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Watercolor of orchid Phalaenopsis schilleriana

Finding Meaning in a Life with Orchids

Charles M. Hess, surrounded–as he should be–by orchids.

For life to be satisfying, many people find it helps to have a source of purpose–something or someone that guides and motivates them. For Dallas-area engineer Charles Hess, his source of purpose could be summed up in one word: Orchids.

Orchids have been a theme in Hess’s life for decades. He has collected them, cared for them, painted them, advocated for them, and turned to them for inspiration. Hess will give a talk on March 18 from 10 am to 12 pm where he will discuss his Journey with Orchids.

After a childhood in Mobile, Alabama, that found him exploring the swamps and wetlands near the city, Hess studied as an engineer and was hired at Texas Instruments. In the 1980s, Hess took a position in the Philippines based in Baguio, a town located in the mountains of northern Luzon. The area is heavily forested, and a wide variety of orchids grows in the region.

Hess first discovered orchids in the markets of Baguio. He began with one, then added another, and soon the balcony of his hotel room was filled with flowers. “When the balcony could no longer hold my collection, I moved to a little guest house where I was able to build a greenhouse and fill it with orchids,” says Hess.

My Journey with Orchids
March 18, 10 am – 12 pm

His work in those years was high-pressure and time-consuming. “But I had my orchids, and that was a lifesaver for my sanity,” says Hess.

When his job overseas was done, Hess confronted the challenge of getting his collection of orchids–by then hundreds of plants–back home. Fortunately, orchids can tolerate shipment if they are dried out, removed from soil and then packed away from water and light. The plants had to be inspected by officials from the Philippines Department of Agriculture, and Hess had to get a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But in time he was able to unpack his orchids in a new greenhouse in Dallas.

Hess continued to collect and grow orchids until he retired in 1999. With the time available to pursue art seriously, he began to paint and draw. Naturally his favorite subject was orchids.

“I realized, I can create these watercolors, and people like them. I could sell my work and use the money to fund conservation,” says Hess.

Hess is particularly concerned about protecting the world’s forests. He had observed deforestation in action in the Philippines. “I would see large logging trucks coming down from the mountains, and they would have only three logs on them because the trees were so big,” Hess say. “It was all old-growth forest, and it was gone. It really made me aware of how much deforestation is hurting our planet.”

For the last twenty years, Hess has concentrated on creating watercolors to make into prints and sell. He donates the proceeds to conservation nonprofits including the Rainforest Trust, the Orchid Conservation Alliance and the North American Orchid Conservation Center.

He also supports the Cedar Ridge Preserve, a nature preserve south of Dallas maintained by Audubon Dallas. The preserve is home to several varieties of orchids native to Texas and threatened by habitat loss.

Looking at his life, Hess is struck by how orchids have helped him appreciate the living world in all of its complexity. “Orchids have taught me how much diversity there is in life on earth–there are 25 to 30 thousand different species of orchids on this planet–and how delicate the whole ecosystem is,” says Hess.

He adds, “Orchids are a constant reminder of how important it is that everyone be aware of the gift that is life on this planet.”

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