Oakland geology in the Covidocene

30 March 2020

I’ll get around to geology in this post, but there are a few things to say first.

We’re in a new period of time when the unknown looms larger than usual and all seems pervaded with uncertainty. No one knows much, even the experts whose job it is to know. The foundations of daily life are on hold for most of us, and for some of us the foundations are gone. Few of us have been tested for the Covid virus, and a negative result only means we’ve escaped for the moment. We’re told to adopt new habits, drastic ones. They’re hard to learn and may be hard to sustain. The best way I can think of them is, every thing and every person out there is molten lava. The soundtrack is “U Can’t Touch This.”

Most of us will survive this plague, but none of us will be the same. Oakland old-timers like me have seen this sort of crisis before: in 1989, when the earthquake struck. But to most of us it’s new, still sinking in.

I’m trained in science and saturated in science, and I’m friends with uncertainty and the unknown — at least, with the ideas. The reality of this much uncertainty and unknown is daunting.

The empty streets and shuttered shops are like something from a disaster movie. Some of us seem to be living in one, others living in their own worlds. The communal stroll around Lake Merritt has become fraught as runners bull their way past, panting and sweating like zombies, as if they could outrun the six-foot rule. (We’ve got to start moving in the same direction to limit our exposure to each other.) Drivers are so thrilled by the newly open roads that they rush about in their deadly machines as if they were creatures of steel themselves, reenacting the advertisements that drew them to the car dealer. (We’ve got to phase out these noisy, noxious internal-combustion vehicles.) The disaster movie is where the beggars and homeless and impoverished have been living all along.

All right; enough of that. I’m trying to write about some ways to behave I can recommend. We were told we can still go out to exercise, and the first weekend after that directive was a disaster. For some reason, people rode their deadly machines in droves to mob the hills and beaches, cheek by jowl and swapping germs, as if they thought no one else would show up. Such people have the mistaken idea that remote preserves of selected scenery are the only things that qualify as nature. It must be those fucking car ads.

I said, enough of that: the spasms of consternation and dismay, the clamor of alarm and blame. You can get that anywhere. It even infects a contemplative introvert like me.

I recommend slowing down in every respect. When the hospitals are slammed, none of us can afford an injury. When circumstances push us out of sorts, none of us can afford to freak each other out or play games. Ease up; grant slack. Repeat as needed.

I recommend staying out of the parks and straying into the neighborhoods. People who walk their own dogs are already hip to this, right? So consider taking yourselves for a daily walk, gently leashed.

Walk, don’t run. If you sprain an ankle or blow out your knee, the doctors are too busy to help. When they say we can still go out for exercise, they don’t mean stay in personal-best shape with our accustomed Fitbit workouts. Please give that up for something more physically moderate with more room for the brain: attentive motion. Stirring your limbs and looking around, not more reps and more miles, is the basis of good health.

You don’t need a state park or a wide beach, just a spot to see the spring arrive. It always does.

And we live in an exceptionally scenic place on all scales. I’ve walked every bit of Oakland, looking intently, and each block has beguiled me with some treasure: an interesting yard, an unexpected view, a genial neighbor. There are treasures in deepest Deep East.

Treasures in Maxwell Park.

Treasures as close as your nearest parking structure (with stair-climbing as a free bonus).

If you’re still drawn to feats of strength, I have a bunch of Oakland geology walks for you to contemplate, with elevation gains, no crowds and views to fill the hungriest eye. (Just go to the home page and click the Oakland geology walks category.) These shots are from a leg of the Lake Merritt in 2100 walk that I took yesterday.

And while you’re out, meet people’s eyes, put the phone away and do the six-feet thing. That is my recommendation. Oh, and take note of the rocks and the landforms; that’s where geology begins.

This pandemic is a disaster unlike the earthquake, which was instantaneous with a long aftermath, or the drought, which was agonizingly slow and over after a rainy winter. But when it comes to our fabric of mutual well-being, disasters have a lot in common. Dr. Lucy Jones is California’s go-to public authority on earthquakes. Her book on natural disasters, The Big Ones, is a string of insightful pearls with this one at the center: “We must remember that the most dangerous threat in a disaster is a threat to our humanity.”

