Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Michael Lannoo Interview Part 2

It’s ironic that Lakeside, with its diverse plant and animal communities, is surrounded by what may be the most intensely cultivated landscape on earth. How does this affect your teaching and fieldwork there?

Iowa is iconically the Midwest: an agricultural desert. Its beauty is acquired, subtle, and because its agriculture is so large-scale, its native ecosystems are necessarily small. Iowa’s natural history tends to be squirreled away in this nook or that cranny, a bend in the road, a ravine, a railroad track right-of-way, a field too rocky to plow, a seep that cannot be drained, a grove that meant something to a family and therefore was never logged. In 1977, Okoboji was a lot like that. Sure there were more state parks and natural areas than in most other parts of the state, but classes found areas to explore and plants and animals to study based on experienced faculty knowing where to look. There was a cumulative institutional knowledge about where things were, and new discoveries were shared immediately: an orchid in that woods, a new fish species in that stretch of river. Classes were visiting small remnant habitats that almost everyone else overlooked. Many of these sites were on private property. Beginning around 1988, that all changed. The state and federal governments working with NGOs such as Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited began purchasing property from farmers who approached them. Gradually, vast grasslands were established around restored wetlands—basins that hadn’t held water for 70 years. Today, Okoboji supports over 24,000 acres of “natural” areas that weren’t present 30 years ago. The difference has been remarkable and has fundamentally changed how we teach. Thirty years ago we’d spend afternoons sampling specks on the landscape; today there are areas where we spend days and do not see everything.

A quick story. There is a little wetland on private property along a road about two miles south of Lakeside where, if you sampled early enough in the year, you would find these beautiful, transparent fairy shrimp—the only place in all of Okoboji that supported them. It was a Lakeside secret; not because we wanted it to be, it’s just that nobody else cared. Twenty years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came in and bought land from a farmer named White in the section east and south of this little wetland. A few years ago they bought much of the remaining section, including land immediately adjacent to the wetland. Last year I noticed that the wetland, too, had been purchased. When I saw the Iowa DNR biologists responsible, I mentioned how happy I was that Fairy Shrimp Pond was now protected. They had no idea what I was talking about, and when I explained we all laughed at the serendipity. The current program of land acquisition and restoration had enveloped one of the Lakeside faculty’s favorite little sampling hotspots.

You are a professor of anatomy and cell biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, yet you also teach field biology during the summertime at Lakeside Lab. Tell us how you balance these very different kinds of teaching.

You have to live in the moment. In Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean notes that some people have to do more than one thing to be complete, and that certainly holds for me. Here at IU, I argue that there’s a huge component of human health that’s tied to environmental health, and that it is important to understand environmental health; thus, both the human neuroscience and conservation biology foci. But deeper than that, the two major opposing (they don’t have to be) forces on earth today are 1) the way the human brain puts humans first versus 2) the resulting loss in biodiversity and ecosystem function. I figure if I understand both of these issues deeply enough to teach them, I may be able to help us find a way out.

Interestingly, my IU med students tend toward an extremely conservative political outlook, while my UI Lakeside students tend toward an extremely liberal outlook. Instead of trying to exert any political leanings on either group of students, I tend to listen without comment; I will however moderate extreme views on either side.

As an aside, after writing the previous paragraph I now have a marker for retirement. If I find that I cannot keep UI and IU straight, it’ll be time to hang it up.

Michael Lannoo, author of The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory: A Century of Discovering the Nature of Nature

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