Challen Willemsen in a tropical forest tree canopy. Photo provided by Challen Willemsen
Challen Willemsen in a tropical forest tree canopy. Photo provided by Challen Willemsen

Challen Willemsen is a Guatemalan ecologist with a degree in Environmental Studies from Bates College. He works at a reserve outside Guatemala City and is passionate about ecological restoration. He is constantly rescuing and replanting epiphytes, especially orchids. He is also an English and Spanish teacher online, a Buddhist, a gamer, and an amateur photographer: www.twitter.com/challenguate

1 Are you an early bird or night owl?

Early bird

2 Are you pro- or anti-pun?

Pro-pun

3 Do you have any pets?

Two cats: crazy Bruno (who everyone falls in love with) and dignified Lila.

4 Do you have any science-themed home decor?

The closest things are an ash leaf from Western Mass pressed in glass, and a couple of watercolors of trees my husband and I painted.

5 Do you prefer cooking or baking?

Cooking

6 Do you prefer sweet or savory?

Both

7 Do you speak any other languages?

Spanish is my native language, though I’ve spoken English all my life and I can get by in Portuguese.

8 If you could switch professions, what would you do?

I wouldn’t even if I could! If I *had* to switch professions, I might become a nature photographer.

9 If you could switch science fields, what field would you want to work in?

I’d love to delve deeper into botany, so I’d switch my focus from ecology at large to botany specifically.

10 If you got a plane ticket right now, where would it go?

Watching the northern lights in Finland is at the top of my bucket list.

11 If you had one superpower, what would it be?

I really wish I could fly (epiphytes are so hard to study from the ground)!

12 Is there anything you strongly recommend we watch and/or read and/or listen to?

When it comes to botany, Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” and Colin Tudge’s “The Tree”. When it comes to Buddhism, Sogyal Rinpoche’s “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”.

13 It’s your day off. What do you want to do?

Take care (and pictures) of my plants, work on my book (I’m writing a book on Guatemalan plants), play Nintendo, eat Indian food, and spend time with my nieces and my husband.

14 What are three things you can’t live without?

My camera, my books, and (sorry for being so predictable) plants.

15 What beverage gives you life?

My homemade iced teas – raspberry and peach are my favorites.

16 What book did you read in school that positively shaped you?

My mom gave me her copy of Jean M. Auel’s “The Clan of the Cave Bear” when I was 13, and (though not assigned at school) it was hugely influential to my development.

17 What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an architect! I still love math and graphic design.

18 What drives you and keeps you going?

Personally, my family; professionally, a wish to have a positive impact on my country’s environment – I’ve already seen massive destruction in my lifetime.

19 What got you excited in science?

I saw an ugly bunch of green prune-like things growing on a tree in my backyard when I was 18. When my grandmother explained that it was an epiphytic orchid and showed me her collection, I was shocked. (I remember thinking, “How can such an ugly plant make such pretty flowers?”) As I started exploring the forests around Guatemala City and got to know my country’s ecosystems, I fell in love with nature.

20 What excites you about science now?

The usefulness of DNA sequencing in taxonomy! It’s fascinating to see how many plants we thought were unrelated are actually closely related, and many plants we thought were closely related really aren’t.

21 What is a guilty pleasure of yours?

Pizza, Coca-Cola, and three hours on the couch playing video games.

22 What is a secret talent of yours?

I love singing, and I play a bit of guitar.

23 What is your favorite game?

Videogame? The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Board game? Clue

24 What is the last book you read?

I’m currently reading “The Overstory” by Richard Powers.

25 What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?

My best friend once said “It looks like this person needs a little love” and then responded compassionately to a message written to her with aggression. It turns out aggression is often how people hide their feelings of insecurity. It’s not always easy to break the cycle, but a compassionate response is often the best way to deal with a verbal attack.

26 What is something you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve been too scared to do?

I can’t ride roller coasters because I’m too scared ever since I suffered from positional vertigo. I used to love them!

27 What is the best advice for your 18 year old self?

Practical advice: ALWAYS have a backup (I once lost hundreds of precious photos).
Life advice: Be kind to those who are cruel to you, or simply walk away.

28 What is the best way to de-stress?

Just watching all the bugs and spiders that come out at night doing what they do. It never fails.

29 What is the last thing you watched?

Ad Astra.

30 What is the weirdest thing you’ve had in your bag?

Most memorably, a stick. I was emptying my bag in front of my family and they all burst out laughing when I casually but carefully set it next to my computer and wallet. (It was a very pretty stick.) But the weirdest thing is probably some bizarre rescued epiphyte, like a twisted Tillandsia.

31 What is your favorite animal?

Red pandas are the cutest, but I have a soft spot for amblypygids.

32 What is your favorite book?

Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”.

33 What is your favorite comfort food?

Guatemalan candy, especially huevo chimbo, colochos de guayaba, and canillitas de leche.

34 What is your favorite day of the year?

The first rainy day of the year’s rainy season, around mid-May.

35 What is your favorite plant?

Orchid species! My favorite genus is Catasetum.

36 What is your favorite science fact?

Trees communicate with one another through their roots (often via mycorrhizal fungi) or by releasing chemicals through their leaves, warning one other of “dangers” such as herbivorous insects.

37 What is your favorite season?

Spring

38 What is your favorite smell?

The chocolate-mint fragrance of certain species of orchids in the genera Stanhopea and Dichaea.

39 What is your favorite sound?

Rain. Also, the call of the white-winged dove, which brings back memories of my childhood.

40 What is your favorite thing about yourself?

How easily nature makes me happy and brings me peace – even the jumping spiders that live in my house make me smile.

41 What is your favorite word (in any language)?

Amate – it’s what we call figs (especially strangler figs) in Guatemala, but it also means “love yourself” (when using voseo).

42 What is your proudest moment?

Graduating from college – I was 30 because I had suffered from depression for over a decade, and it felt great to finally graduate knowing I’d also overcome my depression.

43 What kind of tree would you be?

An oak! Oaks in the Guatemalan highlands live to be hundreds of years old and can have thousands of bromeliads, orchids, cacti, and ferns on them.

44 What’s the best thing about where you live?

Vascular epiphytes! (That was easy.)

45 Tell us something we probably don’t know.

I’m a vegetarian.

46 Who would you like to see 46 Questions interview next?

Ulu Knecht @uluwehi_knecht