Farewell, Art Whistler “Pacific Plant Virtuoso”

Farewell, Art Whistler “Pacific Plant Virtuoso”

Art Whistler – not a household name maybe, but conservationists, naturalists, and especially plant lovers of the island-Pacific, mourn his passing last Thursday (02nd April 2020) in Honolulu, after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Until his final test at 75 years, Art had been in good health, as a keen swimmer and tennis player, but above all as a field worker. Art was really in his element when in the field, especially if surrounded by anyone keen to learn and appreciate his boundless knowledge of the plants of the Pacific. He was, without doubt, the pre-eminent botanist of Samoa and Micronesia but he also had a very deep knowledge of the plants of Fiji and the island Pacific, in general.

Art with fellow colleagues at Matuku village in Ra for the Nakorotubu range biodiversity assessment in 2009.
With the Nakorotubu range biodiversity assessment team in 2009.
Art with Marika Tuiwawa, Isaac Rounds, and colleagues from the Fiji Ministry of Forests at the Nakorotubu range base camp in 2009. Art is favoring one of his ankles, which he unfortunately sprained during the field work – this did not deter him from going into the field.
Art with Marika Tuiwawa, upon exiting the Nakauvadra mountain range in 2008, after several days of fieldwork.
Plant identification with (then) aspiring naturalists, at base camp in the Nakauvadra mountain range in 2008.

My last survey with Art was of the northern Lau islands, and I remember him best at Qilaqila – northern Vanuabalavu where we camped ashore for a few nights in a unique setting – Fiji’s karst landscape Bay of Islands. Art, as his wont, never kept still – he was collecting, documenting, plant-pressing, preparing his day list, and then sleeping late at night. He acted, as he rightly knew, that that would be the last day he would ever visit that place and he had to record every thing he could. He had never been there before but there were no more than 3 or 4 plants that he could not immediately identify. I knew I was accompanying a ‘master at work’.

Art could be crusty, he had many battles with bureaucracy and some with the scientific community. He was short and dismissive wherever conservation action was lacking. In the field, I only ever heard him complain of two things – aches/pains, and not being able to get out into the field for whatever reason. Once in the field, he was a bundle of energy and urgency,  an inspiration to the young and old who could keep up with him and wanted to learn.

Art leaves behind a legacy of botanical papers and about a dozen books on the plants of the Pacific. Several of these are very well illustrated and will be sought after by field naturalists for decades to come. For naturalists and general readers, his ‘Plants of the Canoe People’ is of special interest. In an easy-to-read style, it provides a wealth of information on how the Pacific’s first voyagers moved plants around the Pacific and the reasons why they did it.

Art will be remembered as a foot-soldier for plant knowledge and conservation in the island Pacific. Farewell, Art and happy plant-hunting on your islands in the sky.  

Dick Watling, Suva, 6 April 2020.


© Art Whistler