Cargo Report - Vol 8 No 5 - December 1998

Wally Berg, adventurer, collector and true friend.

  When one reaches the big five-o, something seems to happen. Suddenly you become more reflective of where you’re at, where you’ve been and where you may be going. Perhaps examining your limitations for the first time, counting your blessing and taking stock as it were, of your life’s accomplishments, so far.

  I reckon that my greatest accomplishment is in having many good friends. I say that this is an accomplishment because I believe anyone can  make friends, but keeping good and true friends is an accomplishment. So in this vein, I would like to tell you about someone who’s friendship I especially treasure.

  Birth of a collector. Many of you reading this know Wally and would quickly agree that he is a standout among bromeliad collectors. What you may not know, however, is how far Wally has come in a relatively short time.

  Linda and I treasure the memory of Wally’s first visit to our nursery just over fifteen years ago. At that time, recently retired, he had just been introduced to bromeliads. After the acquisition of his first bromeliad or two, Wally was hooked! In his search for more variety, he purchased a plant from a local nursery and finding one of our tags in it, soon tracked us down. At finding our nursery, he must have thought he was in heaven. Wally would show up about three or four days a week, bring his lunch, and spend hours walking up and down the aisles carefully choosing bromeliad plants for shape, color and size and as an admitted amateur, would ask endless questions. We wanted to know what he was doing with all those plants and he would just say; “Something special, someday I’ll show you”. The day finally came, and those of you who have had the pleasure of visiting Wally’s collection and garden know what that ‘something special’ was! By this time, Wally was not only fast becoming our best customer, but had become a friend.

  A first adventure. Before long, Wally really had the ‘bug’. He was into bromeliads in a serious way and he yearned to dig deeper. He would joke that if we ever needed anyone to carry our suitcase on one of our collecting trips, to just let him know.  One day, having planned a trip to Ecuador, my traveling companion pulled out. I phoned Wally on a Sunday, I believe, and told him if he wanted to ‘carry my suitcase‘, he had his opportunity, but he had to let me know by the next day! Bright and early Monday, Wally called and said he was on board, but he had no passport. He worked feverishly and secured his passport just in time for our flight. Although I had been many times in Central and South America, this was my first visit to Ecuador. For Wally, it was his first time south of the border and I am being charitable in saying he was just a bit nervous.

  Arriving late in the evening into Quito, we experienced the chilled and rarified air at 9500 feet up in the Andes. The crowds were crushing as we left the terminal, with dozens of young men vying for a chance to carry our luggage and gain a small tip. We were lucky to be able to arrange a rental car at the airport and decided to ‘get out of dodge’, and drove south to the outskirts of the city. By this time, Wally looked as though he was having second thoughts. We stopped at a hotel and secured a room on the third floor. Lugging our belongings up three flights of stairs in the thin cool atmosphere, the smell of diesel exhaust from the street below and just plain nerves, made Wally collapse on the stairs. Now I was worried, what did I get myself into? I wondered. But after a rather fitful night, we were both much better the next day.

  Driving our car south on the Pan American Highway, a rutted track in many places, we were in constant fear of getting stuck in our little donut-tired Russian Lada. Having just finished a strong El Nino season, many roads were washed out and nearly all were in poor shape from endless rains. The poor condition of the roads and driving on these narrow tracks along cliffs that dropped thousands of feet made Wally a nervous wreck. He put his back to the door so he couldn’t see down and gripped the seat and dash board with white knuckles. Even eating, when we could find a place, was an adventure. Wally wasn’t used to the local fare and in most cases, chose not to eat!  But, as we made our way south we began to see our first bromeliads and Wally became like the proverbial kid in a candy store.

  At one place in southern Ecuador, we found a cliff-side colony of Tillandsia tectorum. I think we both learned a little about the word excitement that day! We had to climb up a steep slope for a couple of hundred yards to the base of the plant-laden cliff. Using a dried Agave bloom spike we began to dislodge a few clumps, then a few other plants growing with them, from the bottom edge of the vast colony. As I worked to knock down the plants, Wally cleaned the collection, bagged them and would take them down to the car. The sun shown brightly on the cliff and the reflected heat was oven-like, and after several trips, Wally, exhausted and dehydrated, collapsed. “Now what?” I thought, “another crisis!”

  And so the trip went, roller-coaster-like with Wally’s highs and lows. He kept going on sheer adrenaline and his belief that “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, I’ll probably never have another chance to do this again.”  Now we all know that wasn’t true!