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 (1889-1961), 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.

A circumambulation of Temescal Canyon (sort of)

2 March 2020

Temescal Canyon isn’t a name anyone uses. It’s kind of a ghost canyon, even though you’ve all driven through it many times — on Route 24 going to and coming out of the Caldecott Tunnel.

Underneath all the spaghetti and labels on that Google map is what remains of a fine little valley with steep sides and permanent streams that was once the principal water source of Lake Temescal, Oakland’s first surface reservoir. Here’s how the 1897 USGS topo map showed it.

Notice the stream northeast of the lake. The solid blue line signifies a perennial, year-round stream, and by the rules of hydrography it claims the name Temescal Creek given to its lower reaches, and hence comes the name Temescal Canyon. The other stream feeding the lake from the southeast is marked with a dot-dash line, indicating an intermittent stream; the map labels it Kohler Creek after the name of a landowner in Thornhill Canyon, but today that’s the creek called Temescal.

This annotated version shows two things: the arrows mark the Hayward fault and the dots outline the rim of the canyon.

Because the east side of the fault is rising, thanks to a bit of compression across the fault, the stream is forced to dig down harder than your average creek as the hills around it rise, and the long-term result is a watershed that’s wide at the top and narrow at the base — a wineglass canyon. As you know from my previous posts about Claremont Canyon and Shepherd Canyon, I have a thing about hiking around the rims of our wineglass canyons. This post is about that.

I call this a ghost canyon because waves of human intervention have modified it pretty seriously since that 1897 map. The original Kennedy Tunnel was punched through the hill in 1903, with the original Tunnel Road leading up to it. The 1915 topo map shows that when they built the road, the mapmakers added new detail to the contour lines on that side of the canyon. (Also, Oakland annexed all the land uphill from Berkeley.)

In addition to Tunnel Road, the Oakland Antioch & Eastern Railway was pushed through, skirting the lake on its way to the Shepherd Canyon tunnel. It ran over the Temescal Creek arm of the lake on a trestle.

Next came more infrastructure: PG&E constructed a big power line along with the Claremont “K” substation on Landvale Road in 1922, a classic industrial Deco structure, and in the process filled in the Temescal Creek arm of the lake. And then the Broadway Extension leading to the first Caldecott Tunnel bores carved up the sides of the canyon mouth even more in the 1930s. The work consumed huge quantities of rock, which was quarried from the north side of the canyon. Meanwhile residential development began on the north canyon wall. All of this is visible in the 1947 topo map.

Between then and now there was more residential development in Hiller Highlands, the big Parkwoods apartment complex in the canyon, a major expansion of Route 24 (with more quarrying to support the work), and finally the other little valley in the canyon was filled in to make the North Oakland Regional Sports Center. All of that was before the third and fourth Caldecott bores were added in this century. All that mayhem and erasure is what makes me think of it as a ghost canyon.

This patchwork of development has not created a ready set of roads to follow for a circumambulation, but I think I’ve cobbled together a trek route. And while I’ve walked all of it at one time or another over the years, I haven’t done it in one go. In fact I’m not eager to do so because it’s strenuous and a bit fraught and I need to build up strength first.

You can zoom in and explore this route at gmap-pedometer.com; this image (click to see it big) uses the OpenCycle viewing option. It starts at the Firestorm Memorial Garden at the foot of Hiller Drive, and right away goes seriously off-piste with a steep climb up the far side of the great Tunnel Road cut.

There are three fairly level stairsteps in the cut to choose from; this is the view back from the second. All three have cool views, and you avoid the heavy traffic on Tunnel Road.

The route veers off Hiller Road into a seekrit pathway that overlooks major features of the lower canyon. The power station and freeway lanes squat on the grave of the creek, with the Hayward fault slashing through the lake toward the notch in the horizon.

