A Nature Walk With: The Phytophactor

The Phytophactor educates, stimulates, and at times makes me laugh. The Phytophactor is actually an educator as well as a student of nature. His specialty is plants. The picture is understory vegetation in the rain forest. It was provided by the Phytophactor.

As I was writing this I peeked in to see what was new there, I found a beautiful piece of artwork. It is a sculptured leaf with a group of trees and animals. It is extraordinary and if you go to the sight for nothing else you need to see this. Join me now for a nature walk with The Phytophactor.

01. Welcome to Nature Center Magazine. We are all anxious to learn a little bit about you. Tell us what your blog is all about.

It was time that someone became an out-spoken, opinionated voice for plants, a plant pundit, thus was born the Phytophactor. Basically my idea was to provide people with some authoritative botanical knowledge, some considered opinions. TPP leans heavily on gardening because it's very popular. And the rest is to have an opportunity to vent about academic life and other topics as a means of preserving my sanity, an outlet that keeps me from going to the window, opening it, and shouting "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more." Mostly it's about plants.

02. Everyone has their own unique story about what gave them the idea to start blogging. What is yours?

It annoyed me tremendously that botany seemed so woefully under represented among science and nature blogs, of course, that may well reflect the real world. While a botanical nature program on cable is out of the question, this was something in which participation was voluntary. So rather than whine about it, my blog attempts to set things right, or at least tip the scales a little toward plants. The blogging started slow, but it has continued to build readership and traffic. Of course really popular blogs get as much traffic in a day as TPP does in a month, although that being said a lot of blogs get a lot less traffic too. At present the Nature Blogs Network which tracks the traffic on about 2200 nature blogs has TPP right on the edge of the top 5%. Oh, since at the time the blog started TPP was overseas, he had some time on his hands.

03. What do you enjoy about nature and what benefits do you derive from it?

Oh, this is easy. My study of nature pays my rent and buys my groceries. Actually, one of our culture's big problems is that way too many people are way to removed from nature, even tame nature. A lot of people these days fail to observe anything and they live in a very artificial world. Now, my bed is comfortable and my house warm, but you get the impression that people don't know what they owe nature, what they benefit from nature, or even how they connect to nature or why they need to protect nature. They feel apart of nature not part of nature. A lot of human problems are derived from this attitude. Of course, TPP really likes plants, especially magnolias.

04. Each of us has our own way of being with nature. Some people hike, some take pictures, and some climb trees. How do you experience nature?

TPP observes nature, carefully. Nature is the subject of my professional life, and I study it like only a biologist can. At times you really get immersed in nature, really close to it. Mostly I really like the organisms that I have studied. Some people think the intensive study of biology this takes away the "magic", the appreciation, but it doesn't because you uniquely understand how it works. It's as if you got Mother Nature to give up some of her secrets. There are things I can look at and say, "I understand this better than anyone." You really bond with things that way. TPP seldom passes up a chance to see nature, particularly really wild places. But you recognize that you do see things, and you see things differently, and you understand things differently than the vast majority of people.

05. Tell us about the most exciting or scary nature related thing that ever happened to you.

Hmm. Never had anything really scary happen out in nature; now in cities that's another matter. TPP has been startled on many occasions: tripping on a boa constrictor, coming face to face with a cassowary in waning daylight, having army ants invade your cabina. It was sort of scary to have to wade through rapidly rising flood waters in a rain forest to find and rescue some students, and then have a huge tree fall with a very loud snap and crack to block your foot bridge across a raging torrent. The university so wants you to bring back the same number of students you take out into the field. Exciting things have happened from time to time, when you see something that you are certain no one else has ever seen. When you spend enough time in the field, you do see lots of wonderful things. TPP remembers being pretty excited by his first scientific publication too. And getting interviewed is terribly exciting.

06. If you were to take us on a nature tour of your area where would you take us first? Describe what we would see.

Nothing is quite like your first experience with real rainforest. It's almost indescribable. It's so complex you can neither see the whole nor all of the parts. You have to hear it, feel it, smell it, absorb it. If you try to see rainforest as a whole, you miss so many parts, and if you try to focus on just some of the parts, you miss the whole. You see a complex on interactions that you could not doucment or understand given a lifetime, and when you focus on smaller parts another universe of complexity seems to open in front of you. The sounds of rainforest are so unique, all the calls, all those voices vying with each other to be heard. You can hear toads calling in my temperate zone lilypond after a rain, but in the tropics there might be two dozen or more toads and frogs all calling, an amphibian cacophony. Then you add birds and insects, and mammals. Nothing quite like having howler monkeys outside your bedroom at dawn, the whooping is so loud. If your attention was called to everything that we might notice, it would take all day to go 10meters. Even the trees are different. They seem so tall because they have no limbs low on the trunk, and their bark is often light colored and smooth. And they grow in layers, emergent trees whose crowns are above the canopy, canopy trees, sub-canopy trees, under story trees, palms, tall ones, medium ones, and short ones, and then shrubs and herbs and ferns and by now all of these layers having each absorbed more of the sunlight falling on the forest, leave the understory pretty dimly lit, but organisms are adapted to the low light. There are do many vines, so many epiphytes, so many insects, so many of everything. And slowly you begin to learn some of these organisms' stories, a few, and they are fascinating stories. My alter ego takes students to learn about rainforest, to introduce them to this remarkable community, these wonderful organisms. If TPP could, he's take all of you on such a field trip.

07. If you could visit any nature spot in the world, what would it be? Tell us why.

Southern Chile. TPP likes trees and has traveled hours to see baobabs, bottle trees, rare tropical trees, and he wants to see Nothofagus, the southern beech. Madagascar sounds interesting although nature there has been pretty severely damaged; TPP wants to see what's left. And Tasmannia is on the list too.

08. Each blogger has gained their own insight into writing a blog. What have you learned that you would like to share with other bloggers?

You need to develop a personality, a presence. You need to blog regularly. You can write chapters and a few people might read it, but my blog now focuses on one thing at a time. As often as possible my aim is to connect the topic with the bigger ideas in science and biology, to explain why things are so. So blogging for a university professor is a form of public outreach, teaching to students of all ages.

09. Where can our readers find you? Give us the name and a link to your blog. If you have more than one to share, we would all like that too.

The Phytophactor is at this address: http://phytophactor.fieldofscience.com It's a science blog collective so you might find several interesting bloggers on some very diverse topics.

10. Is there anything we have not discussed that you would like to add?

What? Oh, there are a lot of things we could discuss. TPP and his wife collect art. We like to travel and cook, and the two combine very well. We could discuss politics, but that's a really, really depressing topic because people these days appear to be pretty gullible, non-thinking, more fixed on ideology than thinking. We could talk about books, and TPP's alter ego has one in press, a brief history of green organisms.

 Thank you, Phytophactor, for taking a nature walk with us. I know that anyone who visits your blog to see the leaf cuttings will want to look around some more to see what other wonders you have to share.

 Do you write a nature related blog and you'd like to be interviewed by Nature Center Magazine? Click the link and let us know who you are and that you'd like to be featured in a Nature Walk: Interview Me.


  1. I think I would enjoy a field trip with TPP.

    1. I believe we all could learn from him. Besides knowing his subject so well he enjoys it just as much. Thank you for you comments.


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