty. His resting face radiated a deep kindness with a modicum of melancholy. Smile lines creased his eyes, but you’d have to squint to find traces of frown lines.

I accompanied Jim on many of his photography expeditions. He had an amazing ability to notice tiny flowers growing along the roadside as he cruised the backroads in his Ridgeline. He could remember where flowers grew years earlier and comment on how their numbers had increased or decreased, or even skipped a year or two. He would speculate on the causes. He was always disappointed when roadside mowing interfered with the life cycle of plants he regarded with tenderness and joy.

Indeed, two things made him crabby: indiscriminate mowing, and drivers who changed lanes without signaling.

And there was his bog garden, a 3-foot by 12-foot place of beauty in our front yard, where he tended pitcher plants, sundews, wild orchids and other precious plants. Here again, mowing was an issue. He would not allow anyone else to mow the lawn lest they fling seeds and contaminate his bog garden. Whenever I went to the living room expecting to see him, if he wasn’t there, I would find him kneeling by the bog garden, observing its beauty, grooming it, removing weeds. I would join him, and he would comment on the progress and status of specific flowers. In his last days he was looking forward to a bountiful blooming of a budding group of spiranthes. As I write this, the buds are beginning to open. It will take a week or two for them to reveal their full glory. I will do what I can to maintain his garden, and will turn to one of his many friends to identify each species for me.

Here’s an example of his kindness: A young man said his parents had given him permission to build a bog garden. He asked Jim how, and Jim took the time to write him 650-words of detailed instructions on Facebook messenger. We don’t want to bury the news about Jim’s final day, but after a few weeks, I might post Jim’s instructions for building a bog garden.

As the news about Jim filtered out, the tributes poured in.

According to Dr. Richard Porcher, the author of A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, and former professor of biology at The Citadel, “Jim was an outstanding field botanist. He was always willing to share his discoveries and time with his fellow field botanists and anyone else interested in photography and field work. His books will stand the test of time and be a treasure on my bookshelf.”

According to Emmy-winning naturalist Patrick McMillan, “I believe there will never be another human who will be able to capture images of orchids the way he did. The second edition of A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina (in press) would not have been possible without his contribution.” Here is a link to Patrick’s remarks about Jim.

According to Kristen Austin Gunter of the Nature Conservancy of South Carolina, “This Earth has lost a dear friend. His stories and images will live on. Through his updates and vivid images, Jim was the frontline doctor, the reporter, and the artist who took it upon himself to take the pulse and record the health of the natural world in his own backyard.”

On that final day, Jim was gathering measurement and site information for the Smithsonian’s North American Orchid Conservation Center. They are doing research on how the hybridization of two species can eventually lead to the formation of a third, distinct species. We are sending the NAOCC his photos and field notes from that day in support of the research.

Here are links to Jim’s obituary and a beautiful write-up by the Post and Courier.

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30 Responses

  1. Oh, Walter, each of your posts brings more tears to my eyes as I, too, am heartbroken. I considered Jim to be my friend and mentor. I learned more from him than I could have learned sitting in dozens of classes. I have sent you a letter with something for Dylan enclosed with it and in it explained how it was the very picture of Jim sitting among the purple fringed orchids that brought about our friendship. Please know that all of us who cared for Jim are sending prayers of comfort to you and to Jim’s family.

  2. This is a lovely tribute to a wonderful man. I didn’t know Jim personally but felt like I did — and enjoyed all the wild flower “trips” with him.

  3. Thank you for these posts and tributes to Jim’s life and work. He was a truly incredibly talented person.

  4. Thank you, Walter, for gathering these memories and photographs and posting them for all of us who admired and respected him. He will be sorely missed.

  5. Thank you Walter for such a beautiful tribute written during your own grief. He touched so many of us with his posts .. yes we felt as though we knew him. He gave us glimpses of nature’s gifts that we would never have seen otherwise
    No greater offering to the human family than to share that beauty and peace with strangers who would become kindred spirits
    Go well into your next becoming Jim. And peace to you Walter and your family.

  6. What a wonderful legacy Jim left. I knew him only through his many delightful trip reports and photographs, but I feel a kindred spirit, so alike, and I hope to always cherish re-visiting those places through his work. What a blessing to live with passion and love for nature’s beauty, and for sharing it; what a blessing to pass away as anyone would wish to. May I be so blessed as well, while with my orchids.

  7. I never met Jim, but corresponded with a few times. He was always responsive and generous with his time and knowledge, and made me feel that helping me was of great importance to him. May you find comfort and peace in his memory, a memory that will in time bring smiles more often than tears.

  8. Thank you for this moving story. I discovered Jim’s blog very recently and have been quick to read and enjoy it each time I receive a post.
    I understand you’ve been an essential part of the delight and fascination these offer and send my condolences for your profound loss, along with my appreciation for your immense tenderness and this gift.

