Friday, November 9, 2012


My memories of marshes in fall are so loaded with nostalgia that I often find myself enjoying Iowa or Minnesota or Nebraska marshes largely to the extent that they remind me of my youth and early manhood in South Dakota. I find old copper bases of shotgun shells working out of an Iowa beach, read the "U.M.C.," "New Rival," "Referee," "Premier," along with older trademarks that long ago disappeared from hardware shelves, and visualize the distinctive colors of the cartridges as they came out of the cardboard boxes. I remember wet shells so swollen that I could not push them into the chamber of a gun, shells that would not always fire if I did get them in, the bellow and smoke of a heavy charge of black powder, the smell of a freshly fired case, the feel of a jolted shoulder, the picking up of game.

From Of Men and Marshes by Paul L. Errington

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

Monday, November 5, 2012

Michael Lannoo Interview Part 1

In an earlier interview for this blog, you said that Iowa Lakeside Lab was the place where your nineteen-year-old self decided to become a field biologist. Now some decades later, you have written a book that celebrates Lakeside as a permanent biological field station dedicated to the long-term study of nature in nature. How did this book evolve?

The summer of 2012 marked the 36th summer that I’d been associated with Lakeside in one way or another. In ’77 and ’78 I was an undergraduate taking classes and doing research, in ’80 and ’81 I was a master’s student doing research, ’88 was my first year on the faculty. While people have been associated with Lakeside longer (for example, in the 104 years of the Lab’s existence, there have been only four caretakers), few have gone through the undergraduate–graduate school academic progression, then spent a quarter of a century serving on the faculty. In total, I’ve spent about five years of my life at Lakeside. So, I’ve had plenty of time to think about the place and to consider it from different perspectives. At some point in my thinking, I got around to the question “What does this place mean?” To answer that, I had to put Lakeside in the context of its time, and to do that, I had to both document and understand its history. Only then did I have the makings—both philosophical and factual—of this book.

I realized early that if this book was to be any good, two things had to happen. First, it could not simply be a history. Instead, it had to show how Lakeside provides the information—the ecological detail—that can point us toward a sustainable society. And second, despite my history at the place, the book must not be about me. So many times when someone writes about something, it becomes primarily about them and secondarily about their subject. I consciously avoided that. There are only two places where I show up, and there was no getting around these mentions.