By JANA HOLLINSWORTH, Duluth News Tribune
DULUTH, Minn. (AP) -- Josh Horky had climbed the 65-foot tamarack tree before. In fact, it's the tree that holds the first-ever witches' broom he discovered.
Horky, of Duluth, is a botanist and witches' broom collector. The brooms are unique masses that grow in trees, and collectors remove pieces of them to graft onto young trees to create a new variation, such as dwarf conifers.
In January, Horky, 30, was on his way to his parents' home in Bennett, Wis., when he stopped to climb the tall tamarack to clip pieces for other collectors.
"I was about 25 feet up and two branches failed, and down I went," Horky said, in his matter-of-fact way.
Lying flat on the frozen snowless ground, he knew his back was broken. Feeling for blood, and feeling for sensation in his stomach and legs -- none on all counts -- he fished out his iPhone and called 911. Horky had climbed alone, something his wife, Whitney, and friend and fellow collector, Joe Braeu, had often lectured him about.
His first thought, he said, was, "Oh (expletive). I am going to get yelled at."
Horky spent six weeks in the hospital, combining intensive care time and inpatient rehabilitation. He has two 18-inch titanium rods in his back from a T6 "burst fracture" in his thoracic spinal cord, and is paralyzed from the breast line down. He can use his arms and hands and has a bit of trunk mobility. His chances of regaining use of his legs are very slim, he said.
That's a crushing blow for someone whose job is to be outside, and whose passions involve all things flora and fauna, said Debbie Braeu, who, with Joe Braeu, owns Edelweiss Landscaping and Nursery in Duluth.
"It's one of those things where life is fine, and the next minute it's totally changed," she said. "He has been a person who helps everyone all the time, without questioning anything, seven days a week. And then everything came to a screeching halt. It's tough for him to accept that."
Horky, a University of Wisconsin-Superior graduate who grows orchids at home, resigned from his botany position with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul. While he contemplates returning to school to earn a degree in something science-related that would allow him to work from his wheelchair, he spends his time helping out and grafting trees at Edelweiss, in therapy sessions and working on a Brewery Creek restoration project across from his house.
"I am functional," he said, with a few exceptions that will take time for adjustment.
"People are shocked we even go out and do anything outside of the house because, truthfully, I have no idea when things are going to happen -- like bowel movements. It could happen right now," he joked.
He and Whitney and their two dogs, Luna and Sunny, are living in a friend's retrofitted basement while their house is being renovated for accessibility. Horky has a personal care attendant so Whitney can continue to work full time.
"It is hard," Whitney said of the couple's new situation. "You change your life as well. You're a spouse but also a caretaker. ... It changes the future. How we might have seen ourselves a year ago.
"We're not going to be backpacking the Appalachian Trail, but that doesn't mean we can't do anything."
A Dave Matthews Band concert in southeastern Wisconsin was a big first post-fall trip for the formerly avid hiking and camping couple, who have traveled the U.S. and Australia. Two weeks after his accident, Horky managed to surprise Whitney with a catered Valentine's Day dinner, complete with chocolate-dipped strawberries, in his hospital room.
"We have fun," Horky said.
Horky has ups and downs, said Joe Braeu, who introduced witches' brooms to him four years ago after he showed up at Edelweiss one day, brimming with enthusiasm for trees and shrubs.
"There are days when he really is in a lot of pain," said Joe, 65, a native of Germany. "We try to keep up his spirit. But he's still excited, he's still passionate. You get through it. You keep on." Horky isn't bitter about what happened to him, he said, because he made the choice to climb the tree without the appropriate gear.
"I was mad at myself. There is no one to blame but myself," he said. "I was never depressed about what I did. I got depressed when it started greening up outside because I couldn't go and look at spring wildflowers."
He said he'd climb the tree again, choosing different branches. He had been up to the top of the tree two weeks before his fall.
"I've been climbing trees since I was 5," Horky said. "That's 25 years of climbing trees. You just do it. I was never concerned with it."
Horky doesn't cop to being a daredevil, but his wife says he is, describing how he'd hang over cliffs for certain plants.
"Any normal person, upon hearing his stories, would say, 'You're nuts. You're crazy,'" she said.
But Horky, who is becoming more independent as time passes, said he's just driven by his love of botany.
"(Broom) collectors are a completely different bunch of people," Joe Braeu said. "We have stories to tell."
There are other ways besides climbing to retrieve broom pieces, including shooting them down and using pruning poles, both said. Horky and his wife still mark new sightings on their GPS system when they are driving, which has more than 700 sites saved.
The hunt for brooms will continue. Joe's collector friends from Europe are coming this winter when brooms are most visible to travel the region in search of tangles of twigs. Horky's keen eye is essential, Braeu said.
"We're going to try to fit Josh into a vehicle somehow and drag him along," Braeu said. "It's a different way you have to think.''