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Up a Lazy River

Meandering through a classic theory of why rivers meander

Brian Hayes

Old Man River

Luna Bergere Leopold had a river meandering through his childhood. It was the Wisconsin River, which passed by an abandoned farm north of Madison where his family spent their weekends in a converted chicken coop. Luna's father was Aldo Leopold—forester, outdoorsman and pioneering conservationist, a philosopher among the lumberjacks. It was Luna Leopold who assembled and edited his father's book of essays, A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949.

Luna Leopold studied civil engineering, then meteorology and finally geology. He worked more than 20 years with the U.S. Geological Survey, including a decade as Chief Hydrologist. Then he had a second long career at the University of California, Berkeley. I think it safe to say that Leopold was the foremost American student of rivers and the landscapes they create. And he did not study them from a Washington office or a Berkeley classroom; he got his feet wet. An obituary in the Washington Postdescribed his way of life:

Well known for his scientific fieldwork, he also made bows and arrows, hunted and fished, rode horses, composed piano and guitar music, danced, flew planes, painted landscapes, wrote poetry, bound books, acted on stage, built furniture, claimed to cook strawberry shortcake in a camp Dutch oven and told campfire stories. He floated on a raft through the Grand Canyon to measure the depth of the Colorado River.

Most of Leopold's work was done in collaboration with colleagues, but for brevity in what follows I shall refer to joint work by his name alone.

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