long term ecological reflections

Long Term Ecological Reflections

“This book offers a loving, lyrical, and powerful explanation of the great value of field laboratories. The message resonates far beyond Lakeside Lab as we slowly begin to understand that solutions to our enormous environmental problems must come from people who have learned to generate their own knowledge rather than absorb it in classrooms, and there is no better place to search for this wisdom than in the mix of field laboratories and nature.” — Paul Dayton

From the Book:

What is it about these old stone labs? Massive glacial erratics arranged using some form of lost art to frame the narrow doors and large banks of windows and to support the steep, shake-shingled roofs. Un- usual and so impressive; everybody seems drawn to them. Yet it is inside these buildings where you sense the true nature of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, present in the curious damp smells. Whiffs of rich prairie soil, wetland muck, dried plants, mothballs, ethanol, and formaldehyde, with top notes of coffee and stale cigar. It is in odors, as Faust knew, where memories reside. The smells in these old stone labs are the ghosts of their former inhabitants, and they convey the spirit of natural history practiced by these old-timers. It is the same spirit found at field stations around the world, dripping with the natural history facts, techniques, and perspectives that shape the foundation of the best of modern ecology. This spirit is found in the “-ology” subjects that form the backbone of field station curricula and ground the new discipline of conservation biology. Subjects that include mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate biology, parasitology, and algology—rarely taught nowadays on university campuses, or merely presented superficially; this, at a time when the world desperately needs such expertise. Page 1

It is both discouraging and amazing how little today’s university students know about natural history. Discouraging, because it wasn’t always this way; Iowa doesn’t produce farm kids like it used to, and even today’s farm kids are plugged into their iPods and smart phones—it’s difficult to hear frog calls wearing ear buds. But happily, it’s amazing to see how quickly these same kids warm to the notion of nature, how easily they trade comfort and convenience for knowledge. At Lakeside, classes take field trips nearly every day, and at some point during every field trip students see something they have never seen before. More importantly, during these field trips they learn how to read nature. They learn why bur oaks are on east-facing slopes and not west, and why, when you stand on a high point in Okoboji and look east, all you see are trees, but when you turn around about all you see is grass. The instructors know that once patterns like these are pointed out, students naturally begin to look for other patterns, and with practice they learn to see them for themselves.

It is this ability to observe patterns and trust these observations that distinguishes Lakeside Lab and other field station alumni from campus alumni. Lakeside alumni often become big-picture people in a world occupied by specialists; they become society’s glue. My host medical school is populated by specialists; there are few big-picture people, and therefore faculty and administrators seldom offer large-scale perspectives. As a result, expensive educational initiatives become more expensive as administrators deal with one unforeseen consequence after another. Places with similar problems could use the insights offered by field station alumni: these are kids who look at things differently—big picture, with confidence—and therefore become valuable colleagues. Page 13