SMALL News

(The title is a self-referential joke, because earlier I had a post called Small News. I just want everyone to get my jokes.)

Well, I haven’t posted on what we’re up to in the Arb for a while. My apologies!

Currently we’re doing vegetation sampling, which is counting the cover and occurrence of prairie plants, mentioned in my previous post. So that’s been quite exciting. We even got to explain it to the president of Carleton College, Steven G. Poskanzer, today.

My favorite experiment of the summer, though, has been SMALL, which is what I’m calling it even if no one else in the lab will. SMALL= Surveying Mammals Along Leisure Lanes. We’re seeing if there is an edge effect on small mammal population and visitation rates based on the trails in the arboretum. So far it looks like there is a pattern, though I still need to see if it’s statistically significant. It’s very exciting!

We spend hours looking at pictures of small fuzzy animals. I won’t give you all 12,000 of the pictures (not exaggerating), but here are some of the species we’ve seen:

Image taken from dnr.wi.gov

Thirteen line ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus)

This is our most common visitor and one of the species that really drives our pattern. It’s adorable. Except when it sits and eats seeds for fifteen minutes accruing over a hundred pictures. All of which must be entered and accounted for individually. Gah. Some days I just want to go out there and scare a couple for fun.

Image taken from http://www.fcps.edu

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

These are our second most common species. They look like teddy bears. I have nothing to say against these guys because they are just so rotund. Everyone is aware of my fondness for rotund animals. The closer to spherical the more of a miracle.

Image taken from wildnatureimages.org

Mice

Our third most common visitor. We get a variety of mouse species, the Western harvest mouse, meadow jumping mouse, and house mouse are our three most common. We lump them all together given the potential difficulty of identification.

 

(I wish this was me! It’s not.) Image taken from shsmammals.wikispaces.com

Shrews

We have at least two different species of shrew. There are masked shrews and least shrews. They have very pointy snouts and are pretty small compared to the fat old voles. Given these two facts we can usually make a pretty shrewd guess.

Image taken from en.wikipedia.org

Weasels

They just weasel their way straight into your heart. It’s always an event when we see a weasel hopping into view. They sniff about the petri dishes scenting after the tasty voles and mice and ground squirrels. We’re just waiting for the day that they catch one on camera… I mean who would wish for that, it’s morbid. Right? Right?

Image taken from animals.nationalgeographic.com

Skunks and coyotes

These are more rare. And they’re huge. Relative to the mice and shrews and voles they’re behemoths. Makes my day.

So, these are the things I get to look at every day. It’s a great job. We’re doing science and hanging out outside and it’s been a beautiful summer. What more could you ask for?

 

 

Ecology and Watership Down: Giving the People What They Want

People talk a lot about the allegory of Watership Down, but that’s too mainstream for me. I’m nothing if not a niche writer (get it?), so here are some of the ecological highlights from Watership Down. It’s what everyone wants. Or at least what I want. Time to tear down the “wall” between biology and literature.

Let’s start out at the home warren, shall we, as the primroses are beginning to die out on the downs. Cowslips, we are informed, are particularly difficult to find this time of year. Boom! Right off the bat we’ve got interspecific competition. Not to mention, the rabbits are preferentially browsing cowslips for their low levels of recalcitrant carbon. (For a certain branch of ecologists, competition represents the most fundamental driver of population size and community is competition. Mayhaps Mr. Richard Adams falls into this category as well.)

From all indications, the home warren is hovering right around its carrying capacity (k) with a low level of predation (D), high birth rate (B)–Fiver, for example, rabbits being unable to count over four, anything after four is called “fiver”– and the available resources about to give out. Hazel makes the right decision in following Fiver. Even if the humans weren’t coming with gas, ferrets, and tractors, still the rabbit population might expect to see a bit of a decline in future years.

So the rabbits strike out for a new land. Migration! Gene flow in the making!

The intrepid band encounters a series of borders in their early travels, specifically a river and a soybean field. These reveal possible edge effects (that is changes in ecosystem closer to edges as opposed to the core) both from natural and man-made landscape features. The soybean field in particular also reveals the difference between an agricultural field and a natural grassland. The rabbits note a distinct and rather unsettling smell. And the lack of cover from predators leads to Pipkin being attacked by a crow.

