Five Steps from Aldo Leopold

If you are interested in national parks and wilderness areas in the US, or in land restoration, or in hunting and nature writing, you have probably heard of or read something by Aldo Leopold. If you are involved in wetland or stream restoration or remediation, you know the work of Luna Leopold, Aldo’s son, and Dave Rosgen, who studied under Luna and who devised a way to describe bodies of moving water in ways that are 1) useful and 2) universal.

I was revisiting an older post recently and started counting back. I studied under one of Rosgen’s students. That makes me four academic generations from Aldo Leopold. Closer, perhaps, because my teacher met Luna briefly at a conference when my teacher was younger. My other grad school pedigrees trace back to Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. If you are into environmental or western US history, this is sort of cool. If you are outside of academia, you probably consider this information slightly less useful than the TV remote is to a goldfish. 🙂

I happened to be shifting books around two weeks ago, and rediscovered my copy of Luna Leopold’s textbook on hydrology. It is a bit dated in some ways, but still very useful. After all, water still flows uphill toward money, or downhill after a rain, at a rate that varies with the surface under the water and the intensity of the rainfall. Streams still erode their beds (degrading) or build them up by leaving extra sediment behind (aggrading). Hillslopes still slide downhill if conditions are just right, and take houses with them. Unless someone changes gravity’s intensity, or the physics of water flow, certain calculation methods and rules of thumb remain valid.

Luna was the son of Aldo Leopold. Aldo wrote some of the best articles about landscape, wildlife, and how we see them, that I have read. His Sand County Almanac and Other Writings is a classic among hunters, naturalists, and people who like reading about landscapes and critters. If I could write like that, and see like that . . . Sigh. He visited the Colorado River delta while it still had a goodly amount of water in it. He also acted as a predator control officer for the forest service back when all wolves and bears were to be extirpated. Then he saw the results, and became one of the strongest advocates for wilderness preservation and predator conservation. He died of a heart attack while fighting a small wildfire on his neighbor’s property in Wisconsin in 1948. All of his five children became biologists or hydrologists. His ideas about conservation, stewardship, and “land ethic” provide a balance between the “use it all up” side (now long gone in the US) and the “don’t touch, humans are bad” end of the environmental scale.

Aldo died in 1948. Luna died in 2006. Last I heard, my teacher is still around, as is Dave Rosgen. You can buy Aldo Leopold’s books today, and I encourage you to do so. They are great writing, even if you don’t agree with all of his philosophy. He and Loren Eisley are two of my favorites, although they are very, very different. (Eisley gets . . . Odd. And metaphysical, and strange. But his poem ‘The Innocent Assassins” and some of his essays on night and darkness are fascinating.)

9 thoughts on “Five Steps from Aldo Leopold

  1. Interesting how running across an old book can take one back to ‘better’ days, or reminders of those days of grinding through classes!

  2. Interesting. It is shame we don’t see more of that mindset today. It seems very much of a type with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Conservation means development as much as its means preservation” approach.

    I sometimes see Rosgen’s 1994 “A classification of natural rivers” cited in academic computer graphics articles on procedural terrain generation. There are a number of techniques to generate plausible river networks across a generated terrain, but simulating detailed riverbeds with physics is generally too computationally expensive. Instead, they use slope and other factors to lookup in a table from Rosgen’s article what type of riverbed geometry needs to be used, and blend in to the terrain premade riverbed sections modeled after the diagrams in the Rosegn

  3. I now work for an agency that balances preservation and development. It is interesting to see both sides and how laws, court cases, how the development is presented, etc could me together.

  4. Pierre Perrault, the brother of fairy tale Charles did some of the first work in hydrology. I think he studied rain in the Seine River basin in th 1600’s.

  5. I think ‘use it all up’ sounds like an improvement over the current bunch of nihilists.

    I’m probably just depressed. And not exposed to enough of the downsides of the older approach.

    • Yes, but only for the hard sciences. The form of hydrology I studied and worked with is slotted as “landscape architecture,” even though it falls more into engineering and hydrology/geology. (When you are schlepping surveying equipment across the back of beyond, and carrying bear spray along with other, higher-power critter stoppers, it’s not really landscape architecture, in my opinion.)

      • I concur. Vigorously. And I’d like to send the folks who disagree out–without the bear spray, or mosquito repellent, or that other, higher caliber#######powered equipment.

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