He can dig it He can dig it He can dig it

Geologist David R. Montgomery has a handful of popular science books and six albums to his credit. He’s still trying to help people understand the world.

By Rachel Gallaher | Photo by Anil Kapahi | September 2023

There’s a popular saying, repeated over dinner tables and late-night snack sessions, that humans are what they eat. Often uttered in jest, the ubiquitous idiom evolved from a line in the 1826 book by French lawyer, politician and noted epicure Anthelme Brillat-Savarin that stated: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” If perhaps a bit reductive, it’s not altogether wrong. But when I pose the idea to award-winning author and University of Washington geomorphology professor David Montgomery, he pauses for a moment before declaring: “Actually, it turns out that it’s what your food ate that you’re made of.”

Montgomery has done the research. Collected in his book, “What Your Food Ate: How to Restore Our Land and Reclaim Our Health”—released in 2022 by W.W. Norton & Company and co-written by biologist and environmental planner Anne Biklé (who happens to be Montgomery’s wife)—the findings look at ways in which soil-rebuilding practices affect food growth and in turn, our health. The couple’s second book (the first was 2015’s “The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health”), “What Your Food Ate,” builds on the idea that there are relationships between systems in nature, systems created by humans and systems within the human body.

Montgomery isn’t a farmer, but he’s intimately acquainted with how humans grow food. Over his three-decade career, he has traveled the globe from equatorial Africa and Central America to locales closer to home, including the Dakotas, Pennsylvania and Ohio to study methods of farming from subsistence to conventional. Peel back the academic layers, and it makes sense. As a geomorphologist, Montgomery looks at the processes that shape the Earth’s surface and how those processes affect geological systems—and human societies.

“When I got my MacArthur, that’s one of the questions everyone asked,” Montgomery replies when I ask what a geomorphologist actually does. (In 2008, Montgomery received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship—known as the “Genius Grant.” It came with an unrestricted $500,000 prize meted out over five years). “I’m a geologist who studies what shapes the surface of the Earth. For my academic career, I’ve focused on things like what controls the height of mountain ranges, what makes rivers so bendy and why do fish care about that?”

In college, geology was my backup plan if my band didn’t make it big.

David Montgomery

Montgomery is laid-back and easy to talk to, even if you don’t have an advanced science degree. It’s not hard to imagine him in a classroom explaining complex ideas in a straightforward and engaging way. His late-career rocker look—flowing, shoulder-length hair and a salt-and-pepper beard—suits his other passion: He’s the guitarist, singer and songwriter in a local band, Big Dirt, which released its sixth album, “Trip Around the Sun,” earlier this year. Playing local and regional gigs for two decades, Big Dirt comprises a rotating group of musicians, including several UW faculty members. Their sound is a hybrid of folk, pop, rock and psychedelia wrapped in a feel-good, make-you-want-to-get-up-and-dance veneer.

“In college, geology was my backup plan if my band didn’t make it big,” Montgomery says. Although he never played sold-out stadiums or headed off on world tours (for music, that is), the rock-obsessed rocker found a balance between his academic and artistic lives—and has written a handful of popular science books along the way (three of which have won Washington State Book Awards in the General Nonfiction category).

“I first met David when I was a grad student at UW and he was a new faculty member,” says Eric Steig, ’92, ’96, a glaciologist and isotope geochemist who is also the chair of the UW’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, where Montgomery works. “I remember thinking that he looked like a young Jerry Garcia. We used to play music together. I knew he was a bit of a genius from Day One.”

Before the music and the MacArthur, there were maps. Growing up in California, Montgomery spent time hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range with his Boy Scout troop, sharpening his map-reading skills and contemplating landforms and how they came to be.

“My love of maps and landscapes is probably the root of what got me into geomorphology,” Montgomery says. “I really liked maps, and I was always the navigator on family trips. I could easily relate to things spatially, which is a good skill to have if you’re studying shapes in topography.”

Since Montgomery’s father taught marketing at Stanford University, he grew up familiar with the rigors of academia. In 1979, Montgomery enrolled at Stanford to pursue a biology degree. But after two years, he felt disenchanted with the intense competition and the cut-throat nature of his peers.

“There were only two of us in a class of 400 who didn’t want to become medical doctors,” he recalls. “I burned out—students were sabotaging each other’s experiments in the lab to try and come out on top, and that wasn’t the kind of environment I wanted to be in. So I ended up taking a year off, moving to Australia and working in a series of mines.”

It would be easy to take a pessimistic outlook on the world, but Montgomery cops to the exact opposite.

Before leaving the U.S., Montgomery took an intro-level geology class that would change the course of his academic career. “We went on field trips out in nature and cooperated with other students on homework,” he says. “The class was about learning things, not beating each other out. It showed me how I like to approach research problems, and I’ve mostly worked collaboratively since then.”

After a year in Australia, which he describes as both informative and fun, Montgomery returned to California determined to pursue a career in geology. But he quickly learned that there were limited job opportunities in the field for someone who has only taken one class on the subject. “It was a very motivating moment for me to go back to school,” he says.

In 1984, Montgomery graduated with a B.S. in geology from Stanford and started a job with a geotechnical engineering firm specializing in investigating the causes of landslides in Northern California. “I was the entry-level geological grunt who would go out and see what was happening at a site,” he says. “I learned a lot at that job, but after two years, it was clear that if I wanted to advance, I would have to go to grad school.”

Montgomery enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 with the intent of earning a master’s degree, but about a year and a half into the program, he decided to go for his doctorate. After writing a thesis about the problem of where stream channels start (a stream channel is essentially the path for water and sediment flowing within the stream banks), Montgomery was awarded his Ph.D. in geomorphology in 1991.

