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Monday, September 22, 2008 - Page updated at 09:20 PM

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UW expert on soil erosion wins 'genius grant'

University of Washington professor David R. Montgomery started his sabbatical last Monday and learned Tuesday that he had won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

SEATTLE —

University of Washington professor David R. Montgomery started his sabbatical last Monday and learned Tuesday that he had won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

Montgomery, 47, is one of 25 people who have been chosen to receive a $500,000 fellowship to do as they please because of his work as a writer and a scientist.

Montgomery, who has been teaching and researching at the University of Washington since completing his doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley in 1991, says the money will come in very handy as he struggles to find the time to write two books on floods and urban agriculture.

His specialty is geomorphology, the study of the surface of the earth and how it changes over time.

One book, tentatively entitled "Phantom Deluge," is about floods and the "cross pollination" of scientific and theological thought. His scope ranges from Noah's ark to Native American flood legends and how geology has affected religious thought and vice versa.

In the second book, to be written with his wife, Anne Bickle (pronounced bee-CLAY'), West Coast education director for the National Wildlife Federation, Montgomery plans to examine the potential for using soil to recapture carbon that is changing the world's climate.

That project, a follow-up to his 2007 book called "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," was inspired by his wife's experience landscaping their small yard with trees and other plants. Her effort reminded Montgomery that even small steps like adding trees to one yard can make a difference.

"It's not a magic bullet, but it would help," he said.

"Dirt" looked at the way soil depletion led to the downfall of civilizations and warned that if farming practices do not change, humans could be on the verge of exhausting the planet's supply of arable soil.

Known for turning complicated scientific thought into entertaining and informative nonfiction, Montgomery said Monday he won't use the grant to extend his one-year sabbatical but may try to carve out big chunks of time to get away from his office to write.

"It's really hard to do something like generate a book in 15-minute increments," he said. "I'm incredibly thankful to the MacArthur people for their generosity."

Montgomery, who knows two other earth scientists who have won MacArthur Foundation grants, also wrote "King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon" about the natural and human forces that have affected salmon habitat over the centuries.

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"With a scientist's rigor, a historian's curiosity and an environmentalist's passion, Montgomery is leading investigations into the ecological consequences of a wide range of Earth surface processes," the MacArthur Foundation said in a statement.

Montgomery's flood research extends from overflows along the Skokomish River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the complex forces at work along the world's highest river, the Tsangpo River in Tibet. His findings have been published in journals such as Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Dirt" and "King of Fish" each took Montgomery three years to write. He said he may use some of the grant to pay for periodic semesters away from the classroom and the university.

In addition to writing, the grant will also help him pursue research interests and work on music. He plays guitar and sings in a "alt-country" or folk rock band called "Big Dirt" - named for the planet, not his book.

"Having an unfettered ability to support those three activities is incredible, absolutely incredible," Montgomery said.

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On the Net:

UW Department of Earth and Space Sciences: http://www.ess.washington.edu/

UW Geomorphology Research Group: http://gis.ess.washington.edu/grg/

Big Dirt: http://bigdirtmusic.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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