Luna Leopold (1915-2006)

Luna combined his training and expertise in engineering, meteorology, geology and hydrology to develop the scientific foundation for the field of fluvial geomorphology, the study of how rivers are shaped and influenced by their surrounding landscapes.

In all, he authored some 200 articles and books, many of which remain widely used in teaching and field work today. His achievements were recognized during his lifetime with many prestigious awards and honors, including the National Medal of Science, the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, election to the National Academy of Sciences, and election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science, posthumously, in 2006.

He died in February 2006 at the age of 90 at his home in Berkeley, California.

Family Remembrances

Watch Out for the Willows

by Leverett Nelson

This remembrance of Luna was written by his stepson Rett Nelson as part of remarks he made at the U.C. Berkeley.

Aldo used a famous analogy in his 1953 book Round River, that human beings are navigators on the round river of energy, or, more generally, the “life cycle." Luna thought well enough of the essay to use a portion of it in his Forward to Water, Rivers and Creeks, a textbook he published in 1997, when he was 82 years old. He dedicated it to his children and their married partners as follows: Madelyn and Claude, Niki and Bruce, and Carrie and Rett.  Luna was still publishing and working up new papers when he passed away in 2006. Luna himself was the consummate navigator of rivers, round and otherwise. He chose a variety of navigational devices: the C-Dory on the Napa River, an hour or so from the house in Berkeley; a metal rowboat on the East Fork River, from which he took bedload samples at cross-sections upstream of his “Project” near Pinedale, Wyoming; a pontoon boat in Desolation Canyon on the Green River; a wooden dory on the family trip we took down to Green and Colorado Rivers in 1992.  His favorite was the canoe, and it is the one I remember him "navigating" most often.  It conjures up an image that I think best captures Luna. He is paddling a canoe. We are on a family trip on the East Fork. We have put in at the Project, leaving the red truck with its hand-made canoe rack.  We will retrieve the truck later, but I must digress to describe this canoe rack: it looked pretty flimsy when disassembled, consisting of 2-by-4’s, metal bolts and eye nuts and an old ski rack for the cab of the truck. When assembled, though, the rack fit two canoes perfectly, was very sturdy, and became a really “slick rig.”  For those that knew Luna, a simple but ingenious solution to an engineering problem was “slick”: anything called “slick” was high praise indeed. We’re floating down the East Fork. Luna and my mother Barbara are in one canoe. As always, Mom is in the bow, Luna is in the stern. Between them are the picnic basket and cooler. Sometimes the dog is also on board. They are all heading downstream in perfect contentment. Carrie and I are behind in the second canoe, and we get the occasional “Watch out for the willows!” from Luna as he and Mom navigate down the river. Luna of course had his field notebook with him, because you never knew what you’d see: an Indian fire pit on the cut bank, about halfway between the creek surface and the floodplain/terrace elevation, its blackened rocks tumbling out onto the sand. Or we’d see an unusual bird, or artifacts, or a new fishing spot, or a type of meander or bar he wanted to photograph for a paper. It could be anything, really, that might spark interest. Research and recreation were virtually indistinguishable to Luna, and if he could add family to that formula, he was happy. To say it a different way, work and play and family were all the same thing to him. You have to admire someone who lived life that way. A quotation from Aldo Leopold is appropriate here, this one from the revised version published in 1966, with a Forward by Luna and his first wife Carolyn. It is from an essay entitled “Natural History”: "We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive. . . .  When we say “striving,” we admit at the outset that the thing we need must grow from within. No striving for an idea was ever injected wholly from without." [Natural History in A Sand County Almanac, 1966 ed., Oxford University Press, Ballantine Books.]  Luna was “striving for an idea” every day.  Some ideas he “injected” in us; some he led us to see from within.  As his co-navigator on the Round River, I seek the same unity of work, play and family that Luna found. I strive to learn new things. I appreciate “slick” solutions to scientific problems. And I watch out for the willows.


A Brother Remembered

by A. Carl Leopold

Carl wrote this memorial of Luna following his death in 2006. It was originally printed in the Leopold Outlook newsletter.

Luna Leopold was such an extraordinary person that a brief memorial like this seems entirely inadequate. But as an admiring brother who grew up with him, I feel that I can present something of a personal synopsis of his life.

Our father, Aldo Leopold, profoundly influenced all five of the Leopold family siblings. As Luna was growing up, he looked to him for approbation and approval in many ways. His entry into civil engineering followed a suggestion by father, in line with father’s recognition of soil erosion as a major emerging environmental problem, especially in the arid southwest.

During his school years Luna became a craftsman. He designed and built handsome hunting knives, model airplanes, masks, furniture; and he leaned heavily on father’s praise. He earned election to several honorary student organizations at the University of Wisconsin. His youthful skills ranged over an impressive array of creative work. During summers in Santa Fe, he became a talented dancer, and performed Spanish dances in full costume-and-cape for the local hotel, La Fonda. He performed in the play “Camille” as the male lead. He took up watercolors and did beautiful landscapes, especially of Southwestern scenes.

As a professional scientist, Luna’s chief characteristics have been invention, combined with a requirement for perfection. These characteristics can be observed in part by a scan of the great range of subjects of his publications. In addition to his impressive publications on geomorphology, he published papers on cloud seeding for control of rain, on water uptake by plants, on tree branching patterns, on the quality of landscape, on esthetics, and on Native American relics. There were papers on political issues such as the plan to build a jetport in the Florida wetlands, on urban land use, on environmental planning, on the plan for the Three-Gorges dam in China, and on climate change.

He conceived and organized an international vigil network for the exchange of data on water flow. I perceive a central theme running through these titles was the use of mathematical methods for understanding problems. His fluency in mathematical analyses was almost his trademark. He especially enjoyed collecting data in the field, and in the analysis of the consequent data. His appointment as a Professor of Landscape Architecture along with his Professorship in Geology and Geophysics at the University of California at Berkeley was probably a reflection of his publications on
mathematical appraisal of landscape values. I suspect that his most important singular contribution concerned the use of entropy and the dispersal of energy during water erosion in explaining the dynamics of stream flow. The cross-linkage of theoretical-mathematical physics with soil erosion was a dramatic and elegant coup.

Luna published seven books; almost half of them fashioned to inform the general public about water. He reaped a phenomenal array of honors, some 24 awards from this country, plus seven from foreign lands. He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1991.

Central to Luna’s life work was his continued skills in collecting experimental data, and with using mathematical techniques for the quantitative understanding of phenomena. These range from the basic action of water in soil erosion to the appreciation of landscape values. His was a life of expertise combined with the compelling force of a perfectionist. An extraordinary person.

Read more: