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Know the West

A scientist's view of change


Of Rock and Rivers: Seeking a Sense of Place in the American West
Ellen Wohl
267 pages,
hardcover, $24.95.
University of  California Press, 2009.

Ellen Wohl shudders when she sees houses built on gently sloping benches at the mouths of mountain clefts. She knows that such sites, with their incredible views, were created by past landslides, and hence are risky places to build. Wohl is a geomorphologist, a scientist who studies the physical forms of the planet and the processes that shape them. She can read the story behind the shape of the landscape.

Her latest book, Of Rock and Rivers, is a valuable addition to the growing shelf of essays and memoirs written by scientists. Books like these -- more personal than the "hard science" found in professional publications -- are often the only channel through which scientists can make their work accessible to wider audiences. Few people have read Aldo Leopold's monographs on game management, but his land ethic, described in A Sand County Almanac, became part of the foundation of modern environmentalism.

Mixing memoir and environmental history, much as Leopold did, Wohl leads us through her life and research. Raised in Ohio with a naive belief in the "pristine wilderness of the West," she adopted the West as her home. As a professor of geology at Colorado State University, she has worked throughout the arid Intermountain region.

In a clearly written, sometimes lyrical style, Wohl describes how over 30 years, she has uncovered layer after layer of loss in the West. She relates the sorry history of streams dewatered and diverted, water contaminated and rivers degraded, from the damage caused by obvious physical changes to the chemical pollutants that invisibly poison wells.

But she also learns "that knowledge alone is not enough." Politicians and the public repeatedly ignore scientific recommendations. Wohl warns that until we integrate what science has learned "into the everyday choices made by individuals and by society … we who live in the West will remain lost." And yet she continues to find hope in the resilience of rivers and landscapes.

Despite evidence that might lead one to despair, Wohl believes that we can learn to live sustainably in the West. It is not only landscapes that change, Wohl writes. "We can change, if we choose."