Lester Rowntree

1938 - 2019

Geographer Lester Rowntree was most at home exploring landscapes, to both appreciate and protect their cultural and ecological diversity. As a gifted educator, he enthusiastically shared what he learned and inspired his students to engage with the natural world.  Les (the name he preferred) was an environmental geographer by training who loved nothing more than to walk in the oak woodlands, sail across the San Francisco Bay, or climb in the Sierra Nevada or the Cascades for the sheer joy of it.  He made his impact on the disciplines of geography and environmental studies through teaching at San José State University, writing textbooks, scholarly articles on the cultural landscape, and a lifetime of research and activism working with California’s natural environment. He was a superb mentor for geographers of any age, making time for long discussions, careful listening, and wise advice. Les passed away on August 30th in his Berkeley home after a long struggle with cancer.  He was 80 years old.


As a scholar Les was most known for a series of important essays on cultural landscape interpretation.  He and his wife, archaeologist Meg Conkey, co-authored an influential paper in 1980 titled “Symbolism and the Cultural Landscape” that appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers.  Another influential piece was the 1996 essay “The Cultural Landscape Concept in American Human Geography” which appeared in Concepts in Human Geography edited by Carville Earle, Kent Mathewson, and Martin Kenzer. He also was a prolific textbook author. In the 1980s he joined geographer Terry Jordan to co-author The Human Mosaic: A Thematic Introduction to Cultural Geography, a project he worked on for seven editions. He then collaborated with Martin Lewis, Marie Price and William Wyckoff for over 20 years on two world regional geography books, Diversity Amid Globalization: World Regions, Environment, Development (seven editions) and Globalization and Diversity: Geography of a Changing World (six editions). The books introduced a thematic structure for world regions while conceptually linking areas through globalization processes.  The most recent edition of Globalization and Diversity was published in 2019. The best part about working with Les on these books was the way he approached it, with joy, high energy, purposefulness, and a dash of irreverence.


Although he wrote about the world, Lester Bradford Rowntree was a native Californian who cared deeply about his home.  Born by the Pacific Ocean in Carmel on December 22, 1938, he spent his youth in what he called a “quaint village of artists, bohemians, and other interesting folk”.  In the post-war years his parents moved to Berkeley, where his father was a member of the Berkeley Fire Department.  Les attended school there, graduated from Berkeley High School, and was elected class president. His college years were restless as he struggled to find a subject that would keep his attention as much as the mountains and the sea, and toward the end he’d fondly recollect summers spent in fire lookouts and hanging out with climbers at the fabled Camp 4, near Yosemite Falls.  He took time off, served in the US Army, and was eventually stationed in Germany where he wrote for Stars & Stripes. His time in Europe introduced him to the Alps, a place that he returned to for his doctoral research.  After being honorably discharged from the army as a conscientious objector, he eventually returned to California and San José State University where he earned a BA in Geography in 1966.  He then went to the University of Oregon where he earned his MA (1970) and PhD (1971) studying the human ecology of mountain systems.


With a PhD in hand, he returned to San José State University (SJSU) to teach.  For over 30 years he taught in the Departments of Geography and Environmental Studies, introducing thousands of students to his passion for environmental geography and landscape interpretation, and steering a long list of students to graduate studies. While at SJSU he chaired the Department of Environmental Studies from 1995-2005. That department, established in 1970, was one of the first of its kind in the country. He retired from SJSU as Professor Emeritus in 2005 to focus on his writing, activism and love of the outdoors. He held Visiting Scholar and Research Associate appointments at the University of California, Berkeley since 2005.


Perhaps the most personal scholarly project of his career was Hardy Californians: A Woman’s Life with Native Plants, which was published in 2006 by the University of California Press.  A monograph by the same title was first published in 1936 by (Gertrude) Lester Rowntree, Les’s grandmother, with whom he shared the identical name. His grandmother lived in the Carmel Highlands and was a pioneering expert on California’s native flora. Les took enormous pride in re-introducing his grandmother’s path-breaking work to a new generation of ecologists and botanists. He also enjoyed writing popular environmental essays for Bay Nature.  Two excellent examples of the teacher/scholar writing to a broader audience are: “When it Rains it Pours: Atmospheric Rivers and Drought”; and “Forged by Fire: Lightning and Landscape at Big Sur” in which he returns to his lifelong interest in the impact of fire on the landscape.


Even though teaching required a long commute to San José, Les eventually returned to the Berkeley Hills to live in 1987 with his wife Meg Conkey, who at that time was appointed to the Department of Anthropology as a Professor of Archeology at UC Berkeley. Their home was regularly filled with visiting scholars, friends and family. Summers often included research, especially at Meg’s field site in the Dordogne, north of the French Pyrénées, with frequent travel to a family summer home in Maine. Les and Meg also shared a devotion to Cal sports and regularly attended women’s basketball and men’s football games.  Les passed away in his home with a view of the ‘hardy Californian’ native plants that filled their garden. He is survived by his wife Meg, daughters Erika and Alicechandra, three grandchildren, and his brother Rowan and sister Pat. There are plans for a memorial in November.


Marie Price and Paul F. Starrs