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Know the West

Leopold floats us to an understanding


A View of the River

Luna B. Leopold. Harvard University Press, 1994. 298 pages. $39.95 plus $3.50 postage and shipping; Customer Service Dept., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 02138 (800/448-2242).

Review by C.L. Rawlins

Anyone concerned with flowing water - river rats, lawyers, architects, irrigators, fly fishers and land managers - will learn to love this small, blue-backed book.

With photos and graphs which illuminate its course, and complete references, A View of the River will be an instant standard as a text. But tech-haters and poets shouldn't be turned away. There are a few equations (very few for this kind of book) and you don't have to know what ' means to reach an understanding. Luna Leopold's grave and rhythmic prose floats the reader on, and it will change forever the way you look at flowing water.

Streams are as various as the human personality, but there are definite themes and continuities, based on gravity and water and rock, which form the logic of this book. Since Leopold has achieved his understanding by observation, A View of the River is more a book of experience than of theory.

After his father, Aldo Leopold, died in 1948, while fighting a fire near his home, Luna, a Harvard doctoral student, edited his draft essays and saw them into print. The resulting book, A Sand County Almanac, is a touchstone.

Luna Leopold then pursued his own great work: to understand the marriage of streams and their landscapes. Starting as an engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, he measured channels across the nation, slogging in waders with a tripod and level and building a formidable set of field data as he worked his way up to chief hydrologist.

Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology (1964) changed the practice of hydrology for good. Retiring from the USGS, he taught at Berkeley in the 1970s and studied urban watersheds. Water in Environmental Planning (written with Thomas Dunne in 1978) was another benchmark book. In all, Leopold headed up a quiet but complete revolution in his field.

Recently, he's been pressing the Forest Service to move hydrologists out of their offices, where they calculate the sizes of culverts needed for logging roads and drink too much coffee. Leopold would rather see them collect primary data on streamflows and the condition of channels, which is mostly lacking for the national forest system.

Seeing in ruined stream channels, excessive diversions, porkbarrel dams, silted fish habitat, and disastrous floods our nation's fundamental misunderstanding of how rivers act, he has distilled a life's painstaking work into one clear dram. Rather than addressing the front benches of hydrology, he's trying to pass his understanding to as many readers as possible, without watering it down. n

Chip Rawlins is HCN's poetry editor.