Archive for the ‘Other topics’ Category

The Oakland shellmound

6 February 2023

One thing geologists have to do, in any city in the world, is to erase the human changes imposed on the ground so they can see the landscape beneath. Whenever I do that in Oakland, mentally removing the accumulation of 150 years of buildings and development since Horace Carpentier (boo! hiss!) came across the Bay and staked out his downtown grid, I envision a wide grassland and wildflower-covered hills, punctuated by thick stands of oaks near the Bay and a striking redwood grove around Redwood Peak: the Ohlone world.

The Ohlones didn’t do a lot of building or digging on their land, just a little bit here and there, like the ocher quarry up by Holy Names University. They may have scooped out swimming holes in the creeks near their sweathouses. They left grinding holes, from centuries of pounding acorns into meal, where the rock was good. But they did make one kind of big thing, they and their ancestors — shellmounds. Geologists, be warned: one of these might fool you.

Shellmound near Mill Valley, 1909 (source)

The name is undignified, but the shellmounds can be thought of as the local version of the tells in the Middle Eastern countries, the remains of successive mud-brick villages that dot the ancient floodplains of the Fertile Crescent. The shellmounds may have begun as refuse heaps at seasonal campsites where abundant seafood and other resources supported generations of feasts, but the larger ones came to serve as burying grounds and ceremonial sites of regional importance. They became sacred. There were thousands of shellmounds around the Bay. Oakland had some too.

When agents of the Spanish empire came, removing the Ohlones and taking the land, the shellmounds were no longer living destinations. Later, American settlers saw them as a raw resource and started to dig them up in the 1850s. The mounds had good soil. The shells were mined and burned for lime, or crushed for roadbeds. The bones were dumped; artifacts were taken for souvenirs by generations of kids and passers-by, to be lost or broken. Museums hoarded some collections. The subject is a bitter one for the Ohlones and other Indigenous peoples, who still live among us and deserve better.

Wood and Munro-Fraser’s history of Alameda County, published in 1883, noted: “At some remote period there had been Indian camps upon the northern bank of the San Antonio Creek, and the mounds, composed mainly of oyster-shells, are not yet entirely obliterated.” San Antonio Creek was the brackish inlet where the Oakland harbor is today; see it on the inset of the 1869 Sessions map.

On the point at the east end of the creek, a shellmound is shown on the main map. Halley’s history of Alameda County, published in 1876, made note of its presence in the 1850s: “Shell Mound, the residence of Captain E. F. Rodgers, at the head of the estuary, became noted as a nursery and for the excellence of its fruit orchard.”

It became a military site during the Civil War years (which may be when this place took on the name “Union Point”), but the mound survived to be recorded in 1889 when the land was being subdivided as the Shell Mound Tract, at the intersection of Livingston and Water Streets.

When Nels Nelson, a UC Berkeley archeologist, published his survey of the Bay area’s shellmounds in 1909, he noted several in Oakland.

The map isn’t entirely reliable at the scale of publication (or the scan preserved online), but he located the cluster of big ones at the mouth of Temescal Creek, known collectively as the Emeryville Shellmound. He noted three more that had once existed in the Elmhurst area and another at the mouth of Brooklyn Creek, directly beneath the O in “Oakland.” Perhaps that last one was really the Union Point shellmound.

Remarkably, that location, 1901 Livingston Street, is a city-owned parcel, a triangular gravel lot by railroad tracks that’s now leased to a construction firm.

Perhaps the Ohlones would take it back. They could make it a nice adjunct to Union Point Park, the Embarcadero Cove Marina collection of historic buildings, and the art workshops in this modest district.

Art concrete at UC Berkeley

28 February 2022

I have occasion to walk through the UC Berkeley campus often, and there’s a lot there to see. Recently a subtle feature caught my eye at Morgan Hall, which is otherwise a pretty undistinguished building — this rich concrete screen that borders its brick courtyard.

It does a lot of work in a discreet way.

The ten panels of rugged dark concrete, identical but alternately rotated, are laid out like a Japanese folding screen. They form an effective barrier, but the visual impression is of lightness and transparency. Two small accent panels of polished colored concrete individuate each frame. Rounded benches on the inside invite a closer visit.

The eucalyptus trees in the courtyard offer organic forms that play off the surrounding hardscape, and the accent panels reward close inspection on a sunny day. They aren’t run-of-the-mill gravel. The colors are precise.

The brisk grain boundaries and crisp polished faces, one random and the other geometric, tease and please the eye.

The blends of clasts and matrix are tightly controlled.

And what is it about that dark gray framing? Look close in good light.

Not only is it sprinkled with light grains accentuating its darkness, but the dark rock is shot with color, the deep green and blue glimmer of pyroxene minerals and serpentine. A real artist made this. I wish I knew who it was.

Two women named Morgan left their mark in Berkeley. Agnes Fay Morgan (1884-1968) was a pioneering scientist in the field of nutrition who during a long career at UC Berkeley (1915-1954) rose to the head of its College of Home Economics. (The other one was Julia, the architect.) She was widely celebrated as a founder of nutritional chemistry and a person of influence. The Berkeley Chemistry Department recalls that “Dr. Morgan’s teaching was characterized by enthusiasm for her subject, clarity, and a seemingly boundless energy. She had a sublime confidence in her rightness and a genius for disregarding nonessentials and relaxing when the opportunity presented itself.” Morgan Hall, built in 1953, was renamed in her honor in 1961. I can’t help but think that Dr. Morgan indirectly influenced my own mother, who earned a Home Ec degree from Cornell University, another progressive school, in the early 1940s and put it to full use raising and nourishing six children.

Lake Merritt’s sister lake

20 December 2021

Fukuoka, Japan is one of Oakland’s sister cities; nothing amazing about that, we have lots of them. But Fukuoka has a special twin it shares with us — a lake converted from an arm of the sea. Fukuoka’s counterpart to our Lake Merritt is Ohori Park.

All photos Wikimedia commons

It’s got boat rentals, a bird island and a Japanese garden, just like we do. It’s in the middle of the old city, just like ours is. But it’s considerably older.

The lake was formerly an inlet at the mouth of the Hii River; then the daimyo Kurodo Nagamasa repurposed it in the early 1600s as part of the moat (ohori) around his brand-new castle, diverting the river and building new land across the inlet’s mouth. To all appearances it’s been a freshwater lake for a long time.

While Lake Merritt has a couple of nice pedestrian bridges in its outlet channel, Ohori Park has four of them crossing the lake from end to end that connect three little islands.

Where we have green, great blue and black-crowned night herons, Ohori Park has the Old World’s gray heron, Nycticorax cinerea.

Ohori Park also has an art museum and a Noh theater. It doesn’t have our free-form public spaces, or our ice-age history and monsters. It’s got a Twitter account, but Lake Merritt doesn’t, far as I can tell. We’re different cities, but our lakes are near-twins.

In Oakland, we’ve been altering our lake for the last 150 years. It started out quite different, as a shallow muddy slough with patches of marsh around it and a muddy shore. It’s been dredged and dammed and armored and built up. Today it’s a highly contrived place, an open-air aquarium.

If we felt like it, we could fill in the channel and make it a one-way floodgate. In not too many years, the lake would turn freshwater, as Dr. Merritt intended when he built his dam back in 1868.

We took this lake into our own hands a long time ago. I like it very much today, but we can change it any time we feel like.