Professor David Mongomery grew up in California, where he loved to spend time outside and go hiking in the Sierras. As a kid, he spent much time looking at landscapes and loved maps. He was always the navigator on family trips, displaying an early talent for reading the land.
In high school, a biology teacher sparked his curiosity. He recalls being fascinated by how a redwood tree pumps water to its top branches three hundred feet in the air. “Figuring out the biomechanical basis for those kind of things was fascinating,” he said. After beginning undergrad studying biology at Stanford as one of the few biology majors not interested in medicine, he was quickly disillusioned, dropping out after about two years. Montgomery spent a year in the South Pacific doing manual labor. That motivated him to finish college, but this time in a more collaborative geology program.
He ended up studying geomorphology after realizing his interest in the Earth’s surface, and went on to consult for two years as a private geologist for two years after undergrad. He returned to graduate school with a better idea of the “flavor of science” he wanted to do. After finding a great advisor, he begun work on determining where stream channels begin. He tried to answer the question of how far from a mountaintop definable streams formed and investigate what kind of physics can help make these predictions. He finished his PhD still tackling this problem and got a job at the University of Washington where he has been for 26 years.
He started as a research faculty member, which allowed him to focus on publishing papers without a teaching commitment for five years. Here he started working on problems of river channel classification, developing a typology for the different rivers around the world based on a ratio between how much sediment is getting into a river and its capacity to move it. This led to studying connections between the way people modify river habitats and salmon abundance.
With a professorship funded by the state of Washington, he continued to pursue this salmon connection, thinking about how forestry practices affect river habitat and fish. Later, he broadened his work into mountain watershed landscape disturbance and land use connections, and the relationship between climate, tectonics, and topography. After securing tenure, his own disjointed interests began to take him on a non-linear journey towards adding biology back into his repertoire. He’s since received the Washington State Book Award for General Nonfiction three times and authored five popular-audience books: King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon; Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations; The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood; The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health (Co-Authored with his wife Anne Bikle); and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. In 2008 he received a MacArthur Fellowship and in 2020 was awarded the Vega Medal.
Now, he sees biology and geology as two sides of the same coin–both sciences with some historical contingency. “I never would’ve guessed when I finished a PhD on where stream channels begin that I would’ve been thirty years later spending a week in a lab blending up tomatoes from different grocery stores to figure out which ones had the highest mineral content and relating that back to farming practices,” he said.
Professor Montgomery is also a guitarist for the band Big Dirt and plays bass in Good Bones (albums available on iTunes, Spotify, etc…).