Behind the scenes with Nature’s Depth author John Palka

Many scientists are exploring the use of blogs to share their experiences of science and nature with a wider audience. I asked John Palka, retired neuroscientist (University of Wasthington) and author of the popular blog Nature’s Depths how he got started blogging and if he has any advice to those considering blogging.  Here are his replies.

Through Nature’s Depths I primarily try to engage nature lovers who are not scientifically oriented. I seek to offer them photographs and scientific perspectives that will enrich their appreciation of nature and their sense of connection with it. The focus is on plants, but I also deal with biology more generally. Any topic that helps the reader feel like an integral part of the natural world is fair game.

Photo credit: John Palka

Most nature writing I have encountered focuses on natural history and ecological relationships. I do deal with such topics – for example, I am currently preparing a post on the biology of the spectacular swamp lanterns (skunk cabbages) of our spring woods. However, I lean more toward the physiological level of analysis. For example, I have written several posts on how color arises – how pigments, including those in leaves and flowers, really work, and how that relates to our ability to see. I’ve dealt with how some plants are able to survive the bitter cold of winter, and with how water is drawn up several hundred feet to the tops of tall trees. Some of the science is pretty abstract, so I face the challenge of making it real for non-specialist readers.

An undertaking like this, intended not for specialists but for the general public, requires a writing approach that is a far cry from a scientific paper. I have had to learn how to avoid technical terminology but still express ideas clearly, how to organize information into a story, and how to combine pictures and text so that they are mutually enhancing.

I first learned about this by a round-about route. After I retired from a long career as a professor of biology John-Palka-Varland-JY-e1447090453620-150x150specializing in neuroscience at the University of Washington, Seattle (1969-2002), I set to work on something really different – a book of family history. I originally come from the Central European country of Slovakia, formerly the eastern region of Czechoslovakia, and I combined my family story (which includes some very notable historical figures) with the story of the Slovak nation itself. It was an exhilarating experience to do this project. The book was published in Slovakia in 2010 (Moje Slovensko, moja rodina), and in 2012 in America as My Slovakia, My Family. You can read about it on my web site:

For aspiring bloggers, I heartily support the advice of Matt Candeias, who writes In Defense of Plants and whose thoughts appeared in this space some time ago:

Learn how to write for a general audience. Learn how to research your topics so that the science is as good as it can be. Be tactful, even if you get comments that irk you in one way or another – only in this way can a meaningful conversation be developed.

To this fine list I would add several other points:

  • Do not hesitate to ask for technical input from people who know more about a particular topic than you do.
  • If at all possible, work with an editor. You’ll be amazed at the value of constructive feedback.
  • Keep your mind open. You will learn a huge amount as you research and write, so be prepared to be changed by what you encounter.
  • Only launch into a blog if you really feel called to do so. Keeping up a steady stream of postings requires commitment, so ask yourself if this is the right thing for you to do at this particular stage in your own life.

Follow John’s blog here. You can also connect with him through Plantae!

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