Interviewed by David Andrews
“When you’re teaching you don’t have a minute to breathe.” This is how Professor Eric Leonard describes his profession and the craft he has been perfecting since 1981 at Colorado College. The Bay Area native has taken a winding path to arrive at CC and along the way has stood witness to some of the most tumultuous periods in American history. During the Vietnam riots of the late 60s Leonard was a student at Cal-Berkeley and made his way west to CU-Boulder for graduate school and eventually down to Colorado Springs in 1981. Leonard is a specialist in glaciology, but he has also seen the slow march of social progress in America, once even hearing Muhammad Ali speak in front of the San Francisco City Hall. His work in geology has taken him across the globe from New Zealand to the Andes and all over Western North America. On Wednesday, Oct. 26 Leonard was in his Barnes corner office surrounded by pictures of mountain ranges and detailed glacial maps. In his 35th year teaching at the college Leonard is not slowing down and has two research papers slated for publication in the next seven weeks.
The Catalyst: When did you start teaching at CC?
Eric Leonard: 1981, right out of grad school. The day after I defended my dissertation up in Boulder I was at the faculty fall conference, it was called. It was pretty wild.
TC: Where in the world have you studied geology?
EL: Well, a bunch of places. In terms of my own research, that’s mostly in Western North America, various mountain ranges, and Western U.S., and some Canada, for classes and other geology field work. I’ve been all over America and Alaska and Central America, little bit of Central America, the Caribbean. Oh, I actually have my own research project in South America in Chile and I’ve also been to Argentina with a couple of classes. Where else? New Zealand, China and Tibet, I was just in Norway, Scotland, probably forgetting something. I haven’t been to Antarctica and I’d love to go. Australia or Africa I have not been to either.
TC: Could you talk about the intersection of your work in Chile and Tibet, looking at the geology within a political or social context?
EL: I was in Chile both under the junta. So I did a fair amount of field work there in the 80s when Pinochet was still very much in power. By the last two times I was there in the 80s that was kind of breaking down. By ‘86 there were a lot of protests going on. The military was still cracking down on them. I was in Santiago and there were protests every night. People banging on pots and people out, tear gas in the streets and stuff. Then I was back in ‘88 which was right before the referendum, plebiscite, whatever it was called that actually voted him out. As much as I couldn’t stand Pinochet at least he had the integrity to leave. Well, he rewrote the constitution so he wouldn’t go to jail, but nonetheless he actually gave up power when he lost the election. Most of his power. Subsequently, I’ve been back a couple of times in the last 10 or 15 years or so. Things are very different.
Tibet was very eye-opening for a lot of reasons. The geology was amazing. It was pretty evident in Lhasa, the political relationship between China and Tibet. It was sort of clear the power relationship between the Chinese and the Tibetans. At the same time, it was, for me, sort of a window to a kind of look at Tibetan culture, which can be really idealized and romanticized in a lot of ways. For me, and I’m a very unspiritual person, seeing that aspect of Tibetan life and kind of the devotion and spirituality of people. You know, people doing pilgrimages along the highway, 200 miles. People doing prostrations, like going a mile a day doing prostrations on the highway. It was all kind of alien to me and my way of thinking. So that was a fascinating trip. Lhasa can be kind of depressing kind of think about the way that the dominant Chinese culture and political system has been kind of overprinted and obliterating Tibetan culture.
TC: Having spent some time in San Francisco during the 70s, could you talk at all about what it was like living there at that time?
EL: Well, I actually left Berkeley in 1970, but I was at Berkeley in the late 60’s and I was born in San Francisco. So I grew up there. It was a pretty interesting time and there are a lot of cliches about it, most of which have a significant grain of truth to them. It was partly the time, the late 60s and all the cliches attached to that, and partly being in the Bay Area and San Francisco, particularly Berkeley. The cliches are always a period of experimentation and breaking away and from the repressed 50s, but all that was kind of true. The Bay Area, and particularly San Francisco in 1967, was a real magnet then for kids from all over the country who were all doing that. Kids were leaving the 50s and leaving the Midwest, even the East Coast and coming out to this open, kind of nuts atmosphere. The Bay Area was really fun. I was a teenager and it was kind of the place to be.
You know, the Vietnam War was going on at the time and unlike now, college students were more directly affected because of the draft. On the other hand, almost no one I knew went to Vietnam. Because we were college students we could get deferments and we could get lawyers and we knew how to write conscientious objector statements. We knew how to drag out the draft process until the Draft Board got so tired of fighting with you that they would just go draft someone that didn’t have a lawyer. So that was hanging over us in a way that it isn’t hanging over students now, but we were pretty privileged.
TC: Have you seen the same spirit of social activism in students today?
EL: It was more broad scale social involvement. Largely because of the Vietnam War and the whole social milieu that being political and protesting was just sort of what we did. That was our way of life, I skied too, but I didn’t talk about that as much. I think that’s sort of as deep as it really went for most people but that was the modus operandi of the time. That’s what we talked about, that’s what we talked about, that’s what we were involved in. But as I said, the really committed core of activists really wasn’t as big as it is now.
TC: Do you remember Muhammad Ali from that time period?
