Clemson botanist goes national with nature tales
Reprinted with permission
Without the ugly blue-head chub building its nests in the creeks that feed into Hartwell Lake, a multimillion-dollar industry here would not exist.
Biodiversity, said naturalist Patrick McMillan, fuels quality of life and economic development, and here’s an example of why: Other smaller minnows use the chub’s piles of rocks as free child care for their own fry — taking advantage of the chub’s protection. Chubs feast on detritus and algae.
In turn, the crappie, stripers and largemouth bass — so prized by major tournaments such as the Bass Master Classic — eat those fish and thrive in the lake.
“No one’s heard of the chub, but without it, there wouldn’t be sport fishing in Hartwell Lake,” McMillan said. “That would take millions of dollars out of Anderson County’s budget.
“Think of all the connections we haven’t made yet.”
Every species on the planet has such a narrative and connection to people. McMillan has taken those stories to as wide an audience as possible over the years in a quest to preserve the natural world he has studied since grade school.
McMillan, 41, juggles four jobs at Clemson University, but he’s best known around the nation since 2007 as the host of the Emmy-award winning nature series “Expeditions” on PBS.
Filming on the show, which had lagged for lack of staff and funding, resumed this past spring and summer. New episodes will air in November for the first time in 18 months. McMillan spent most of July traveling to filming sites in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming.
During the lag, McMillan continued to research ideas for programming for the show. It’s not a revenue generator. With the economic downturn, “Expeditions” lost all its corporate sponsors. Its crew today consists of videographer David White and volunteer videographers McMillan has met over the years. He himself is executive producer, producer, editor, host and writer.
“Most of the time, it’s just me hiding in a bush,” he said, laughing.
McMillan has endured personal sacrifice to keep the show going, working for hours after his days end at the university personally editing the film and writing scripts. He has contracted encephalitis and typhoid fever during shoots. He’s spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money to cover travel expenses for himself and his crew. When he gets time off, he visits places that could make for good shows.
“That’s how I spend my vacations,” he said. “Every vacation.”
When he’s not doing “Expeditions,” McMillan is the director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, the director of Clemson’s natural science museum and a biology professor who will teach plant taxonomy classes three mornings a week this fall. He also co-hosts a birding program every other week on public radio.
He works 80 hours a week and can’t remember the last day, including weekends, when he hasn’t given a program lecture or led a field trip. As a public-service employee for Clemson, he takes no payment for public appearances.
“Clemson has been good to me. It has given me a lot of latitude to pursue my dreams,” he said. “We just need more support.”
McMillan arrived at Clemson University 12 years ago. He’d earned a triple major at the University of North Carolina in biology, chemistry and literature in the early 1990s and stayed in Chapel Hill to continue field research in botany. For two decades, earning barely over minimum wage, that work took him all over the Southeast as he helped identify and catalog plant species, some of which had never been found before.
Among the people he met in that work was John Townsend, the curator of the Clemson University herbarium — a facility on campus that for more than 100 years has housed thousands of dried, pressed and cataloged plant species from around the world. When Townsend stepped down, he recommended his young friend from North Carolina for the job.
McMillan had since childhood memorized the Latin names of every plant species in the Carolinas and beyond. Despite holding no advanced degrees, McMillan’s broad knowledge of flora impressed the hiring committee.
He jokes that with a capacity of 10,000 names in his mind, people’s names rarely make it — even those he’s known for years.
McMillan grew up without much money, the oldest of multiple siblings, in the mountains of North Carolina.
“My grandmother used to read me plant books,” McMillan said. “She was an extremely good botanist.”
He explored the woods on his own every day after school. The school bus dropped him off at his family’s home just a few hundred feet off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Allegheny County, N.C.
“I had a piece of plastic under a rhododendron bush,” McMillan said. “I’d throw my books under the plastic. I never did my homework. I walked two miles every day, in the rain, snow, hot, cold. Farther on weekends.”
