Out in the woods one day, legs tired from a day of walking and my shoulders sore from a badly packed backpack, I met Erich. I don't even know if that was his real name. He lived in a small but surprisingly well stocked and comfortable hut, alongside a stream in a clearing. Cabbage and lettuce grew on small patches around his home, the smell of freshly baked bread came from a stone oven behind a chicken and rabbit enclosure. He had a cat and two dogs and a massive collection of decorative beer steins.
Sometime in the last decade he struck it rich, he said. Invented something that could be used to rig a thingiemajigger to a bubblegizmo between two rotogrippers on the space station or so. Made tons of money, worked for ten years to top the high of selling a garage project to a huge corporation willing to throw a few extra millions at someone just to keep them busy in a basement workshop instead of inventing something for the competition.
His wife died young, cancer he said. We stared into the forest for a few seconds after that, then he grabbed me and dragged me into his living room, showing me what he did now - ferns and mosses. Huge amounts thereof. Campylopus oerstedianus - I had to write that down - an endangered moss species next to Anthoceros neesii and some others. Erich didn't study them, though a few of his finds would later become a landmark study on moss death. Instead he tended.
A cabin in the woods, he told me, had always been his dream. So when the money came in and the job started getting boring, he bought one. As a weekend retreat at first. Then he, by chance, picked up a book about ferns and mosses and found one in it he knew from his cabin's garden. The book said it was endangered.
Things led to each other, as they are wont to do, turning Erich the Engineer into Erich the Fern Tender, a man on a mission to find and tend to the patches of endangered ferns and mosses in his forest. He'd become friends with the local forestry official and a few individuals who would stop in infrequently and report on new sightings. His maps of the forest were studded with red and green pins, locations to check and tend to.
We walked for a while and Erich showed me his "hidden treasure" - plants that, frankly, didn't look at all different from those growing abundantly around them. A sweetly smelling flower that, he explained, attracted a specific kind of beetle that burrowed around and contributed to fern propagation. Another spot had decomposing wood stacked six high, growing space for a moss that, thanks to brush clearing and logging was no longer found in most parts of the world.
Back at his cabin he made me potato soup and gave me fresh bread from his oven. He stuffed a pipe and we sat into the chilly evening trading stories of tech and non-tech days, about walking, being a nomad or wood dweller, and coping with death. When the sun settled he pulled his knitted sweater tight, rose, and offered me a ride into the next town where he knew someone who could put me up for the night. I contemplated walking but worried I'd get lost and would have to sleep on damp forest leaves.
He walked me up the road to his property and around a corner where, next to a pristine 1970s Harley Highway Patrol, stood the Real Man's Car - a Land Rover Defender 90. Spotting my look he smiled, patting me on the back lightly. "I am a fern nerd, not a hippie," he exclaimed, swinging into the driver's seat.
I think about him every once in a while, and wonder what happened to him since then. I could go and check, I could Google his name, call the nearby village's grocery store where he buys his supplies. But I won't. I'd rather keep the mystery. It's better that way, good stories end in enough material to dream up the next chapter.