Archive for the ‘Deep Oakland’ Category

Yay it’s book week

1 May 2023

This is a fitting occasion to take a break from writing about geological matters to celebrate the official release of Deep Oakland: How Geology Shaped a City — an ode, in its own odd way, to my beloved city. That happens this week on Tuesday 2 May. The printed book will be up on the shelves at bookstores, and the e-edition will be available to download. (See a list of related links at the bottom of this post.)

Heyday Books

This book grew out of a manuscript I started about six years ago that I titled Deep Oakland: Geology of a City. It took a while to work out. When I thought I was near finishing the third draft, I sent a query to Heyday Books, with a sample chapter and a paragraph that said, “My intended audiences are Oakland’s walkers, park visitors, neighborhood leaders, and citizens with a stake in the city, whether they work here, live here or recreate here. . . . A secondary audience consists of thousands of geologists, nature lovers and science enthusiasts who, for family or professional reasons, make the Bay area their travel destination.”

Heyday asked to see the whole manuscript, then came back three months later asking for something rather different, something . . . deeper. I realized that what I had written was a manual for Oakland geologizers. I set it aside and started over again, working closely with Heyday’s editor to create the proper Heyday book they saw inside my work. We finalized that manuscript a year ago, and now it’s a real book with the greatest looking cover and a custom block diagram by Laura Cunningham leading off each chapter.

But the earlier work, totally independent, still has a viable audience, I think. Whereas the new book invites you to see Oakland with deeper appreciation as you look around, the original manuscript is full of specific detail on where to go and what you’ll see there, plus some deeper geological geekery.

Both books, the newly published one and the unpublished one, have the same purpose I spelled out in my query letter:

Oakland is a bellwether city for America’s transition to sustainability in the face of climate change and related challenges. It also faces the certainty of a major earthquake, and every effort should be made to envision and prepare for that calamity while calm instruction is possible. For these reasons, Oakland should take its distinctive geology into its heart, its identity and its sense of place. The under-natured children of Oakland have health-giving wildness all around them, and Deep Oakland is meant to inspire and inform the adults—parents, teachers and other leaders—who will personally take them there.

Later in the week, Heyday will throw me a little party in their book-lined Berkeley headquarters. There will be toasts, gratitude and maybe a few tears.

Then begins a short series of appearances and talks, starting Saturday with a panel appearance at the Bay Area Book Festival. The book has taken up so much of my time and energy that I’ve cut back on these things, as well as my own personal outings. It feels good to resume the old life.


*Book-related announcements and progress reports
*Order the book from the publisher (discount code “oakland” is good through 2023)
*Descriptive notes and supporting links for each chapter
*The “Deeper Oakland” newsletter

The deep present

3 April 2023

A little geology knowledge can be transforming, and a lot can put you in weird territory. But it doesn’t feel so weird to me. You’ve heard of geologic time, the Earth’s lifespan, an ocean of time so deep — billions of years — that it’s unfathomable. I’ve lived in deep time for decades. I look at the past in a totally different way than most people. And I also see the present in deep focus. Let me tell you about the geological present — the deep present.

The landscape evolves so slowly that we can confidently say it’s looked just the same since tens of thousands of years ago. Those hills, those streams and those rocks have been sitting there all that time. The landscape has seen it all. The deep present is the “today” the landscape feels. Anything that’s happened in that time span is just part of the day’s events.

For instance, maximum-size earthquakes on the Hayward fault occur every few centuries. No one alive has witnessed one, but in the deep present, they’re as routine as rainy winters. The landscape is used to them.

In humans, the deep present is a peculiar detachment that lets us see rare but geologically routine events as a factor in the present day. It lets us not just see, but feel the constant possibility of world-changing events.

As I put it to writer Lucy Kang a few years ago, “The deep present is the awareness that what’s around us today is a snapshot that superimposes many thousands of years of history onto this moment. Anything in the geological record that’s happened since the glaciers left — giant quakes, thousand-year floods, centuries-long droughts ­– could happen again tomorrow.” It’s a little distressing that record-breaking floods and droughts have both happened since I wrote that; fortunately, a giant quake has not!

