Monday, October 17, 2022

Q&A with Chris Thorogood




Chris Thorogood is the author and illustrator of the new book Chasing Plants: Journeys with a Botanist Through Rainforests, Swamps, and Mountains. His other books include Weird Plants. He is deputy director and head of science of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum.


Q: What inspired you to write and illustrate Chasing Plants, and how did you decide on the locations to visit?


A: I never planned to write it, in fact. But as I travelled, scribbled and painted over the years, a story started to emerge.


My work as a botanist has taken me to all sorts of places to see extraordinary plants, and I’ve always captured what I saw in words and pictures. I am a botanical artist, as well as a botanist, and when I return from the field, I often feel an overwhelming need to “download” my visions in paint.


And as I painted the plants I encountered – irises, orchids, pitcher plants, and so on, I steadily saw a thread beginning to run through the adventures: the story of a boy who dreamt of becoming a botanist, and those dreams coming true. That’s what Chasing Plants is all about.


I hope it might inspire others to think about pursuing a career that I have found incredibly rewarding.


Q: You write that two of every five plant species are now in danger of extinction. What contributed to this situation, and is there a way to save more of these species?


A: Yes, this is startling as it is depressing, but it’s important to recognise the plight of plants, just as it is animals. A combination of factors is at play – habitat destruction historically, and climate change is now a growing reality.


There isn’t a silver bullet to solve the problem, but I think inspiring people with the wonder of plants must be part of the solution: we need to do this to foster a greater care – we will never protect adequately what we don’t care about.

Many people think of plants as nothing more than an attractive green curtain against which humans and other animals exist, rather than important beings in their own right. I’ve dedicated my life to helping people open their eyes to the mysterious beauty of plants.  


Q: In the book, you say that “we've never needed plants more than we do now. But far more than this, plants have an intrinsic value of their own.” What accounts for our needing plants more than ever, and what are the most important qualities plants bring to the world?


A: Plants do hold many of the solutions to our greatest challenges today, from food security, to climate change, and the advancement of medicine.


And we’ve barely scratched the surface of so many of them – just this spring I joined an expedition where we stumbled across a new species in a rainforest together. It will have been growing there unseen, long before people came into its domain. Who knows what benefits these poorly-known plants have to offer?


But more than this, I believe we have a moral duty to protect plants for their own sake – beyond human need both now and in the future. The plants we share the biosphere with – that layer of life on the planet we call home – existed long before we did. In my view, we need to rethink our relationship with nature beyond simply human utility.


Q: Of the various plants youve chased, do you have a particular favorite?


A: Honestly I don’t! It would be impossible for me to pick one. I have a soft spot for unusual plants – parasites, carnivores, and so on. Finding a new parasitic plant always gives me a thrill.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Many things. I have an exciting project afoot with Oxford-based mathematicians examining how prey falls into carnivorous pitcher plants. A few months ago I joined botanists on an expedition to the Canary Islands to explore the laurel forests which was fun. I’m also working closely with botanists across Southeast Asia on a variety of things. No two days are the same…


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve always been a nature nut and I adore animals as well as plants; but because I travel, it is difficult for me to keep pets. So I keep a toad (a “low maintenance pet!”) whom I raised from a tadpole six years ago; she lives in a rabbit run in my garden – her name is Eloise and she is a beautiful creature.


You can follow my nature-related adventures on social media:


Instagram: @illustratingbotanist

Twitter: @thorogoodchris1


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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