  9. A beautifully written tribute to Jim, Walter!!! I love the images you chose here, they show him just as I remember… So happy out in a field of orchids!!

    Thanks so much for sharing everything with us! It’s been ten years since our Newfoundland trip, but somehow it seems like just a few days ago…

  10. A beautiful tribute, Walter–thank you. I’ll remember Jim whenever I see the yellow-fringed orchids at DuPont, the mountain sweet pitcher plants at Eva Russell Chandler, or the three-bird orchids Jim kindly gave me directions to on Pisgah District. Jim’s wildflower photography, especially photos of orchids, was stellar and his blog posts will be missed.

  11. I am so shocked and sad, Walter. The couple of times, I spent time with you and Jim were fantastic. You always think there will be another day.

    Jim was such a talented photographer and artist. Incredibly prolific. Just so sad.

  12. I met Jim a few years ago at a NOC seminar in Minnesota. I was amazed at this man that took the best orchid photos I had ever seen. Jim gave me permission to do watercolors based on his photos…two watercolors were featured in Orchids, the journal of the American Orchid Society. We have lost a treasured soul…he will be missed by so many.

  13. I have only know Jim through this blog. However I feel as if I have known him as a friend. My puny efforts at orchid photography, and flower photography in general, pale in comparison to his presentations. I frequently fantasized about going on a trip with him to some of those Pisgah locations. Sadly, it will never get beyond a fantasy. What a loss to botanical knowledge with his passing.

    My deepest condolences to you and Dylan.

  14. The Celebration of Life today was perfect. It was such a joy to hear those who knew him well share their love and reembraces. Jim was one of the most generous and kind people I ever met. His blog ignited my interest in local botany and he ALWAYS promptly answered my questions and shared a few “secret” spots with me. I will not forget him and cherish the knowledge that you all were such a loving part of his life.

  15. I met Jim and you, Walter, not too long ago when I was on a Birthday kayak trip on the Rice River, in Southport, NC. It was Halloween. I believe Jim had also celebrated a Birthday earlier that month. We were the same age.
    I was curious as to what y’all were doing. I was surprised to hear that wild orchids grew in NC. Jim said he never took a photo of the orchids with a kayak, and asked if he could do so. He said he would post the photos on his website along with his flower photos. I noted his name, your name, and website info, and watched for the photos.
    After a bit, they appeared on the website, and I was introduced to some of the most beautiful photos of flowers I could imagine. I learned that orchids don’t always look like those we are familiar with, and enjoyed the photos of the other woodland flowers as well. I so enjoyed each new, beautiful posting as it was published. I could feel the joy, love and reverence in each photo. You were both so kind as to converse with me, and send me other photos via email several times. This chance Halloween encounter was very special to me …I felt an instant connection to you both.
    Although I met Jim only that once, I feel as though I have lost a good friend.
    Please accept my sincerest condolences, I can’t imagine what his loss feels like to you, Walter, and to all those who were close to Jim.

    My thoughts will be with you, and I hope the support of those who care will offer some comfort at this difficult time.
    Diane Starbling,
    aka “The Kayak Lady”

  16. As Chris Davidson said, certainly a fitting tribute! Enjoyed the many outings with Jim to coastal SC and NC. Walter, the ones where you accompanied Jim were even more interesting…the input of another person just added to to trips. Fun times! I will never visit the Green Swamp…or any of our other old haunts without thinking about Jim (get to test that out next week when we go to NC for our sons wedding!).

    Confession time. Whenever I photographed an orchid – or other plant whose ID I was unsure of – I’d purposely misidentify it, send a photo to Jim, and ask if it was correct. Without fail, he’d email back with the correct ID and gently give me a little grief. Pretty sure he caught on at some point!

  17. I was shocked to read about the passing of Jim. Although I never was able to meet Jim, he and I had communicated though emails after I bought two of his wonderful books. Jim freely shared his advice on orchid photography and his camera equipment. I loved following his blog on flower photography and l could not wait for each of his adventures. By following his wonderful blog, I was able to vicariously enjoy Jim’s field trips and nature photography.

    How I will miss this gentle spirit and his adventures in the southern Appalachian Mountains, an area I absolutely love. I know Jim is in a better place and that I am a better person for him passing through my life, if only through his blog.

  18. Walter,
    Please post Jim’s blog on building a bog garden, as I would love to start one myself, and I know others who would be interested. Thanks for the great photos of Jim doing what he loved best, photographing his beloved orchids. My deepest sympathies.

  19. Thanks so much, Walter, and of course, Jim! So many of us have happily followed and benefited from his Flower Travels. And thank you for these notes and pictures. Blessings of the plants to everyone.

