The Paleocene blob revisited

It may seem to readers like I’ve been out in the field during the past year, but in fact I’ve been holding back since the lockdown last March, taking my own advice. Last week, on the verge of receiving the Covid vaccine, I decided to formally resume geologizing, and start by giving a small patch of rocks a new, more thorough inspection.

It was thirteen years ago when I first reconnoitered this odd little area of rocks, shown on the geologic map as unit Ta, “unnamed glauconitic sandstone (Paleocene).” It’s described as “coarse-grained, green, glauconite-rich, lithic sandstone with well-preserved coral fossils. Locally interbedded with gray mudstone and hard, fine-grained, mica-bearing quartz sandstone.”

Here’s a closeup in Google Maps with the outline of the “Ta” unit. It manifests as a ridge-forming substrate that is undermined by an active landslide scar (part of which is the notorious Snake Road/Armour Drive landslide) on its northwest end.

In a systematic approach, I sought out the three places marked on the map with strike-and-dip symbols. (I used this same strategy a couple years ago with the overlying Eocene mudstone unit.)

The northernmost site, at the stub end of Armour Drive, is hopeless; it’s been thoroughly disrupted by the Snake Road landslide, and the fortress houses being built on the scar will disturb it more as the owners landscape their grounds. There were no good exposures at all, let alone one showing beds dipping 80 degrees south. But this is what some of the rock looks like: a dark siltstone with a greenish tinge and a bit of clay in it.

The middle locality was where my hopes were highest — an aborted foundation pit on Saroni Drive where the “well-preserved coral fossils” had been documented. In fact, I had asked Russ Graymer, compiler of the geologic map, about this pit. That was in 2009, which by his account was 14 years after he’d visited it (or a good 25 years ago today). He replied that his notes from the site were as follows: “The rock here is massive, black, coarse-grained, glauconitic sandstone and pebbly sandstone. There are many fossils here, including pecten, coral (Paleocene?), shark teeth, and snail. There is also pink-brown siltstone and brown mudstone.”

All I can say is I wish I’d been here 25 years ago.

I gave the site a thorough look, without hammering anything as is my practice. I saw no pebbly mudstone, not even any coarse-grained sand. I noted clayey siltstone and silty shale, hard here and soft there, with fine to massive bedding. On the lefthand side the shale beds were vertical, with the upper side to the east. Nothing that I could possibly interpret as overturned beds with a 60-degree dip.

Elsewhere the rocks had no reliable bedding. Down in front were some crumbling mudstone boulders. One of them had some vague fossil-like shapes that fizzed in acid, but the eyes can be fooled and our rocks commonly have some lime in them. It’s not always meaningful, though I always check for it.

You may wonder how this rock unit was determined to be of Paleocene age, unique in Oakland. As I recall our conversation, Graymer was accompanied that day by Earl Brabb, who said the corals reminded him of Paleocene corals he knew from the Santa Cruz Mountains. In fact I wrote Brabb for more detail and he replied with the location of the roadcut he had in mind. But I never got over there, the email was lost, and Earl Brabb died a few years later. Now I would never gainsay Brabb’s judgment — he was a top-tier field geologist — but that’s the main line of evidence behind this age assignment.

I wish he had been with me at the third site. It’s under a power-line tower north of a bend in Balboa Drive and consists of thin-bedded siltstone, nicely tilted. This spot, at least, is still good.

The roadcut on Balboa Drive was where I hit paydirt. Bedding surfaces were exposed that included sole marks. These occur on the underside of beds, and they indicate that here the rocks are overturned, contrary to what the map shows.

And in the gutter of the curve, buffed by errant car tires, were a couple of these round, laminated objects nestled in situ among the siltstone beds. They responded to acid, indicating that the laminations included calcite. And the rocks nearby displayed a fine vein of solid calcite about 4 millimeters thick.

I would peg these as some sort of fossil, but Earl Brabb might well have said they were just like the Paleocene corals he knew from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The setting could have been a cold seep, such as are known elsewhere in the Great Valley Sequence.

The rocks of the Oakland Hills are poorly organized and poorly exposed, and hence not really well mapped. They’ve been overturned and broken and shuffled around. Whenever I try to make sense of them I doubt my senses; that’s the way the Earth just is here. A geologic map is as much an exercise in imagination as in observation. The pros are certainly better mappers than I am, but they aren’t superhuman and their work can be interrogated; the rocks can speak differently with each visit. The outline on the map, as far as I can tell by checking around its edges, is fairly correct — you’ll notice that every line is dashed, meaning it’s inferred, not firmly nailed down.

The “Ta” rock unit hasn’t revealed itself to me as a coarse-grained green lithic sandstone, more like a fine-grained sorta greenish lithic siltstone. Geologists train themselves and have tools to specify rock colors, but to me green is always suspect; our woods favor mosses and algae, and our weathering environment favors rusty colors.

The rock here is definitely something other than the Redwood Canyon Formation to the south and the Eocene mudstone to the north. It’s a little piece of somewhere different.

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