A bald eagle rides the sky with outstretched wings, sweeping above the spires at Smith Rock State Park in the warm morning light. Jim Gardner pauses for this moment, stepping out of his study onto a deck that overlooks the park’s river and rocks. He inhales sage and juniper in the air, and he witnesses the eagle’s flight.
“I stop everything,” he said, “just to appreciate.”
Jim Gardner is an educator, a researcher, an author, a developer, a chairman, a consultant, and a man of history. His professional experiences in numerous fields combine for a meaningful and quality contribution to this world. Currently publishing a book — “Legends of the Northern Paiutes as Told by Wilson Wewa” — Gardner’s attention to detail is apparent as a historian, and as a human being.
Born in Ohio, Gardner grew up visiting his family’s cabin on the edge of Manistique Lake in Michigan, and spent summers in Yellowstone National Park while his father served as a Forest Ranger. It was here that his love for nature and the American West began.
Gardner continued on to study history and social sciences at Harvard University, where he also taught, and received degrees at both Harvard and Yale Law School. For more than a decade, Gardner worked with The Ford Foundation as a program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean.
He then moved west.
“I fell in love with the West,” he said, “and I’m still in love with the West.”
It is the remarkable natural beauty that drew Gardner to Oregon in 1981, where he served as president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Upon moving to Central Oregon in 1989, Gardner relaunched his parents’ company, Gardner Associates. The business focuses on developing conservation ranches while preserving history and nature.
One such project — Vandevert Ranch near Sunriver — celebrates local history, with Kathryn Grace Vandevert’s teaching certificate hanging on the wall of the restored 1925 schoolhouse. The 1892 homestead and ranch was featured in Architectural Digest, and currently 20 owners share 400 acres of the natural earth.
Gardner now lives and works from his home at Ranch of the Canyons, another project of the Gardner Associates. The Tuscan-Central Oregon style space draws on the natural integrity of its surroundings and comes complete with stunning views of the mountainous horizon on the edge of Smith Rock State Park.
In his study, Gardner is surrounded by bookshelves brimming with publications about pioneer and local Native American history. His desk, with worn leather chairs, sits below a myriad of photographs of his beloved son, and of historical figures that have also become family.
“History is like memory,” he said. “It is creative. It is the process of historical discovery that is exciting.”
Gardner now spends much of his time researching, recording history, and sharing the process of discovery with others. He is a visiting scholar and inaugural lecturer for ‘Decolonizing Research: The Northern Paiute History Project,’ a course that will be in its fourth year at the University of Oregon. The students visit Ranch of the Canyons and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation.
“My goal with my students is to take them to the edge of knowledge,” Gardner said, “and let them go from there.”
Students immerse themselves in culture and history during their time in Central Oregon, including learning from Myra Johnson-Orange, a Northern Paiute Elder Consultant with the Warm Spring’s Culture and Heritage Department. She has worked closely with Gardner for the course, and is quoted in one of his books about the Northern Paiutes.
“For me, it’s a real honor to know Jim,” she said. “His work comes from his heart, so all the things that he is doing are something we don’t take lightly.”
Gardner has spent the last decade researching the largely unheard histories of the Northern Paiutes. In addition to his book “Legends of the Northern Paiutes as Told by Wilson Wewa” — which will be published in the spring by OSU Press — his unpublished book, “Oregon Apocalypse: The Hidden History of the Northern Paiutes,” is featured in the course at the University of Oregon.
The process of history and education is a path that flows both ways, and is especially felt by Gardner even today.
“I am struck by the Paiute powers of appreciating nature in the desert,” he said. “Their identity with the land is just formidable.”
During his time in Oregon, Gardner served for more than a decade as a trustee on the board at the High Desert Museum. He is also president of the Aquila Tax-Free Trust of Oregon, which is an investment opportunity for Oregonians to support public works without paying taxes.
Nancy Wilgenbusch first met Gardner when she served as president of Marylhurst University, and is currently on the board of the Trust. There is never a dull moment for her when she is with Gardner.
“You can sit down with Jim and have a conversation that ranges from international politics to international economics to local history to history of South America,” said Wilgenbusch. “It is a wide range of topics, and to me that is just so energizing.”
Gardner’s philosophies in life, no matter what subject, focus on detail, appreciation, and staying with things to nourish quality. His time compiling research about local pioneer history, such as with Native American history, affects his own outlook on life and death.
“The wisdom of the pioneers is the power to appreciate friends and family and nature,” Gardner said, “and the things that are powerful and enriching in your life.”
Through research, Gardner has learned about death and the awareness of mortality. He recognizes that it is important to understand who we are and where we are going, and to not forget the people that came before. He has practiced how to pause, watch an eagle fly, and to appreciate the timelessness in each moment.
“The number of years you live,” Gardner said, “is not as important as how you live them.”