  20. Walter,

    We are heartbroken to hear of Jim’s passing and offer our sincere condolences. We haven’t been on an official orchid/photography trip since 2013, but the thought of sharing the joys of orchids and photography with you and Jim once again was a moment we looked forward to. Jim’s blog, photography, books and spirit touched so many lives – we feel lucky to have been a part of that, and are grateful for the memories of fun trips and encounters that we do have. Our thoughts are with you and all of your loved ones during this time.

    Warmly,
    Jen Modliszewski & Neil Jacobs

    1. Thank you Walter for sharing this wonderful tribute. I will always remember Jim’s generosity, patience and kindness with me as I started my fledgling journey into the world of native orchids. Growing up in the mountains of western NC I knew much about woodcraft, camping, hunting, and fly fishing but alpine plants grabbed my heart on the shoulders and summits of Colorado’s high peaks in my early thirties while hiking and the botany bug bit causing orchid fever and delirium soon after. It wasn’t long before I was diagnosed with a full blown case of Wonder..
      Who could help me navigate my new found condition?
      It’s been at least 10 years ago that Jim’s contact was given to me and I started “pestering” him with my hopes of finding this or that in the orchid kingdom of the southern Appalchians and beyond. He was always kind enough to help me whenever he could.
      So it was a great honor for this hillbilly naturalist that Jim Fowler came to photograph and blog my beloved Wister’s Coral Root site on the Hiawassee river near Turtletown TN. For once, I could return in a very small way a little of the generosity he had shown me.
      When I received the sad news this past Friday I was on a trip to gather specific site information on a special orchid site on the Blue Ridge Parkway that I had found last year. My intention was to pass it on to Jim, I so regret that I was too late.
      My GPS coordinates waypoint for this site is labeled, “For Jim” and that’s how it will stay..
      Sincerely , Shannon Spurling

  21. Walter, thank you for this beautiful uplifting tribute to Jim. He touched so many people through his books, photographs, and this blog and the list could go on. This generous sharing of his passions will carry Jim’s legacy into the future for yet more individuals to be touched. My life has truly been enriched from finding his blog. Jim’s narrative style made us all feel like “friends”. Jim was truly a special man.

  22. I am so sorry for your loss. I had just recently shared his work with a friend new to the area. It is a treasure.
    I love your idea to publish the bog instructions. I might just try creating the Jim Fowler Memorial Blog Garden in my yard!

  23. Jim was an up lifter who brought many of us the joy and beauty of discovery via his lovely photos and comments.

  24. About 6 or 7 years ago I became quite interested in the plants I found during hiking on the South Carolina trails. The searching of a plant ID led me to Jim’s blog. I was quickly fascinated by the beauty of those pictures. Since I started photographing myself, I learnt so much from Jim’s flickr and blog. The articles are educational and so fun to read. It’s Jim’s blog guided me to numerous amazing sites in South Carolina. I only met him once in person at one of his book seminar held in Greenville. He welcomed me with kind smile which I still remember. I always thought that maybe one day I will encountered Jim at a flower site…Jim, thanks for all the joy you shared to the world.

  25. And, I am sad to hear this news. Like Jim, i grew up in Bennettsville, SC. I was 11 years younger than Jim, so I expect that is why I didn’t know him even though we grew up in a small town. I got to know Jim as an author and nature photographer through my mother who had recently retired and had attended one of his book signings and lectures through the Marlboro Arts Council held in Bennettsvillle. I had recently told my mom about my increased interest in nature— especially wildflowers since I had recently purchased a home in Oconee County, SC where I had a woodlands garden. She knew that I also loved photography. She shared with me how wonderful his lecture was and showed me his book, Wild Orchids of South Carolina she had purchased at the lecture, along with another book she purchased, A Guide to South Carolina Wildflowers by Richard Porcher. She gave me the wildflower guide, which I have thoroughly used now for over 11 years. In the last few years, I knew of his photography through Facebook and his blog. I would comment to him on his posts and he always replied to me. Same thing when I posted photographs and stories, especially when my home and property was struck with the 2020 EF3 tornado and changed my property from a shaded woodlands to a sunny meadow and open rolling hillside. I learned so much from him. He was so inspiring. We knew quite a few of the same folks—like Patrick McMillian, who I knew through the South Carolina Botanical Garden, and Pat Brigman who we bith have a connection with through a common thread—my mother and our hometown. I will always think of him when I see any type of wild orchid. I will also have to paint one of my favorites and hang in my home in his memory and my mother’s. She passed away shortly after Jim, on July 23, 2021. She was an artist/instructor who painted flowers, and I will have to check to see if she ever painted any orchids from Jim’s photography. I don’t recall any, but I am curious—because I know she really loved his photography and that’s what she used for reference even though she did paint live from still life.

    May Jim always be on a mountainside among his beloved orchids surrounded by others like my sweet mother where they can enjoy each other’s love for flora beauty of the natural world.

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