EL: Oh yeah. I’m pretty old. I remember him from when he won the Olympics in 1960. I was 12 or 11 probably when the Olympics were going on. I remember my brother was all excited because there was this guy who’s name was the same as one of the conspirators who killed Julius Caesar. He was Cassius Clay at that point. So yeah, I remember that. I remember, well, a bunch of things. I remember him as a boxer. I remember him when he converted to Islam. I remember him as a big, huge personality. I remember when he refused induction. I also remember him, and this gets me in trouble sometimes. When he died, my daughters emailed me and I remember being at a rally in front of the San Francisco City Hall and he was speaking. At some point maybe early on he started talking about interracial marriage. He was opposed to it. He said, “All you white guys out there don’t want little curly head kids running around,” and he got booed by people. People far on the left. It’s one thing that has stuck in my mind. I suspect he changed his mind.
TC: What were your plans when you graduated from Berkeley? Did your parents have a vision for your future?
EL: I had no plans when I graduated from Berkeley. As a matter of fact I spent a year in something called Vista, I guess Americorps is the contemporary equivalent, in good part because mostly I did not know what I wanted to do. I thought I might want to go to law school, but I didn’t want to decide. I came from a very left-wing political family of lawyers. They were left-wing lawyers. My father represented the Longshoreman’s Union. Which used to be one of the most left-wing labor unions in the U.S. They were like a crazy, European, left-wing labor union. My mom was a lawyer too. My brother is an environmental lawyer. So I kind of thought about that, and I did stuff sort of related.
I worked in a community center in Los Angeles and ended up working a lot with California welfare rights organizations. Sort of pseudo legal stuff. I could kind of read the regulations and help people with that. I thought it was good to do, but I actually didn’t really like doing it. I guess my love of the mountains and the outdoors eventually came out and I did a Masters program up in British Columbia outside of Vancouver. So there was always this sort of tension between what I inherited from my family, which I still have always believed in, left-wing politics, liberal politics, feeling that, but also feeling that it was not what I really wanted to do in life.
TC: Do you have any advice for students coming out of CC? Were you ever sitting in some sense of panic? What did you use to guide yourself in those Americorps and Simon Fraser years?
EL: I don’t think I was a terribly introspective person. I’m not sure how I really guided myself between the stuff I was really passionate about, the outdoors, and how that turned into geology. The 60s and early 70s were a little different. I don’t know if people were less introspective, less worried, the economy was a little better. There was kind of a faith that all my friends had and I had that we would fall into something that would be good, that we didn’t have to worry about the moment. My sense now is that students, I think the economy is different, I don’t know if the world situation is any scarier now than it was then. It really comes down to economics, people are more concerned. ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ I don’t think that we really did other than in a more existential way, as in, ‘what does this all mean?’ We were not panicked about where we were going to go in the next year or the next five years. It wasn’t really a culture of being concerned about that.
TC: Why have you chosen to stay at CC? How is CC, as a smaller institution, different or the same as the institutions you have been at before?
EL: It’s a great place to do what I do. I mean, I love my job here. I love teaching in small class settings and kind of working one on one with people. I like developing relationships with the students in my classes. It would be much, much harder at a big university. I love this department. There is just a camaraderie in the department and among the students as well. I like the whole atmosphere. The Block Plan is fabulous for teaching geology, it’s really demanding and exhausting, but I don’t think you could design a better plan for teaching geology. That’s the main thing.
TC: How does Geology, as a hard science, relate to a politically-charged issue such as climate change?
EL: Climate change is obviously a huge issue. My own specialty is actually glacial geology and glaciers and climate. So most of what I’ve worked on in the last 40 years has to do with glaciers and climate, but mostly naturally occurring climate change in the past. I’ve taught EV128 a bunch of times and I was involved in the original design of the course. I’ve actually been teaching climate change in courses since the 80s. Through the late 80s and 90s I team-taught a course about climate change with Tass Kelso. We would teach the course every other year and we’d get eight, 10 people every second year. Now it’s offered six times a year to full classes with long waiting lists. I’ve sort of taught it with the perspective of being a geologist, and geologists like to look back in time. You sort of have to understand how the system naturally changes in order to get a background to understand or try to understand what’s going on now. I haven’t shied away from that. Henry Fricke hasn’t shied away from that. We don’t really shy away from that in our classes, but just because of the nature of geology we are looking more backwards. I know Christine [Siddoway] has been pretty involved in working on these issues in the past couple of years. We’re less directly kind of activists and political than say the EV department.
TC: You have seen a lot of rocks, could you choose a favorite formation or mountain range?
EL: Oh boy, that’s tough. I’m more of a mountain range guy than a rock type of guy per se, although I do like the Entrada sandstone down in Utah. I don’t know what range. I grew up in the Sierras. The Canadian Rockies, they’re great. If you’re thinking, ‘what are the most spectacular ones?’ Parts of the Patagonia and the Andes are unbelievable, Fitz Roy. You can’t believe the mountains there. Then obviously Nepal for the scale of everything. This spring, I was on sabbatical and we were in Norway and we went up to the Lofoten Islands, and they were just incredible granite spires coming out of the sea, and that was one of the most dramatic and inspiring things I have ever seen.