Archive for the ‘Other topics’ Category

Geologists at Mountain View Cemetery

16 March 2020

Longtime readers will recall my post about Joseph Le Conte’s gravestone, which begins, “Joseph Le Conte (1823–1901) is probably the most eminent geologist in Mountain View Cemetery.” Last week I looked into that statement in more detail. Having made a thorough study — well, fairly thorough — actually pretty cursory, given the difficulties, I can say that Prof. Le Conte is probably not the most eminent geologist buried here. It’s arguable.

Here are all the other geologists I’ve been able to find, in the order of their deaths.

Ezra Slocum Carr (1819-1894) lies in plot 4, in an unmarked grave next to his wife Jeanne Smith Carr (1825-1903).

Ezra is significant in American geology for being part of the 1857 geological survey of Wisconsin, along with James Hall and Josiah Whitney. Ezra was a professor of natural history at the University of Wisconsin when Jeanne met a remarkable young man named John Muir. Together, the Carrs — no other word for it — cultivated him and maintained with him an intimate lifelong connection. Ezra gave Muir his first instruction in geology, something the Scottish-born farmboy must have soaked up like a sponge. When Ezra accepted an appointment to the new University of California in 1869, he became its first professor of agriculture. Muir had already come to California and been smitten with the Yosemite country. Jeanne arranged for Muir to meet Louisa Strenzel, daughter of a wealthy Martinez doctor and orchardist, who became Muir’s wife in 1880. Ezra later became the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

James Graham Cooper (1830-1902) lies in plot 31, lot 15 right across from the prominent knocker. I haven’t found his stone yet, if there is one.

Cooper was a restless guy, trained as a doctor as so many early American naturalists were. His interests included botany, zoology and fossils, and he made many contributions to paleontology. He served in several Western exploring expeditions, most notably Josiah Whitney’s geological survey of California. He lost out to Joseph Le Conte as first professor of natural history at UC Berkeley, but still crammed a lot of accomplishment into his lifespan.

The remains of John C. Merriam (1869-1945) are in the columbarium, which is hard to navigate so I haven’t visited his niche yet. Instead here’s a fine, unengraved boulder of Franciscan chert in the middle of a plot.

If you’ve heard of California’s tar pits — the major ones in Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles and near McKittrick in the San Joaquin Valley — Merriam was the guy who led the first scientific excavations there on behalf of UC Berkeley. He described Smilodon californicus, the sabertooth cat, our official state fossil. He also co-founded the Save the Redwoods League, ran the Carnegie Institution and was president of the Geological Society of America for a term. The UC Museum of Paleontology has a page about him, as does Wikipedia.

Andrew C. Lawson (1861-1952) was buried at Mountain View but later removed to Toronto, presumably in a family plot up there but that’s where the trail ends. Here’s my favorite outcrop of Franciscan chert at the cemetery — Lawson gave the Franciscan complex its name.

Lawson, another Scottish immigrant, was very influential through his long tenure at UC Berkeley. He was the first decent mapper of Bay area rocks and a demanding instructor, emphasizing rigorous fieldwork. Many of the rock units around here were named by him. And of course he did heroic service after the 1906 earthquake, heading the Carnegie Commission that thoroughly studied the event in the aftermath. His two-volume report, published in 1908, is still known among seismologists as “the Lawson report.” He recognized and named the San Andreas Fault — wags suggest that he’d indirectly named it for himself. The mineral lawsonite is named for him.

But for my money, this guy buried in plot 6 is Mountain View’s leading geologist.

Nicholas Taliaferro (1890-1961), of the old Kentucky Taliaferros, pronounced his name “TALLifer” but his colleagues and students knew him as “Tucky,” presumably because of his accent. At UC Berkeley he succeeded Lawson in teaching field geology, up in these hills. In a Bay Nature piece in 2010, Erik Vance described Taliaferro’s teaching style, a story I used to hear too: “He would walk into the hills with his students, lean back on the head of his axe, stare at a rock, and light a cigarette. The confused students would look around, try to figure out what he was staring at, and start taking measurements. After a bit, Tucky would stand, wander to another rock, and have another smoke. If you missed it, you missed it.”

He ran the department’s Geology Summer Camps for 33 years, training more than a thousand future geologists to make sense of the land around them. And when he wasn’t doing that he patrolled the Coast Range and Sierra foothills, covering some 50,000 miles on foot and mapping 26 whole quadrangles, a land area probably exceeded only by the late Tom Dibblee. Every paper on Coast Range geology of any depth will cite Taliaferro’s work, even today. UC Berkeley has memorialized him on this page.

I would love to learn of other geologists buried at Mountain View. Or, for that matter, at any other Oakland cemeterySt. Mary, Home of Eternity, Home of Peace or Evergreen.

There is one more prominent California geoscientist I found: Eugene Hilgard (1833-1916), UC Berkeley’s first mineralogy professor, but far better known as a pioneer soil scientist. He’s in St. Mary, in the Dormitory B section.

