Why the DAPL?

Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to pass the final easement allowing for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

I’ve been thinking about this as momentum builds behind the pipeline. The executive order, the banks that continue to fund it, and the large proportion of the country that view themselves as unaffected and therefore remain unfazed.

The question I hear, often from white men and women, is why should I care?

Maybe it’s the Pisces in me, or maybe my roots in Christianity, or maybe it’s the ecologist in me that tells me with utter conviction that everything but everything but everything is connected.

You may not live downstream of the pipeline, so your water supply may not be in danger. You may not know any members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, so your sense of cultural identity may not be at stake.

But as an ecologist, I can tell you that the mere act of constructing yet another massive pipeline through an already fragile ecosystem, not to mention the possibility (probability) of a rupture that would contaminate the water source for thousands of people and hundreds of acres of land… such an event has major ecological impacts with swathes of downstream (literally and figuratively) consequences. You may not see them all immediately, but trust me, you will.

In addition, our country is already overly reliant on fossil fuels and moving the production of those fuels from foreign countries to our own does not remove this reliance.

Our country, and in truth our planet, is careening towards its own human-induced suicide thanks to practices EXACTLY like this, wherein the environmental impacts are not fully considered or discussed. The Army Corps of Engineers failed to conduct a full environmental review. This is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous, sentencing the entire central portion of our country, already a vastly overlooked and under-valued segment, to once again bear the physical cost of corporate greed.

But, even if all of this weren’t true, the more important point remains:

This. Is. Not. Our. Land.

Honestly, this should be the thought that we wake up to every single day. (Primarily directed towards the white folks in the audience.) No, no one asked to be born here. If you are African American it is highly likely that your ancestors were kidnapped and brought here against their will.

As a white person, though, even if your ancestors weren’t a part of the initial colonization and genocide, our existence still contributes to one of the largest and most prolonged cases of gentrification the world has ever seen.

The question before us then is not only a question of physical survival, it is a question of spiritual reckoning.

You may not believe in human souls, but I certainly hope you believe in humanity.

The question facing us is this: Do we choose to atone for the sins of our ancestors by joining the fight of our brothers and sisters, listening to their voices too long ignored, and ensuring their rights so long denied?

Or do we once again turn our faces, block our ears, and continue our downward spiral into moral decrepitude?

This is the question that faces our country and each of us as individuals. It is the question that answers the initial query “Why the DAPL?”.

Native Americans, the myriad tribes, cultures, civilizations, traditions, and languages, have survived against all odds in the face of continuous brutalization, forced mass eviction, murder, sustained economic depression and spiritual and physical poisoning inflicted on them by white colonizers.

It is long, long past the time that we return the sovereignty that we have unlawfully usurped. It is long past the time we hold ourselves responsible for our transgressions. These transgressions may not have been enacted by us personally, but if we gain from the status quo and remain silent and passive, then we are a part of the inertia that obstructs the arc of justice.

It is long past the time that we stop asking the question “Why the DAPL?” and started asking the question “What can I do to heal these wounds?”.

Thank you for your time.


Seeking Position: Becoming a Small Flightless Bird

Laura A. Birdmiller
Bird bird bird bird, #14
Fitchbird, WI 53713


• Passionate team-bird, bird-oriented and willing to bird hard.
• Slow bird, unable to fly.
• Small and almost round.
• Committed to eating seeds and not flying.

August 2011- June 2015 Carleton Birdege
Northbird, MN
GPA: 6 lbs of seed, Honors in Flightlessness

August 2007- June 2011 The Culver Abirdemies
Culbird, IN
GPA: 7 lbs of seed, Honors in Poor Ability to Escape Predators

Prior Experience:

June 2010- August 2010 Bookstore Kakapo, Culver Academies

Found a new island to inhabit! No predators! This is so exciting! I will grow fat and happy here!

August 2012- June 2015 Resident Bird, Carleton College

Shortened bones and gained weight in order to conserve unnecessary energy wasted on flight. Developed a co-dependence on a rare plant in order to mate. This will turn out well!

June- November 2015 Quality Abirdance, Ep-bird

Was unable to deal with the arrival of mammalian predators and competitors. Habitat quickly destroyed. Now hiding on small off-shore islands.

Additional Skills
• Proficient in being small, falling out of trees, and attempting to trample my foes.
• Studied being a bird for seven years including time in a tree.
• Avid and passionate bird both abroad and in the United States.
• Experience as a cute adorable bird with no ability to protect myself from change.

The Last Time I’m Going to Talk About Comps

As a junior, I made the vow, you know, the ultimately pathetic vow: “I’m not going to be one of those seniors.”

One of those seniors who make a five letter word into a four letter one and then proceed to throw it around until the cover comes off and you’re left holding a wobbly ball of string (sports metaphors, I’m trying them). One of those seniors who puts everything else in their life on hold, sleeping, eating, speaking, breathing, until the year 1 A.C. You know, a senior who obsesses over… Comps.

Then the days ticked by, the weeks slipped away, months were devoured by the hungry mouth of time and I was a senior. And I was compsing. And somehow there wasn’t anything else in my life. It felt like staring into a long dark tunnel knowing that the oncoming traffic might hit at any moment. I’d wake up in the morning and, during the time I usually tried to remember my dreams or started to plan what writing I wanted to do that day, I instead found myself rehearsing the slides to my presentation, running through the papers I still had to read, ticking off the questions that I could and could not answer. It was nightmarish.

I did pass. Somehow. Don’t ask me. But now that I have more breath in my body I’m trying to figure it out. What exactly is the big deal about comps?

It wasn’t the longest or most intense project I’ve undertaken. That was sophomore year when I did research on Egon Schiele. (Still probably my proudest academic accomplishment. I will write a post about him eventually.) And there are the constant comforting notions that 1) comps is pass/fail and 2) no one wants you to stick around for later.