What most people might think of as dead ground — hills and rocks — I see as alive, geologically alive: material responding to energy. Geology is very slow until big things happen suddenly. Rivers flow gently, but one week out of ten thousand they rise up and wipe out their surroundings. And when that one week is preserved in a rock like sandstone or shale, it might be a layer of sand, washed far out to sea, a centimeter thick. The other ten thousand weeks amount to an even thinner layer of clay.

Now picture whole cliffs of such rocks, kilometers in thickness, made up of those little layers and nothing else. That’s deep time.

The events of deep time are irretrievably condensed and blurred; they’ll never be revealed in the clarity and detail with which we see today. But being able to see the present day as an age, rather than a moment, gives us new and valuable insight.

Today is seductive. As we think of our surroundings, we tend to favor the good days over the bad. The river is well-behaved so much of the time that the possibility of a hundred-year or thousand-year flood seems distant. The “big one” earthquake lasts just a minute or two, while the centuries in between are placid and prosperous. Volcanic eruptions can wipe out everything around, but they happen so seldom.

As individuals, most of us enjoy the good times and place our bets on the odds that we’ll be OK. Cities, states and civilizations cannot place such bets, not if they plan to endure. They help ensure, through laws and institutions, that they will last for generations. Today there are demands for civilization to do even better, to become more nearly sustainable: closer to eternal. Geology is essential for reaching that goal.

Even the deep present can be seductive. We know that since the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, the Earth’s climate has been warm and steady, in comparison to other times in the deeper past. “Geological today” has been a nice day. The global warming that’s now well under way is pushing the planet beyond that comfortable state.

Physical evidence of the geological past can give regions a good sense of their typical range of conditions on the thousand-year scale: their deep present. With that knowledge, planners can design realistically based on deep history rather than hopefully, based on today’s nice weather. And the more citizens and their leaders who share the geologist’s sense of the deep present, the better equipped we’ll be to face the deep future. It may not be enough, if the Earth wanders off the relative stability of the last 12,000 years, but it might suffice if we start today.

This piece is partially adapted from one I wrote in 2012 that the publisher has erased.

The geo-flaneur

26 December 2022

I’ve always been a walker. As a child I was prone to wandering off; as a teen I learned that if I walked long enough I’d arrive in another town. My legs take my head to a special place. Since moving to Oakland, more than thirty years ago, I’ve gradually transformed into a flaneur: someone who enjoys just strolling around my city, or any city, no particular place to go, free to “lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” I love to revisit Oakland’s places and watch them change along with me.

My special joy and erudition centers on our special geology. The more I see of it, the more it speaks to me. Some times it even shouts. This blog began with an urge to share what I was perceiving, and it nurtured a private dream that the urge might somehow evolve into a book. The work involved was daunting; it started late and took years of one step at a time. It was not something a flaneur would do. But last week the final text was sent to the printer, and the publisher has a page with preliminary reviews.

One of those reviewers, our own Jenny Odell, says the book “has turned me into a newcomer to my own city, but has also changed the way I will view any landscape.” She gets what it’s about.

Oakland is full of flaneurs like Jenny, and for them all I want to do is add a new dimension to their pleasures. For other Oaklanders, I hope to tempt them into the same habit. Deep down, it’s a form of citizenship.

Winter is a good time to look around while the street trees are bare. The Oakland Hills are beautiful all year round, but early winter brings them a special palette between green and brown. In Deep Oakland I say this about them: “Seen from the city below, especially from the Bay shore, the hills may seem like an even wall, or a wave of rock carpeted with woods. But look again when the air thickens with marine haze and they resolve into a series of en echelon ranges, a set of waves with profiles as crisp as if cut from paper.” This time of year, there have been quite a few days like that.

The geo-flaneur takes walks no one else would think of. I seek out the neighborhood’s eminences and declivities, its peaks and valleys. I also relish unheralded details in the views we all see.

I put in my book the geological things and places I love to visit. That doesn’t discount the joys of the everyday views: handsome buildings, landscaping large and small, the state of the sky and the season, the people along the way. I see and celebrate them too.

This city has everything.

This year marked the fifteenth anniversary of this blog. The actual date of my first post was 25 September 2007, but this year I was too busy at the time rolling through the contents of Deep Oakland to make note of it. And I don’t look back much: I’ve observed the fifth anniversary and my 500th post, and that’s about it. But fifteen years, that’s pretty good. The blog will continue as long as I do.