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Coronavirus Victims: World-Renowned Botanist Art Whistler

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last year, the botanist Art Whistler and a team of naturalists were traipsing through an electric green jungle atop a mountain in Samoa, hunting for a rare tree that Whistler had seen there decades ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES ATHERTON: And it's only found on that one mountain, so it's endemic to not only a country and not only an island but a particular mountain on an island.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

His friend and colleague James Atherton of the Samoa Conservation Society was with him. The tree eluded them that day, and Whistler never had another chance to find it. In April, he died of COVID-19. He was 75.

SHAPIRO: Whistler liked to joke that his love for plants could be traced back to where he was born, a barren corner of the California desert near Death Valley. He studied botany in college and then landed in Samoa with the Peace Corps.

KELLY: And from then on, he was hooked. One local collaborator, Talie Foliga, says Whistler was almost like a father to local foresters and botanists.

TALIE FOLIGA: Most of us here, even the Samoan names of plants we don't know. And it's amazing to hear from Art.

KELLY: He says many locals didn't know the Samoan names of the plants, but Whistler did. He could say their names in English, Latin and Samoan, too.

SHAPIRO: His work was meticulous, but he wasn't a bore. Atherton remembers the time they were trekking up a volcano in Tonga and Whistler was the one carrying the beer.

ATHERTON: But we learned something that day. That is if you want to enjoy beer on the top of the mountain, take your bloody own (laughter). Don't give it to the botanist. I think he particularly enjoyed knowing we were watching him (laughter) and checking every single plant he could see on that island before he made it to the summit.

KELLY: Before he died, Whistler was finishing his life's work, a book called "The Flora Of Samoa." He worried many Samoan species might soon go extinct, a threat he talked about in the 2011 documentary "Vanishing Knowledge."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VANISHING KNOWLEDGE")

ART WHISTLER: People often ask me, so what's so important about the extinction of species? What happens if we lose a species? What's the big deal? If you lose a plant, you never know what kind of associations it has. All plants are interrelated to each other and animals. And if you take one animal out - or one plant out in this case - you never know what's going to happen.

KELLY: Whistler's friends are now planning a memorial garden in Samoa. They want to fill it with rare plants that Whistler cared about so much. And if they have any luck, Atherton says, one of them will be that tree they never found last year. Art Whistler died in Honolulu on April 2. He was 75.

(SOUNDBITE OF O LAKE'S "MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.