Of Politics and Rivers
Carving a path into the future
Legacies are an interesting phenomenon.
Bill Clinton wanted to be known for his economic
policies and his peace efforts, but he thought of his legacy way too
late. The word Monica will be forever etched on people's minds when they
recall Clinton's years in office.
It appears that our city's politicians have already
begun to create their own legacy – a way of dealing with people, a way
of listening (or not listening) to constituents, and a way of dealing
with the world. The question is: Are they creating a legacy that they
want to be remembered by?
Here's a story how two different people dealt with their
The study of geomorphology was basically created by two
outstanding individuals, Luna Leopold and M. Gordon ("Reds")Wolman. Both
of them were sons of famous scientists. Luna's father was Aldo Leopold,
the author of the classic (and lyrical) environmental study Sand
County Almanac. Reds' father was Abel Wolman, the Thomas Edison of
the drinking water industry.
Luna worked for the U.S. Geological Survey and rose to
the position of chief hydrologist before he retired in 1972. Then,
instead of sitting and watching rivers flow from his retirement cottage,
he became a professor of hydrology at the University of California,
Using his hard science training, he created a theory to
explain how the course of rivers changes over the time. A river
interacts with landforms in specific ways and thanks to the Leopold
model, you can predict to some degree of certainty how it will spread,
override its banks, and flood the area around it. Those who studied with
Leopold worked to perfect his model.
Luna's legacy was established by his books, especially
A View of the River. It excited the imagination of a wide range
of readers, from high school students to weekend environmental warriors.
The book in simple and yet poetic terms shows the science of rivers and
streams – and the beauty behind that scientific knowledge. Leopold
doesn't tell readers how they should think about rivers. Rather, he uses
the hard science of water (and the joy that he felt as he discovered
more about that science) to lead readers to a greater appreciation of
the world's most important resource.
On the other hand, Wolman spent 44 years teaching at
Johns Hopkins University. His biography tells us that his technical
expertise was in the ways people and natural forces shape rivers and
land, but it turns out that, in fact, his talent lay in motivating
students to do their best work. During his time as a professor and
ultimately chairman of the Department of Geology at Johns Hopkins, he
got to work with a large number of bright students. Because he was not
wedded to any one theory or aspect of hydrology, he would encourage his
graduate students to study the topics that excited them. Over the years,
as each new student came up with an area to study, Wolman used the vast
network of students he had already taught to find a mentor who was
working on a related topic. The new student acquired real-world
experience, the former student got an eager worker, and the field of
hydrology was enriched with new research.
So what do rivers and politics have in common?
(Actually, a good deal. Anyone who has taken part in a battle for water
rights knows that politics and water are inseparably linked.) Many
politicians want their followers to think the same way that they do –
and never question their leader. This leaves the leader untried and
vulnerable to attack from those outside of his/her circle. When faced
with actual criticism, this kind of politician goes into spin control or
defensive mode – and never seeks the gem of truth that questioning
A political legacy isn't created by insisting that your
followers blindly follow your command. Rather, a lasting legacy evolves
when a leader encourages, mentors, and helps a group of people lend
their talents and ideas to create a better city and a better world.