Real Green People is a monthly feature that puts a spotlight on folks who are being the green change they want to see in the world.
Chris Benda, AKA the Illinois Botanizer, didn’t start out loving plants. After high school, Benda, who grew up in Minnesota, actually got an associate’s degree in automotive technology and then went to work for Fastenal. He moved up quickly in the company, becoming a packaging department manager at 23 years old, but quickly realized that expanding fastener sales wasn’t his passion.
Benda says, “Working in the warehouse I got a taste of the rat race and I thought 'What am I doing?' I had always like to bike and canoe and be outdoors. So, I started to read a lot of different books about the environment. My roommate at the time was an ecology major and that sounded good. I was young and had saved some money, so I quit my job and went back to school to major in ecology.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
These days, Benda lives in a little 700-square-foot cottage in Makanda with his wife and dog. He has been making his living as a freelance botanist since 2012.
Mike Baltz: Describe what you do and how it helps make the world a "greener" place?
Chris Benda: I guess there are two aspects of what I do: research and education. My research focus in Illinois is on natural areas. We have just a few remnants of natural Illinois remaining, and I’m passionate about saving those. My work involves studying, monitoring, and helping restore those ecosystems. But it’s important to reach people with conservation information, too. So, I lead a lot of nature tours and workshops and I give a lot of talks.
MB: How can someone who is not a biologist help save natural areas, for example?
CB: You can contribute financially to a conservation group doing that kind of work, of course. But there is a lot of important volunteer work to be done. Invasive plant species are a big problem in Southern Illinois and just volunteering to help pull garlic mustard, for example, is a great way to help.
MB: What’s the best part of your job?
CB: The best part of my job is that I have new and exciting experiences on a regular basis. Another aspect of my work that is important to me is being able to teach a lot of people from varying backgrounds. Teachers inspired me growing up and I hope that I have and can inspire others to appreciate nature more by understanding it better.
MB: What are your proudest professional accomplishments?
CB: In general, my proudest professional accomplishment is turning my passion for plants and the outdoors into my job. I’ve built a beautiful life that I love. And I know that I’m making at least a small difference, both by helping to save natural areas and by helping people appreciate the plants and natural world around them.
MB: In your personal life, what are you doing to be greener and to live more sustainably?
Well, we have a small home with no lawn. And as soon as the old Subaru dies we are going to get something electric or at least a hybrid. We are really conscious about reducing what ends up as trash, recycled or not, especially plastic. We are also reducing our meat consumption. I was actually recently diagnosed with the Alpha-gal food allergy to red meat. So that helps!
MB: What advice would you give to a (young) person working at a job that they know is not right for them?
CB: I would advise them to have a plan for making a change. Which I did. I saved $1000 a month for 9 months, sold my truck, and quit my job so I could focus on school. That freedom was what I needed to thrive, along with supportive parents. But like they say, you’ll never know until you try.
You can find out more about Chris and what he does by visiting www.illinoisbotanizer.com.
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