Geology of Alameda

20 January 2020

Although these two distinctive cities are right next to each other and were settled at the same time, Alameda is a very different place from Oakland. One way to put it is that when you’re in Oakland, you see Oakland all around you. In Alameda, you see everything but Alameda around you.

And I like both of those things just fine. But in this post I’ll attempt to show the subtle ways Alameda reveals itself.

First a little history. The earliest map showing Alameda in any detail was Captain Beechey’s map of the San Francisco Bay, first published in 1833. Mainly a sailor-centric chart, it focused on the seaward edges of things. It shows Alameda as the peninsula it was until the 1890s, when the tidal canal was completed across its east end making it an island.

Two details are interesting. First, the map shows the seaward edge of the peninsula as an embankment rather than the typical marsh found around most of the Bay. A sandy bluff overlooked the beach and mudflats here. Second, the map used the same tree symbols as it used for the redwoods in the high Oakland hills, and not the round icons used for the encinal oak groves to the north, in West Oakland and downtown. Gary Lenhart, over at alamedainfo.com, suggests that this may mean there were redwoods here. I don’t buy that because the habitat is wrong and because I haven’t seen any mention of redwood groves along the shore, but the possibility is intriguing, especially since Friar Pedro Font, during the Anza expedition in 1776, also sketched the peninsula with a heavy forest (view west).

The 1857 Bache map doesn’t cover all of Alameda, but what it does show comports with the Beechey map in depicting a definite edge, not a marshy transition, between land and sea. This segment is from the west end; the Peralta Wharf was where Ballena Bay is today.

This map shows the entire peninsula forested with oaks and labeled “The Encinal,” which is how the first generation of Anglo occupiers knew it.

That’s all long past. The trees went early, turned into firewood and charcoal; the land was farmed, then subdivided for estates and divided again for homes. Underneath it all, the Alameda peninsula is a uniform body of windblown sand dating from glacial times, now surrounded by artificial landfill as seen in the geologic map. Nowhere is the elevation higher than 35 feet.

I should note an exception to that. Once upon a time the shellmound of Mound Street was the tallest thing in town, according to the monument in Lincoln Park. And here let me acknowledge that we live on Ohlone land, and that we don’t deserve the acceptance and welcome the tribes have granted us. Forgive us our trespasses.

Between the natural sand and the artificial fill are Alameda’s lagoons, the city’s most unexpected and hidden feature.

They’re hard to reach, mostly private land. In a few places you can see that the landward side is higher . . .

. . . and the Bay side is lower.

On Willow Street at Alameda Hospital, the transition is plain to see in the roadbed. This is the greatest topographical feature in the whole city.

The main body of the dunes is a very gentle dome, reaching just over 30 feet elevation along Central Avenue. It’s hard to catch in a photo, but charming to see in person. This is looking down Chestnut Street, on the north side of the dome, toward Round Top.

And in the other direction is the top of the dome, such as it is.

It just goes to show that, to a committed geologizer, every place has a there there.

Drunk on rocks

9 December 2019

Every now and then I come upon sights in the field that transfix me, that make me stop and stare, that suspend time. This is not uncommon with landscapes, of course — that’s why our phones are full of vacation pictures and why I have so many photos to share in these posts. It probably happens a lot less often with rocks, except among geologists and maybe not all of them either.

A few examples. It happened to me this spring at this sandstone roadcut on Bitterwater Valley Road west of Blackwells Corner.

Granite stoned me in the fall of 2006 just east of Donner Pass.

It happened to me in June 2012 a little west of Copperopolis. (I was bringing back a piece of this slate I’d taken two years earlier.)

One day in 2008 I found myself lost in the landscape of this ancient Nevada limestone.

And Oakland rocks can affect me that way too, like this serpentinite in Joaquin Miller Park’s native plant nursery did in 2010.

It can be a little embarrassing when you’re supposed to have your geologist’s eye engaged, and all you can do is stand there stunned. Being drunk on rocks is a subset of an experience I call field intoxication. Professionals need to get over the tendency, and teachers probably see their students fall prey to it, but I can let the high happen even in the presence of experts. That’s a writer’s privilege.

The last time it occurred, and gave me the topic for this post, was in Oakland this summer when John Wakabayashi, a leading figure in California geology and an Oakland native, accepted my invitation to visit some choice localities in his old home town. The finale of the tour was the pod of high-grade blueschist on the grounds of Mills College. I’ve featured it here before.

I knew he’d like it, and in fact he was delighted. He got animated. He climbed around, waved his hands and pointed out telltale features. He didn’t seem drunk at all. But while I noted what he was saying, I sat down dazzled into stillness. You see, this time the outcrop was clean after the spring rains and fully illuminated by the high July sun. I’d never seen it that way before. The rock shone blue as brilliant as the sky itself, and at all points it glittered with minute crystals and mineral flakes. All I could do was let this light wash over and into me, a sauna of stars. Knowing the camera was helpless to capture the moment, I didn’t attempt a photo. (Sorry.)

That’s getting drunk on rocks. Keep your eyes open and it might happen to you.