Then we encounter other warrens: reproductive isolation overcome to eventually lead to homogenization! No new species coming from this area, folks.

The first warren they stumble across is set up close to a farm which has led to a strange form of hunting, in which the farmer poaches the rabbits in return for keeping natural predators down. In response the rabbits have become sleek and strong. Here’s an example of human intervention in natural selection. The reproductive fitness of the rabbits is now dependent more on their ability to accept their fate and to observe the shining wires. They evolve in different ways than Hazel and his crew. (Of course the evolutionary changes may not show up yet depending on the rate of generation in the rabbits.) These rabbits have evolved art and poetry while losing their natural instincts to bolt. This is in many ways an interesting critique on the human species. We have also removed ourselves from the process of natural selection. We now must evolve either a sense of predestination or an ability to view our own pitfalls. The shining wire! The shining wire!

The second warren, Efrafa, is a very different story. Here we have behavioral changes as an overreaction to predation. These behavioral changes-feeding at unnatural times, burying feces -have led to overpopulation and indications of possible inbreeding. Without new genes to strengthen and diversify the young, rabbits are being born who, like Blackavar, have little chance of a successful life especially in the over-crowded warren.

And let’s look at General Woundwart: if that’s not a case of beneficial mutations I don’t know what is.

Thankfully in this case, however, brain triumphs over brawn and nature, red in tooth and claw, removes General Woundwart from the species list.

There’s quite a bit more ecology and evolution present in Watership Down than what I’ve written about, but this is a taste for now anyway. I have found it interesting and rather encouraging to think about. As I firmly believe, biology and literature are not such distinct categories as is generally thought. In my opinion it is an unWARRENted division!

Keep a weather eye out for more examples and send them my way when you find them!

 

A Quiet Word on Introversion

This post, unlike many of its predecessors will veer away from the traditional self-deprecation that is my trademark and head directly towards self-affirmation.

I’m an introvert. This isn’t surprising to anyone who knows me. I need to be alone at pretty regular intervals throughout the weeks and months. This is how I recuperate and rejuvenate. But more importantly, it is an activity that I enjoy.

I love the time I get to spend pursuing my own projects. I love having the freedom to simply exist with my thoughts or to wrestle with them on the page. There’s something delicious and richly fulfilling about being alone. I don’t expect everyone to feel this way, of course, but I think it’s a viewpoint that could do with more publicity.

Here’s the thing, almost always when someone withdraws from company it is seen as a negative, an indication that something is wrong. I don’t want to get into a discussion of mental health issues (it deserves a much more in depth discussion), but suffice to say this is sometimes the case. Withdrawal from normal behavior can indeed be a sign that a person is struggling. But if quiet time alone is itself a normal form of behavior, might I, as a proud introvert, suggest less pity?

You don’t have to understand or agree with what I think is fun, but it becomes irritating fairly quickly when people express sympathy when I leave a social event early, or when I decide to spend time in isolation. I fall into the trap myself sometimes, too. It’s a societal thing. A person’s social status is generally based on the amount of time they’re seen with other people (at least from my understanding of it), so to willingly choose seclusion is to willingly embrace a decrease in apparent social standing. Which is really ridiculous. The number of times I’m in a public setting is in no way indicative of the strength or quantity of my relationships.

The truth is, I don’t do well at loud and large gatherings. Not because I’m not a social human being, but because I’m not that kind of social. I’m a one-on-one specialist. I like humans a lot, and I like hearing their stories. I like actually being able to listen to people and engage in conversations. Loud sorts of endeavors aren’t really created to cater to in-depth discussions.

So that’s all, I just want to say that I’m very glad to be an introvert and I hope people can accept that. Thanks for listening and maybe next time someone decides to spend some time aloneĀ  wait a moment before expressing pity. I’ll be working on this as well!

Laura Did a Bad Bad Thing

So, I really missed singing…

And I’m a narcissist, if the mere existence of this blog hadn’t tipped you off.

I recorded myself singing covers of “Blackbird” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Which is just what the internet needs. More floppy untalented things seeking attention.

I’m sorry.

This is the worst.

Why am I even doing this?

Gah.

Whatever. Enter at own risk.

