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Friday, September 13, 2002

From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn




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 legacies.

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, Berkeley.

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 usually contains.

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.