The boy developed a sharp eye for plants and animals that should — and should not — be there. His ability to spot and place into context species in the field has served him throughout his career, whether in the rain forests of Chile or the Jocassee Gorge. He calls himself a poster child for attention deficit disorder — a good trait for naturalists.
“I want to know everything about everything,” he said. “I’m good at it because I don’t place restrictions on place.”
McMillan has identified 60 to 70 plant species not previously documented in the state of South Carolina. He also discovered five completely new species not previously named.
Before coming to Clemson, McMillan had worked for one year as an eighth-grade science teacher in an inner-city school in Winston-Salem. Weapons and drugs were common. One student had a baby at school.
It was his favorite job ever, he said, as his love for teaching was born.
Still, he said, the herbarium job was a dream come true for a “plant geek.”
“I thought that was my end job,” McMillan said. “You usually have to wait for someone to die to get a job like that.”
Once he took over the herbarium at Clemson, McMillan started giving public lectures about plants.
“Pretty soon, hundreds of people wanted to hear me,” McMillan said. “My department head said we’ve got to get you teaching. But you can’t do that with just a bachelor’s. “Two and a half years later, McMillan had finished his 895-page dissertation toward a doctorate in biological sciences and was in the classroom.
He continued his public outreach, which included a short video called “Latin for Gardeners.” McMillan had spent some time in front of a camera while working as a fish specialist for the North Carolina State Museum, making presentations to children about animals.
“I tried to make it cool,” McMillan said. “A guy saw it and asked me to do a pilot.”
That first show was about shell rings that Native Americans built in the South Carolina Lowcountry thousands of years ago and today serve as refuge for sugar maples.
“Choices people made 5,000 years ago to build mounds of shell provided habitat for plants that grow nowhere else in South Carolina,” he said. “All choices aren’t bad, and that choice was positive. It increased our biodiversity. Remember, the world never forgets the choices you make.”
“Expeditions with Patrick McMillan” was born, and the series won its first Southeast Region Emmy for educational programming in 2011. He got his second Emmy this year for best “on-camera talent.”
A combination of luck, building relationships with local experts, bringing knowledge of the environment and investing time in the field secures McMillan’s shots. It took four trips to California to get a shot of a condor. One night of waiting in South Dakota landed him the only known daytime footage of a black-footed ferret and prairie dog battling.
The key to keep people’s interest, he said, is not to bog them down in scientific jargon and theories, but to tell a story.
The southern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains that reach into Pickens County, he said, includes some of the most biodiverse places in the world. But rather than just tell people that, he shows them the 34 species of salamanders and 14 species of trillium and explains how that is possible in this place, and why it matters.
The Oconee Bell, the closest relative of which is in China, thrives in the southern escarpment — a common theme in these hills. Sugar maples in Vermont today, he said, may have survived past swings in global temperatures because of the ecologically stable “crucibles of life” in the mountains and gorges of places like South Carolina.
“Our mountains are resilient to climate change because species can escape the heat by going up 6,000 feet or finding shelter in a cool gorge,” McMillan said. “Now that we recognize it, we better damn well preserve it.”
McMillan talks with equal resolve about the manicured lawns that are wrecking habitat for the painted bunting song bird in South Carolina, the government-supported eradication of the western prairie dogs — a keystone species without which several others would go extinct — and the ice age, multistate Ogallala aquifer that farmers are depleting through overirrigation in the Plains.
Human politics, tradition and misconceptions often are the worst enemies of the environment, he said, but people can coexist so long as they understand how the biological systems work.
“Do we want to give our children and grandchildren the same things we have had?” he said. “It’s not huge things. You can have less grass and still have a beautiful yard. You can install rain barrels and French drains.”
His goal, McMillan said, is to keep “Expeditions” going after he can’t do it anymore. Since the beginning, his 21-year-old son, Nic, has helped with filming, writing and editing. Clemson biology professor emertis Ed Pivorun shoots still pictures and video — while paying his own way for trips.
McMillan said he will never give up teaching.
“I can’t be the face of this forever,” he said, laughing. “I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. The program is about the story, not me.”
Written by Anna Mitchell, Anderson Independent-Mail. Story printed with permission.