  The making of an adventurer. After this trip, I could have easily believed that it was his first and last. But like an athlete, a bloodied fighter picking himself up from the mat, Wally couldn’t wait to ‘climb back into the ring’. In the next ten years or so, Wally went from a somewhat timid amateur to a bold and nearly fearless explorer and adventurer. We were inseparable, travelling to many far away places together, nearly every accessible place in Ecuador, on to Costa Rica, Belize, Panama, El Salvador and Guatemala. Wally was the consummate collector, taking notes of locality and altitude and always setting aside specimens for the Bromeliad Identification Center at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. We slept on the ground and on boats, in our jeep and in hammocks with Indians in their huts on the Amazon river. Occasionally we enjoyed luxurious accommodations but more frequently slept in places that we would prefer to forget. From squeamish  beginnings, Wally can now eat soup from a bowl with a cow’s hoof floating in it, meat with the fur still on and has been known to quaff fermented spit with a Yapi tribal chief, all without so much as the aid of a Tums!

  Wally and I are good friends, even great friends. In spite of a fair age difference, we were comrades in deed and spirit. Travelling and living with someone in jungles and deserts, sharing the highs, lows and dangers, one soon finds out what someone is made of. Wally is made of the strongest timber of all. As travelling companions go, they just don’t make em’ better than Wally. Never a complainer, his energy, both physical and spiritual is boundless. Although you may have seen many stories I have written about the experiences Wally and I have had, with Wally often the fall guy, you don’t know the half of it, or the hundredth of it for that matter!

  A exemplary life. Wally spent his first fifty plus years as a hard working family man, living the American dream.  His dedication to his family, church and country are evident in every aspect of his life. Just when his years of hard work finally paid off with early retirement, Wally took on a career-sized hobby. True to his nature, he put forth his maximum effort to become arguably one of the best amateur explorers, collectors and general bromeliad experts of our time. His meticulously labeled collections are arranged in landscapes to rival the beauty of any botanical garden.  Plants he purchased in his early days have now been replaced by specimens of the same species that he has collected himself. He and his wife Dorothy have graciously entertained hundreds if not thousands of visitors to their Sarasota home, most of whom leave simply awe struck at what this ‘ordinary man’ in an ordinary community has been able to do. Wally continues to set himself up as an example and inspiration to us all.

  As a bromeliad hobbyist, Wally is second to none. He grows his plants to perfection and has won so many major show awards that I doubt even he could remember. Since the earliest times of his hobby, Wally took an active part in the local bromeliad society. His leadership and enthusiasm has been a driving force and inspiration to many. But aside from this aspect of his hobby, Wally has become an expert in bromeliad taxonomy. He has a keen eye for new species and has collected many obscure specimens for scientific research. In spite of the many gorgeous specimens in his collections, he also meticulously maintains many ‘ugly ducklings’ often for years until they bloom, occasionally revealing a new species. His collecting efforts have been recognized by having had at least two species of bromeliads named in his honor, Pitcairnia bergii and Guzmania bergii.

  He keeps going and going…. Like the little pink rabbit, Wally is an endlessly driven, enthusiastic bromeliophile. In the years since he and I started our explorations together, Wally has grown from my sidekick to a leader. He has led expeditions of his peers into the hinterlands of Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Brazil, many times over. His knowledge of some of these far away places is second to none and his field work is known and recognized world wide. Among the ‘bromeliad people’ of the world, Wally Berg is a household name. Many foreign visitors have made the ‘pilgrimage’ to Wally’s home and collections and quite many of them Wally has visited in their homes.

  Ever the promoter, countless people have been swayed to the joy of bromeliad collecting by a gift of one of his beautiful plants or after being regaled by one of Wally’s lectures or tales of high adventure.

  Over the years, Wally has been an inspiration to me. His never ceasing joy in the field, his conservation oriented collecting and concern for and indeed love of all nature, his patience, tolerance and steadfast friendship are as a gift. Wally has been as a father, brother, sounding board and mentor to me. There are few days that his image does not enter my thoughts for one reason or another, and most often, leaves me with a smile. His friendship has touched Linda and I in ways it is difficult to explain, and no amount of words on paper can begin to reveal how grateful we are that a small tag he once found in a plant he purchased brought this excellent man into our lives. His friendship is indeed one of my life’s greatest accomplishments.