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Donald Lee Johnson Changed Views on Soil Formation

June 28, 2013

Donald L. Johnson

Donald Lee JohnsonDonald Lee Johnson, Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois from 1970-2003 and Emeritus Professor from 2003, passed on May 10, 2013. He was born March 8, 1934, in Long Beach, CA. Don received his Ph.D. in geography in 1972 from the University of Kansas. Diana Johnson was his life partner for 53 years, and wife for 49 of them.

Don’s life and career were an inspiration to many. Though retired, he never stopped his research and writing. He was one of those blessed individuals whose career was his hobby, and he never tired of his work.

Over the course of his career, Don taught 10 different courses in physical geography, soil-geomorphology and zoogeography at University of Illinois. He loved what he taught and his enthusiasm was infectious. Don was always entertaining and positive in the classroom, and his students truly loved him. Don took his enthusiasm for research into the classroom, taking his students on field trips every semester. He led 28 different undergraduates on independent study projects. His list of advisees and graduate committees includes 10 with senior theses, 23 with master’s theses, and 26 with doctoral dissertations. Many of his students have gone on to highly visible careers, but most importantly, they all continued to stay in touch with him. Don truly loved the relationships that he developed with students.

Perhaps the best testaments to Don’s teachings are reports given by his former students. His students left his classroom believing that soils--of all things--could truly be interesting, exciting and important, and that there is still much to learn about them. Never one to simply cite the party line, Don continually challenged the status quo and asked his students to do the same. Most importantly, he taught his students to question what they saw, and to always think outside of the box. He simply asked them to learn by looking. He was a keen observer of natural systems, often seeing things that others ignored. He called it his intellectual filter. There’s no doubt he viewed the world through different intellectual filters than most, and in so doing he saw things that other people looked at but didn't quite see. Anyone who’s received an email from Don likely noticed a quote in his signature: “We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”

Don’s list of published papers in refereed journals and books numbers over 80. And yet the numbers don't do justice to his contribution to these disciplines, nor of the long-lasting impact that his work will have on future generations. Not once but twice, Don won the GK Gilbert Award for Excellence in Geomorphic Research from the AAG Geomorphology Specialty Group (GSG).  His second Gilbert Award - won just this year with colleague and former student Jennifer Burnham for their GSA Special Paper on Mima Mounds - illustrates that Don never stopped doing what he loved: research and fieldwork. In 2005, he received the Distinguished Career Award from the GSG of the AAG. Don was a truly interdisciplinary scholar, as evidenced by the Rip Rapp Archaeological Geology Award that he had also received from the Geological Society of America. Don was equally at home with geographers, geologists, soil scientists, archaeologists, and biologists and published in journals of all these disciplines.

Almost single-handedly, Don published paper after paper, gave talk after talk, and had one-on-one conversations with people from all walks of life, all designed to highlight the importance of bioturbation and biomechanical processes on soil formation. His theoretical papers on soil genesis and evolution dramatically changed the way that the academic community views soil formation. This work has particularly assisted archeologists and tropical soil scientists by helping to explain the formation of stone lines, enigmatic features whose origins had been debated for decades.  His work on mima mounds helped settle a centuries-long debate on the origins of these features. Don’s theoretical contributions continue to be truly revolutionary and of lasting import. His body of work will enjoy a position among the very best soil theoreticians in recent history. And of course, much of this work was done in full collaboration with his career-long field partner, Diana.

Don was an explorer, a field person, and an adventurer. Ever curious, Don and Diana traveled the world seek­ing answers to the question: How do Earth systems really work? Don was a thoughtful and generous man, always taking the time to be kind and gracious to everyone he met, forging many strong friendships. He was a true inspiration to everyone he met. He also loved working in the garden, playing racquetball and writing poems. Don’s family, friends, and colleagues will miss him dearly, but he lives on in our hearts and minds, and his passion for the soil lives on in what he has written.

Jennifer Burnham
Augustana College

Randy Schaetzl
Michigan State University

Selected Bibliography

Horwath Burnham, J.L., and D.L. Johnson, eds., 2012, Mima mounds: the case for polygenesis and bioturbation: Geological Society of America Special Paper 490: Boulder, Colorado, 211 p.

Johnson, D.L., Domier, J.E.J., and D.N. Johnson. 2005. Reflections on the nature of soil and its biomantle. Annals Assoc. Am. Geog. 95:11-31. 

Johnson, D.L., J.E.J. Domier, and D.N. Johnson, 2005, Animating the biodynamics of soil thickness using process vector analysis -- a dynamic denudation approach to soil formation:         Geomorphology, v. 67, nos. 1-4, p. 23-46.

Johnson, D.L. 2002. Darwin would be proud: Bioturbation, dynamic denudation, and the power of theory in science. Geoarchaeology Special Issue: Formation Processes in Regional Perspective 17:7-40.

Johnson, D.L. 1994. Reassessment of early and modern soil horizon designation frameworks and associated pedogenetic processes: Are midlatitude A E B-C horizons equivalent to tropical M S W horizons? Soil Science (Trends in Agric. Sci.) 2:77-91.

Johnson, D.L. 1993. Dynamic denudation evolution of tropical, subtropical and temperate landscapes with three tiered soils; toward a general theory of landscape evolution. Quaternary International 17:67-78.

Johnson, D.L. and Balek, C.L. 1991. The genesis of Quaternary landscapes with stone-lines.  Physical Geography 12:385-395.

Johnson, D.L. Keller, E.A. and Rockwell, T.K. 1990. Dynamic pedogenesis; new views on some key soil concepts, and a model for interpreting Quaternary soils. Quaternary Research 33:306-319.

Johnson, D.L. 1990.Biomantle evolution and the redistribution of earth materials and artifacts. Soil Science 149:84-102.

Johnson D.L. 1989. Subsurface stone lines, stone zones, artifact-manuport layers, and biomantles produced by bioturbation via pocket gophers (Thomomys bottae). American Antiquity 54:292-326.

Johnson, D.L., Watson-Stegner, D., Johnson, D.N. and Schaetzl, R.J. 1987. Proisotropic and proanisotropic processes of pedoturbation. Soil Science 143:278-292.

Johnson, D.L. and Watson-Stegner, D. 1987. Evolution model of pedogenesis. Soil Science 143:349-366.

Johnson, D.L., 1978.  The origin of island mammoths and the Quaternary land bridge history of the northern Channel Islands, California.  Quaternary Research 10: 204-225.

Johnson, D.L., 1977.  The late Quaternary climate of coastal California: Evidence for an Ice Age refugium.  Quaternary Research 8: 154-179. 



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