Q&A with Save the Dunes’ Plant Dude: Nathanael Pilla

Submitted by: Matt Cunningham

After becoming acquainted with Save the Dunes last summer through friends, I was excited to join its member hike at Pinhook Bog. It’s always a great opportunity to be around experts or people who have different perspectives to add new shades of understanding to our own knowledge. Nathanael was an engaging speaker and wildly enthusiastic, and we just had to dig deeper to glean how his experiences have motivated his passion. We hope you enjoy the Q&A and would highly encourage readers to learn more about Save the Dunes, in addition to keeping an eye on future hikes.

Tell me a bit about the place you grew up, please. I grew up in Minnesota within the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul region.

How did you family affect your career and goals? My father was a preacher. He was a brilliant and charismatic storyteller. We travelled often as he would go from town to town sharing his faith with anyone who would listen. Our amusement parks were mountains and deserts, lakes and streams.

How did your love of botany begin? In my late twenties, I was a single dad looking for a career that would pay the bills. I started working at a tree nursery/landscape company north of the Twin Cities. I fell in love with plants.

After I got married, my wife and I decided that it was time for me to return to school. I started in Horticultural Science, but was not satisfied by the industry’s commodity driven nature. Plants were not explored as organisms that live, breathe and fight for existence. I transferred into a biology program two years later in Indiana.

Here, I’ve studied under two of the best aquatic botanists in the Midwest, Dr. Robin Scribailo and Dr. Mitch Alix. In 2014, I was privileged to work for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore under their botanist, Dr. Daniel Mason. Mason mentored me in the art and discipline of field botany. It was because of his willingness and passion to teach me that my botany skills evolved beyond a textbook.

Nathanael led a members hike at Pinhook Bog last weekend


Tell me about your role with Save the Dunes, please? About a year ago, I started as the Project Coordinator. The passion of staff and historical context of the organization enticed me to take the position, which has not only created an environment where my skills are cultivated, but also where education expands beyond the world of plants into waterways, industry, transportation and advocacy.

Outside of my work with Save the Dunes, I serve as the field-trip coordinator for the North Chapter of the Indiana Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS). Both Save the Dunes and INPAWS are irreplaceable tools for our environmental communities and natural areas. I personally invest in these organizations because I believe in the missions. Investment does not simply mean financially, even though that helps greatly, but through volunteerism. There is no excuse for not getting outside and learning in Northwest Indiana.

Are there more hikes coming up that you’re leading?  I will be speaking at Conference on the Environment June 9th at Blue Chip on the diversity of orchids in Northwest Indiana, which is a free event. I will also be leading hikes throughout the year, so check out Save the Dunes and INPAWS for upcoming events.

You can also see a list of the Save the Dunes Member events here.

Matt Cunningham and Nathanael at Burn Em Brewing after the hike.


Matt Cunningham is a social worker, freelancer and enthusiast of all the great things happening in and around his hometown of Michigan City, Indiana. He is passionate about art, community and nature. Look for more articles by Matt, coming to Dig the Dunes soon!

You can see a full list of members