Later that year, Montgomery received a two-year appointment from the UW via a grant from the state—four years earlier, Washington had released the Timber/Fish/Wildlife Agreement: a document that “provides the framework, procedures and requirements for successfully managing our state’s forests so as to meet the needs of a viable timber industry and at the same time provide protection for our public resources; fish, wildlife and water, as well as the cultural/archeological resources of Indian tribes within our state.”

In his role at the UW, Montgomery studied the effects of various forestry practices on streams and the salmon populations migrating through them—as well as the overall issue of diminishing salmon populations. In 1999, three years after receiving tenure, Montgomery was appointed to Washington state’s independent science panel on salmon recovery. Gary Locke, the governor at the time, assembled the panel to look into the health of the area’s salmon populations. Montgomery’s resulting work led to the 2004 publication of “King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon.” The book looks at natural and human forces that shape the rivers and mountains of the Pacific Northwest and how those forces have affected the evolution and near-extinction of regional salmon populations.

Montgomery laid out four arguments why salmon populations were drastically declining: overharvesting, habitat loss, migration blockage by man-made dams and the increase of fish hatcheries. The book, while popular, ruffled feathers across several sectors—political, economic and civic. As a result, Montgomery lost his state funding, but he stands behind his findings. “Unless you’re taking steps to address these four issues, you’re just managing the decline, not turning it around,” he says. “Sadly, ‘King of Fish’ is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.”

After “King of Fish” was published, Montgomery realized that “I wasn’t going to be getting a renewal on my funding, so I asked myself, ‘OK, what else am I going to work on?’” That something else turned out to be his next book. Published in 2007, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” explores the idea that humans are—and have long been—using up Earth’s soil and that history has seen many societal collapses created by the compound effects of erosion. It was Montgomery’s second book to win the Washington State Book Award. In 2008, he won the MacArthur, which he credits as giving him “the freedom to write books.”

Habit tends to be the biggest problem standing in the way—from what people are taught to people’s perceptions of how things work. I hope my work helps open some people’s minds and bring about change

David Montgomery

Montgomery has found a niche for himself in the popular science field. His writing is open, accessible and funny at times, and he excels at explaining problems—and connecting dots—in an easy-to-understand manner. Whether describing the complexities of microbial biomass in soil or talking about the history of salmon in the Northwest, the narratives push us to grapple with issues they might otherwise be unaware of but in a way that makes us care—or at least think more deeply.

“David is one of the most creative thinkers I’ve ever met,” his colleague Steig says. “This comes across in his scientific work, in his popular books and in his teaching. His students rave about his classes.”

In 1997, Montgomery and Biklé bought a house in North Seattle, intending to grow a large garden.

“I was the chief gardener,” says Biklé, who studied biology and natural history during her undergrad years. “When we set about building this garden, neither one of us thought to look too much into the soil to see if it was good or bad.” But when Biklé and Montgomery started digging, they discovered a layer of variously sized rocks packed in hard clay—glacial till. “Our soil was like a lot of soil in the Seattle area, full of these weird jumbles of rocks that make it hard to garden,” Biklé says.

Without the budget to bring in the truckloads of compost needed to make the garden more hospitable for plants, Biklé started a years-long crusade to transform the soil. First, she collected materials to make mulch. She called arborists asking for wood chips they didn’t want to pay to dispose of. Then she started gathering other organic matter: dead leaves from neighbors’ yards, coffee grounds from the local café, and the famed Zoo Doo (composted manure from grazing animals at the Woodland Park Zoo). She mixed everything together and layered it on top of the garden beds. She also created a homemade concoction called soil soup, which amounted to trillions of cultured microbes to improve soil fertility.

By the second summer, mushrooms, beetles and other insects appeared in the garden. Fat earthworms wriggled around between the roots of some of the plants, and eventually insect pollinators, then birds, arrived.

According to Montgomery, it took nearly half a decade for Biklé to restore the soil in their yard—a feat so impressive that three years into the project, the organizers of a North Seattle garden tour asked to include their house. Aside from healthy soil and a verdant garden, the project sparked the idea for the couple’s first book: “The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health,” which hit shelves in 2016.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘You guys are crazy!’” Biklé says when asked about the challenges of working and living together. “But we never said, ‘Hey, we should write a book together.’ We started talking about these ideas in 2012, and honestly, it just sort of happened.”

Those ideas, which focus on communities of beneficial microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc.) in soil and humans were on full display as Biklé transformed her garden. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer part way through writing “The Hidden Half of Nature,” it led her to ask questions about sources of health. Part of the answer emerged from finding that the microbiomes perform similar functions in soil and our digestive systems—and may hold the key to improving both human health and soil health.

“Geology and biology are closely enough related that there is a lot of overlap and connectedness,” Biklé notes. “I would say that neither Dave nor I knew what we were getting into with ‘The Hidden Half,’ but we had the right foundation and added to it when we wrote ‘What Your Food Ate.’”

For Montgomery, it all goes back to the interconnectedness of, well, everything. With extensive studies on soil degradation, landslides (after the tragic landslide in Oso in 2014, Montgomery appeared on various news segments to discuss the science behind landslides), desertification and salmon population degradation, it would be easy to take a pessimistic outlook on the world, but Montgomery cops to the exact opposite.

“I’ve become an optimist through writing these books,” he says. “There are ways to turn things around, to stop soil degradation and restore it, to increase salmon populations. Habit tends to be the biggest problem standing in the way—from what people are taught to people’s perceptions of how things work. I hope my work helps open some people’s minds and bring about change.”