Doing urban geology in a place like Oakland adds a new question to the mental checklist that cannot be bypassed: “Is this truly a natural feature?” A boulder may be imported. A terrace may be an old railroad bed. Sibley Volcanic Reserve is a former quarry, therefore it’s safe to assume that this huge pit is not natural and that the labyrinth, one of several in the park, is of even later vintage. But park staff and other visitors have told me that some people insist, against all persuasion, that the labyrinths were made by cosmic visitors.
There is something about human beings, isn’t there? I used to trouble myself over our ability to believe nonsense, but now I realize that banging my head against that wall just hurts my head, and the wall likes it. The fact is, the general run of people love to be amazed. The trouble is, they aren’t particular about what amazes them.
Don’t get me wrong about labyrinths—they are good to experience, they do things to your head, they help pull you out of tedium. That’s cool. I think that crediting them to space aliens is a failure of imagination and a poor reflection on human ingenuity. What amazes me about labyrinths is that we invented them.
But what amazes me more satisfyingly is that people could examine this ground and figure out that it used to be the insides of a small basaltic volcano, now tilted onto its side. It takes imagination first, then the perseverance to test your imagination against the rocks again and again until every question you can think of has been met with a reasonable answer. I haven’t done that at Sibley, but having been to geology school I know how to do it if I set my mind to it. The people who did do that amaze me. They used directed imagination and rigorous skepticism instead of listening for voices and watching for signs, unhuman as that is.