Oakland geology ramble 8: Piedmont Ridge

19 August 2019

I don’t always care about rocks; geology is about more than rocks. I don’t even always care about geology; sometimes I just want a vigorous, geographically arbitrary hike. Ramble 8 is one of those — a traverse of the ridge crest above Piedmont, our highest ground west of the Hayward fault. It goes from the Rockridge BART station to the 33 line bus stop at the Leimert Bridge, on the lip of Dimond Canyon, about five miles end to end. Nevertheless, it has geology and rocks along the way. Here’s the route. There’s a map with more detail at the end of the post, where I also have some announcements.

The BART station features the “Rockridge” destination signage, mounted above a selection of Sierran boulders. This time, some ten years after it was installed, I noticed that the lettering design is quirky, contrasting “rock” and “ridge.”

You could climb Keith Avenue and barge up upper Broadway to attain the heights at Contra Costa Road, but it’s more interesting to circle behind the College Preparatory School grounds on Brookside Avenue. The school nestles in a steep little stream valley — unlike many similar places, this is not a former quarry but, apparently, a former turn-of-the-last-century park that had a short existence.

Once you get up to Contra Costa Road via Eustice and Buena Vista avenues, the walking is pretty and level. While you’re here in this remote part of town, check out the blueschist outcrop at 6063, vacant since the 1991 fire. The entire ridge on this hike is in Franciscan melange, a mudstone matrix containing odd lumps of other rock types. You won’t see much of it.

At the very end of the street is Erba Path, a steep set of stairs down to the saddle in the ridge where Broadway Terrace peaks on its way past the south entrance to Lake Temescal and points east. Cross that busy road and head right back up again on Sheridan Road, visible here at upper left.

Turn right off Sheridan at Agnes Street, unless you want to explore the little-trod path that joins Sheridan’s two halves. (Everyone should at least once.) Take high-flying Cochrane Avenue, where views east of Thornhill Canyon and Glen Highland’s settled slopes beckon.

Then jog right again up the saddle of Florence Avenue (where I sent you in the last post) to Proctor Avenue. This is pretty steep, but short. By this point you’re well above 700 feet. You’ll go higher later, but first you clamber a hundred feet down to the next saddle where Moraga Avenue crosses the ridge. Take the well-marked pedestrian crossing, but beware — this is the most dangerous road crossing of the hike.

Proceed on Estates Drive, which climbs nearly to the 800 foot contour. Up here are two curious reservoirs that date from Oakland’s water wars, when private water companies struggled to supply the fast-growing region from local sources while they vied with each other in deadly capitalist strife. (A ruinous series of bankruptcies and mergers ended in the 1920s with the formation of EBMUD.)

The Dingee and Estates reservoirs were constructed, fast and furiously, at the highest point of the Piedmont hills to provide good water pressure. EBMUD is upgrading these old concrete bathtubs to proper steel tanks, built to withstand big earthquakes on the Hayward fault just a few hundred yards east.

From here you head down again to La Salle Avenue, which takes advantage of yet another saddle in the ridge. If you’re ready to quit at this point, go left on La Salle, left again on Bruns Court and cross that high pedestrian bridge over the Warren Freeway to Montclair Park (because you can!) and catch the 33 bus at La Salle and Moraga. Otherwise, cross La Salle and stay on Estates, which is a little to the right.

Estates climbs again, not so far this time. Because this walk hits the highest spots, take Dawes Street up the hill and over, where you simply must visit the south end of Pershing Drive and admire Oakland’s best outcrop of Franciscan chert.

From here on it’s all downhill. Dawes rejoins Estates Drive here, and as you start down Estates you can see across Dimond Canyon.

Geologically and geomorphically speaking, the other side is also part of Piedmont Ridge, but the large water gap of Dimond Canyon is impassable without a long detour. So, down you go to the bus stop at the Leimert Bridge.

Along the way are two more highlights. First, at the Piedmont line the road passes the head of the former Diamond Cañon Quarry, which today houses the Zion Lutheran Church. Recent foundation work here has exposed fresh rock; maybe you’ll see some too.

And second, enjoy this wonderful volcanic breccia used for the landscaping at 170 Estates Drive. There are whole walls of it.

The house itself is something to see, too.

And as promised, here’s the detailed route map (1126 X 1126 pixels), followed by some announcements.

The excellent, out-of-print book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams is being reissued in paperback by the University of Washington Press. If I didn’t have the hardcover already I’d buy this classic. More information on David’s website.

My own book manuscript is making the rounds of a publisher, and while I await a yea or nay I’m trying to get my arms around a whole lot of scientific literature pertaining to Oakland’s rocks. It’s a ridge walk of the intellect, but I want to make Chapter 5 as good as humanly possible. I hope to buttonhole some of the real experts next month at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Phoenix.

But first I’ll be giving a talk to the Friends of Sausal Creek, on 18 September at the Dimond Library, titled “Sausal Creek: The Last Million Years or So.” You read it here first (unless you follow me on Twitter, @aboutgeology), and I’ll repeat the announcement in the Q&A thread soon.