But the truth is some people do fail. And the truth is that I needed comps to graduate. And more importantly, comps seemed to be tied irrevocably (at least for me) with the success or failure of my entire academic college career.

Let’s stop for a moment. What? Where did that idea come from?

I’ve been working hard for the past three and a half years. I’ve learned things, written papers, engaged in conversations, read and read and read. I’ve stretched and grown my mind in ways I could not have comprehended as a freshman. And why is it that all of this learning and growth seems to pale in comparison to a single eight page paper, 30 minute presentation, and 30 minute defense? It’s ridiculous.

But perhaps because we have so few opportunities to share our academic success, perhaps because we’ve fallen into a vicious cycle of blowing the project out of proportion, perhaps because my weird little brain is hard-wired to latch onto a single pillar to represent everything, comps has become a monster.

So, I don’t know what exactly I can say about this, except to try and encourage people to look at the successes of their day to day lives. In the same way that a wedding is not indicative of an entire relationship, comps is not indicative of your entire Carleton experience. You have to pay attention to the little steps along the way: the first date (freshman A&I); the first talk you had that really challenged you (African American History II); that moment years down the road when you remember why you fell in love in the first place (Evolution). And all the other little times in between. That’s what makes up a truly wonderful relationship, a truly meaningful education. I wish I had recognized that sooner.

Happy Valentine’s Day! I somehow managed to turn weddings into a metaphor for comps? No wonder I’m really bad at romance…



It’s difficult to miss something that you’ve never known. This was driven home to me recently when I met my great aunt Hulda.

I knew that I had a great aunt in Iowa, of course, and I’d heard that she, too, was interested in writing, puns, and literature, but I had no idea what sort of person she’d be as I hadn’t seen her since I was three years old. I was overwhelmed by her warmth and generosity when we arrived tired and cold on her doorstep. We were welcomed with open arms. And I do mean welcomed. It’s rare for me to feel so instantly comfortable in a new place. There was one bookshelf completely filled with dictionaries and one bookshelf completely filled with books on the prairie. It was divine.

But the whole visit was colored in many ways by what was missing. It was amazing to meet my great aunt, but what saddened me was not being able to meet my great uncle, Don, who passed away recently.

With an odd feeling of both joy and regret, I found out through Aunt Hulda that my Uncle Don was also a prairie enthusiast. He spent most of his life photographing wildflowers, many of which I had learned to love this past summer. He spent time in Hayden Prairie, the remnant in Iowa where I was lucky enough to work for two days. It was both strange and uplifting to discover this connection, and brought home to me once again the purpose of conservation:

To save that which we love so that in the future others won’t have to miss what they never knew. Preserving remnants and restoring ecosystems means giving more people the opportunity to love the land they live on, giving more people something to get excited about: the sweet yellow and white of the butter-and-eggs flower, the spiky dignity of the rattlesnake tamer, the simple joy of a black-eyed susan. Preserving the prairie means keeping those connections that sometimes unknowingly bind us across time and distance.

I was unable to meet my uncle, but his memory remains, witnessed by my family members who knew and loved him, eulogized in the beautiful photos he took throughout his lifetime. It is up to us to prevent the loss of the prairie and other natural landscapes so that this echoing feeling of missing something unknown does not continue into future generations but instead is replaced by feelings of connection and delight.



(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


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


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


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!


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?


Whatever. Enter at own risk.

Prairie Plants or How To Distinguish Between The One With The Purple Flowers and That Other One With Purple Flowers

In addition to watching 80s Dance movies, this summer I have  job working in the Hernandez Lab! Huzzah!

So far we’ve been doing  a lot of really cool projects with the GRASS experiment which is looking at the effects of the presence or absence of two big C4 grasses. We also came up with a name for the herbivory experiment: FENCE (Finding Evidence of Native Critter Exclusion). So it’s been a lot of grinding litter and smushing up dirt so far, with the hope of coming up with some good data very soon!

Probably one of the best parts of the job (other than the stimulating conversations and SCIENCE parts) is getting to spend at least a portion of most days out in the Arboretum. Specifically the prairie.

For people who don’t know prairie is the term used for North American grasslands, i.e. prairie is found nowhere else on the planet. Sadly much of the prairie has disappeared in the past two or so centuries. Gee, I wonder why. In Minnesota less than 10% of the pre-settlement prairie remains.

There is some good news, though. Many people (such as Mark, Dan, and the wonderful Arb Office crew) are working on creating prairie restorations. All of the prairie in the Arb is restored prairie, with new sections being added about every year. Already certain prairie specialists such as the Henslow sparrow and the prairie vole have made their way to the restored Arb prairie. A hopeful sign that something is indeed going right!

Here are some of my favorite plants from the Arb!

Sage (Artimisia ludoviciana)

Sage! Smells great, easy to distinguish by it's pale almost white coloration.

Sage! Smells great, easy to distinguish by it’s pale almost white coloration.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Also smells good! Opposite leaves and stuff.

Also smells good! Opposite leaves and stuff.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed susans have the distinctive dark center and fuzzy almost piercing stems.

Black-eyed susans have the distinctive dark center and fuzzy almost piercing stems.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

A huge species of sunflower, they can grow over seven feet in a single growing season! Their leaves point north!

A huge species of sunflower, they can grow over seven feet in a single growing season! Their leaves point north!

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

The leaves have a sort of dusty coloring. I really like the look of these plants, because they remind me of the inevitable decay of all life. And they're pretty!

The leaves have a sort of dusty coloring. I really like the look of these plants, because they remind me of the inevitable decay of all life. And they’re pretty!

So that’s some of the work I’m doing this summer. More updates to come.