The spur across the narrow mouth of the canyon, carved flat for the powerline poles, is the endpoint of this trek.

And the ballfields of the sports complex smother this former stream valley. The woods to the left are an impenetrable eucalyptus thicket.

The next three miles-plus call for cautious walking: cars don’t expect hikers and the roads are narrow. But you’re high in the clean air well above the worst of the road roar. A little past the 3-mile mark, where the power line crosses the road, is an excellent place to stop discreetly and look down the ridge that forms the south wall of the canyon. That road in front of the ridge is Broadway Terrace, perhaps Oakland’s most dangerous road for pedestrians.

The long detour between miles 3 and 4-1/2 is unavoidable (trust me on this), but you can skip the last bit of Grizzly Peak Boulevard by turning right onto a footpath that’s part of the Sibley Preserve.

A little ways down Broadway Terrace is where it might feel a bit hinky. At Pine Needle Drive, you climb over the fence and locate a teeny footpath, almost a deer trail, along the power line that plunges about 200 feet to a fire road, which then climbs all the way back up to the ridgeline past a big landslide. Believe me, that is less fearsome than walking on upper Broadway Terrace.

The last leg, from the ridge down to the powerline tower pad, I can’t really vouch for as I last walked it 11 years ago. Assuming it’s not too overgrown, you should be good, and if not, then go back on the fire road down to the sports center. The pad is at the end of Pali Court, and the view back to the starting point looks like this.

Getting to and from these two endpoints is an exercise left for the reader, and I do mean exercise.

Rocks of Lakeside Park

17 February 2020

Lakeside Park has undergone a lot of changes since Edson Adams put Oakland’s first golf course there. For one thing — and the thing behind this post — over the year the city has brought in rocks to a place that originally had none at all. Some of them are boulders that hold plaques: I won’t be talking about those. This is about the other ones, the working rocks who have the basic job of standing in your way, like the guard rocks down at Middle Harbor Park.

I take a walk around the lake every week, but this last week I took a few extra ones to visit all the working boulders. I think there are three generations of them. Here’s a selection.

The main road through Lakeside Park appears to have the first generation. My working theory is that the city parks department tapped a stash of rocks that were acquired on its own properties, principally Joaquin Miller and Leona Heights Parks. That accounts for the following mix of rock types. The majority belong to the Leona volcanics, probably sourced from Leona Heights Park. They present many different textures with an underlying lithology of light-colored, strongly altered volcaniclastic material that takes on an orange iron-oxide glaze with exposure. These five specimens illustrate the range of this rock unit.


The other boulders include nondescript ones I can’t confidently identify. Behind the rear lawn-bowling field is this laid-back hunk of what sure looks like Sierran granite.

But there’s a specimen of serpentinite, worth a close look, next to the Nature Center.

And right in front is the lake’s special star: this wild, glittering piece of blueschist.

Another generation of boulders sits along the path in front of Children’s Fairyland. It too consists of local stones: besides the Leona volcanics it includes proper sandstone belonging to, if I’m not mistaken, the Oakland Conglomerate in Joaquin Miller Park.

Near the entrance is a splendid serpentinite boulder.

And best of all are some good specimens of the ocher-bearing material from the Leona volcanics that the Ohlone tribes once prized.

The third generation of stones is of recent vintage, installed during the park’s bond-funded upgrade. Their main hangout is on the shore east of the boathouse by the parking lot.

Another grouping is in the brand-new Snow Park extension at the foot of 20th Street.

When these went in I thought they were sandstone (and said so here), but upon closer inspection I conclude that they’re some sort of welded tuff, not from anywhere in the Bay area, probably some place across the Central Valley or the desert beyond. That’s OK — Oakland welcomes immigrants. The material is fairly featureless, but these rare clasts look like bits of country rock that got torn off and taken up during the eruptive cataclysm that made this stone.

The lake shore also has plenty of cut and dressed stone, in the form of benches and curbs and capstones. They’re all commercial quarry granite, hardworking stuff that will last forever, but without the personality of real live boulders.