Introducing Deep Oakland 4: Mountain View Cemetery

Chapter 4 of Deep Oakland is kind of a curveball that I quite enjoyed researching, pondering and writing. The magnificent Mountain View Cemetery, founded in 1863, was designed to suit the special landscape, and the geology that it happily preserved shines through to this day. It embodies an important element in Oakland’s geology. But here too are some graves of notable geologists — and geology is people. In this chapter, which is formally about perceiving landscape, I touch on a range of human topics: the nature of science, the nature of wildness, the minds of geologists and the role of geology and geologists in human society. Those are things I don’t blog about, so I think my regular readers will enjoy this chapter. The ideas in it underlie everything I post.

Here are no ice-age scenarios; instead, my ruminations sift through centuries of human time, starting in the early 1600s with the birth of modern science. However, in this chapter I also bring up rocks for the first time and try to explain why geologists care so much about them:

Asking a geologist “what are rocks?” is like asking a chef what food is, or a writer what words are. They will smile, pause and answer, “The real question is what rocks mean.” Rocks are more than lumps of mineral matter. Rocks are things that have happened, results of particular events. Every body of rock was made in a specific place and time, and it’s stamped with traces of that environment as surely as a serial number, if we have the skills to read it — that belief is what drives geologists.

The rock that underlies the cemetery is rarely visible unless you see a few chips around a fresh-dug grave: it’s thin-bedded shale and sandstone, not too hard to dig in and good for growing grass and big ornamental trees, but it doesn’t crop out. Within it, though, are lumps of very different stuff, like raisins in a pudding, and they punctuate the landscape at all levels.

This mixture, blocks in matrix, is called melange and it’s found all over the Coast Range as a major part of the Franciscan Complex. The Franciscan pops up later in the book, so that’s all I say about its rocks in this chapter. But melange makes a peculiar, casual terrain well known to California geologists: “Seeing melange here outside its main habitat, groomed and ornamented with trees, can bemuse geologists who know it from genuinely wild places.”

I talk about geologists in the cemetery, some of them famous and others revered only by specialists. The foremost of them, Joseph Le Conte, is also the most problematic: “Every age reconsiders its heroes once they fade from living memory, and lately he has been found wanting.” Considering his legacy, good and bad, leads me afield as I walk around the grounds. I also harken back to Francis Bacon, who invented modern science in Shakespeare’s time, and Nicolaus Steno, who a few decades later founded geology (and is literally its patron saint), and his three degrees of beauty. I hope more of my readers will check out these thinkers some time.

I also ponder the ideas of landscape and wildness, and Le Conte, a founder of the Sierra Club, turns up again. He loved the grand empty lands of the Sierra Nevada and thought they were better off without the Indians who formerly called them home. Geologists have a certain possessiveness about the land, a willingness to cross fences, that needs careful taming. I’m as susceptible to it as anyone.

In sum, the geologist’s eye is a bit subversive; it ignores boundaries and other restrictions, legal or sacred. With equal curiosity we scrutinize the stones of churches, the floors of civic buildings and the walls of lavatories. And so it is with me and this cemetery. It’s a handy example of what California geologists, with easy familiarity, call Franciscan terrain.

If you feel like visiting Mountain View, be aware that they’ve restricted their hours since the pandemic began.

2 Responses to “Introducing Deep Oakland 4: Mountain View Cemetery”

  1. Oz Childs Says:

    One of my great great grandfathers is buried there. Crossed the Plains with his son, who eventually moved to Los Angeles.

    I wouldn’t be the least shocked by LeConte’s talking about an old mammy, no more than I am about similar language in Stephen Foster’s and later songs. Nor by his being on the side of the South. Pretty common in those days. Probably my ancestors in Maryland had slaves (the others were Yankees). What actually surprised me was finding that Santa Rosa was largely pro South before the Civil War, while Petaluma was pro-Union and anti slavery

  2. Brian Elwell Says:

    I have been to Mountain View Cemetery and even though I am but an armchair geologist at best, I also found the landscape and terrain to be most intriguing

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