Deep time and Deep East

The deepest part of Deep East Oakland, at the south end of the alphabet streets, is a neighborhood that shows its age. First laid out and developed almost a century ago, it was a desirable locale, with good transportation, fresh air, a warm climate and excellent soil, plus nice views of the hills.


The neighborhood retains modest homes from a wide range of 20th-century styles.


There are also front-yard fences everywhere, signs of a more recent stage of the local culture.


So why do I bring up deep time when I think about Deep East? “Deep time,” the wonderful term first used by John McPhee in Basin and Range, is geology’s great insight that Earth history is essentially infinite. Put another way, by paying careful attention to the geology of the present-day landscape, we can deduce many facts about the deep past. With that knowledge we can visualize ancient worlds with different landscapes, superimposed on our own. From those visions, informed by geologic fact, we can see light shed upon even earlier landscapes and worlds, and there seems to be no limit. This is similar to how astronomers know the universe — deep space — in ever-greater detail as our instruments improve.

We also learn that even while the landscape is far older than the human presence in it, some parts of it are old and some are quite young in geologic terms. The young features took their place by erasing something older. The ongoing processes of geology — uplift, erosion, consolidation, disintegration — lead to a pleasantly mixed landscape just as the ongoing processes of humanity — birth, death, migration, commerce — lead to neighborhoods like Deep East. Landscapes and neighborhoods both are always changing, and each day’s present is a snapshot never to be repeated.

The more I learn how much Oakland has changed and how many ways it can change, the more precious becomes the present. Some day, earthquake or rising sea level or century-long drought will wipe most of our present away. So as I walk around this town I always know that the panorama has a big label on it that reads “Before.”


What the “After” scene will look like is to be determined. We know that by personal initiative and supportive policies, historic properties can be safeguarded for the future, with the hope of maintaining and reviving what’s precious about a neighborhood.

The same is true for Oakland. The same is true for the Earth we live on. Spread the word and enjoy today.

2 Responses to “Deep time and Deep East”

  1. christolf Says:

    Big fan of this blog, especially as a (relatively) new Oakland resident, but I have to offer a slight correction.

    McPhee was not the first to use the phrase “deep time” in reference to geologic time. I think it was James Hutton in his philosophical/geologic study *Theory of the Earth* – published in 1788! The idea was also expanded in Charles Lyell’s *Principles of Geology* (1831-33). Of course, these were British philosopher/gentleman scientists who were still very much struggling with the increasingly obvious fact that the Earth wasn’t created by God in six days, but their ideas are really interesting. I only know this because I read these texts for a literature course in college; I am no geologist.

    [Thanks! You may enjoy reading Hutton’s original hypothesis in “Theory of the Earth,” which he presented in 1785. His 1795 book “Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations,” proceeded to flesh out his theory with real evidence from the rocks. When I read it in college I thought it was long-winded and boring, but for a motivated reader of the time it was just as convincing as Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s “Mathematical Principles.” The phrase “deep time,” though, is McPhee’s coinage.

    I wrote about Hutton’s creationist geology a while ago on — Andrew]

  2. nbschiff Says:

    A lovely post!

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