PSA: Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour

For those of you who knew about this, why didn’t you tell me?

For those who didn’t know, you need to know now!

This. This will change your life.

Everyone stop right now and listen to all of it. Bob Dylan says lots of things. About all sorts of things.

And there are themes! And schemes! And dreams!

And wonderful wonderful music!

AH. It’s just the best.

Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour. Now you know.

 

Bert and Ernie at the End

This is a short short story (750 words or less) that I wrote for my Advanced Fiction Workshop. It started out more uplifting and then I just kept writing… I’m sorry. Enjoy? Also be aware there’s some cursings in here!

BERT AND ERNIE AT THE END

A short short story

by Laura Freymiller

Late at night we go out walking, not touching, not talking, barely looking at each other, simply together until Ernie says, “Hey, Bert, when are we ever going to get married?”

At which point I reply, “Ernie, you know we can’t, honey. The ratings.”

Then he says, “They’ve tested it with enough audiences to know there’s only the slight possibility anything will happen. And hey, Bert, I’m not getting any younger.”

And I look into those dull black eyes of his, dim mirrors of my own and it smells of lavender in the street garden tonight, so I say, “Ah, what the hell, marry me?”

So we have our wedding in the old church with the Electric Mayhem playing, because Ernie wouldn’t have it any other way, and they agreed to do it for free. And everyone’s laughing and Miss Piggy is only a little drunk and going on about someday this will be her wedding. And even the Grouch put on his best suit and tie to come out and heckle and hit on bridesmaids. That’s probably the last time we were all together and really happy.

It’s not the studio’s fault. I mean, nothing stays popular forever. Changing demographics. Changing audiences, you know. Things start to go. First just the older, poorly-timed shows. Then the more popular ones, too.

It gets harder and harder to get up in the mornings. Ernie and I hardly ever make love; I mean we’re just too damn tired to make the move from one bed to the other. Friends stop coming over; there’s nothing to talk about anymore. Nothing to be said. I hear Snuffleupagus goes back to huffing glue. I mean to say it gets dark.

We don’t know what will happen to us from one day to the next. I start to feel an angry pinch all the time on the back of my neck, like someone’s grabbing me. I try to ask Ernie about it.

“Hey, you think we’ll be okay?”

He looks at me. “Sure, Bert, we’ll be okay.”

“How do you know?”

“Cause I have you.”

“And if you didn’t?”

“But I do.”

“If you didn’t.”

“This isn’t like you, Bert. What has gotten into you. This is very not like you at all.”

Sometimes I wish I could slap Ernie.

One night I walk out down the street past the spiking fences, the sliding lampposts descending into the distance. I walk far and then even farther than that, because I’m tired of not wandering.

I find a street corner on which to stand. I look into bakery windows and dodge traffic. It starts to spit rain and I know I’ll smell musty all of tomorrow. There’s a pair of teenagers sitting on a park bench and looking at a handheld device. Its light plays on their faces washing them pale, pale blue. I try to hear what they are watching, but they have in ear buds.

The teenager on the right is attractive in a bookish sort of way. He has dark thick hair that reminds me of Ernie’s. His nose is too long for his face and gives him a delightfully wan feeling. His friend is wide set with little ripples of fat on his elbows.

I walk past them without saying anything. When I look back they haven’t stopped staring at the screen.

On my way home, a homeless man stops me.

“Scuse me, sir. You got a quarter?” His nose is lopsided, pulled by the wrinkles of skin off and down to the left. His teeth are stained dark brown.

“Sorry,” I say.

“C’mon,” the man says smiling. “You got a quarter. Just a quarter, sir. Really gonna help me out. C’mon.”

“No,” I say and try to push my way past him.

“Aw, man, that ain’t cool,” he says in a hurt tone. “You got a quarter. You gotta have a quarter.” He moves to stand in front of me again.

I look into his dull black eyes, dim mirrors of my own. I knock him to the ground with a vicious shove. He hits his head against the sidewalk with a hollow clunk. He doesn’t stand up. I look around but there is no one else out.

When I get home, Ernie is asleep in the bed next to mine. I stand in the doorway watching him until he wakes up.

“Bert?” he asks. “You okay?”

“Yeah, Ernie,” I say, “we’re okay.”