Franciscan landscaping

9 July 2018

This house in Piedmont caught my eye not long ago. Homeowners who live in conspicuous places do their neighborhoods a service by making their properties shine. I appreciated the care the owners of this home displayed not just in their plantings, but also in their choice of rocks.

The site (110 Scenic Avenue) is in the middle of the block of Franciscan sandstone that underlies most of Piedmont and some adjacent parts of Oakland. The massive sandstone, of an unobtrusive tan color and undistinguished structure, makes a serviceable setting for some of the Franciscan’s other, more colorful rock types.

The exposure of bedrock is discreetly patched with concrete, which may well conceal rock bolts set into the hillside. The section of concrete on the right side, below, is surfaced with the same blue serpentinite found at Elks Peak in Mountain View Cemetery, the old pit at Serpentine Prairie, around Butters Canyon, and elsewhere.

There are several basins built onto the exposure. The bluish high-grade metamorphic river rock is carefully chosen, too. It comes from outside the Bay area, most likely somewhere on either flank of the Sacramento Valley.

And just beneath it is this little jewel of high-grade blueschist.

Of course a geologist’s first focus is on the stone. But the true beauty of a yard like this is how the rocks converse with the plants set among them over the course of a California year. I’ll be back to see that.

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When did everything Franciscan begin?

25 June 2018

A paper I read last week led me a long way in an interesting direction that started in El Cerrito, just up the ridgetop from Oakland, at the property fondly known as the Mira Vista Golf Course (restored in 2011 to its original glory and rechristened with its original name, the Berkeley Country Club).

I first visited Mira Vista in 1999 to see the Hayward fault, which runs through the fairways and helps give the land its picturesque form. Trenching studies there have added to our knowledge of this threatening feature.

But what brought Mira Vista to mind last week was a paper in the journal Tectonics titled “Early Onset of Franciscan Subduction.” A handful of rock harvested here gave the authors a new answer to an old and vexing question.

California is known to geologists around the world as the type example of a subduction zone. Its rocks preserve a record — a messy one — of a long period of geologic time when a tectonic plate consisting of ocean crust was moving toward and diving (subducting) underneath North America, which consists of continental crust. That went on for some 150 million years, interrupted when the San Andreas fault system first formed about 30 million years ago and turned the plate boundary into the sideways-moving setup we have today.

During the subduction period, North America scraped off parts of the top of the oceanic plate. That collection of stuff, analogous to a pile of dirt on the blade of a bulldozer, is a mixed-up lithological scrapple called the Franciscan Complex.

One of the most basic questions we have about the Franciscan is, how old is it? That is, when did subduction begin?

The authors of the paper, led by Sean Mulcahy of the University of Washington, looked for special samples from “high-grade blocks,” lumps of rock that have survived being stirred by the bulldozer blade deep below the crust and returned intact. Most promising of these are the highest-grade rock type I’ve found in Oakland: blueschist. The authors studied just two rock samples, one from the high-grade blueschists of the Tiburon Peninsula and the other from Mira Vista, where high-grade blocks crop out of a matrix of serpentinite along with other Franciscan “knockers.”

The high-grade blocks are part of the golf course as well as the surrounding terrain.

The course is right next to The Arlington. It was easy to get there on the 7 bus line. Getting off near Madera Circle, I spotted telltale boulders at the roadside: Blueschist.

Mulcahy got his team’s sample from this knocker behind the fire station. Their International Geo Sample register says it was collected by “hammer and chisel.”

Close up, a fresh exposure of the rock — maybe the actual collection site — glistened with blue and green crystals: the high-pressure metamorphic minerals glaucophane and omphacite.

The real work began under the petrographic microscope, where Mulcahy had to untangle the complex set of high-pressure events that affected this rock from the geometry of these thin sections.

Briefly, the big garnet grains preserved grains of very old material inside them, protecting it from later reactions. Those grains were about 176 million years old; the same minerals outside the garnets were about 160. Their ages had been re-set during a later episode of high pressure.

Moreover, the earlier episode had a much higher pressure than the later one, high enough that the rock had been not blueschist, but eclogite (ECK-la-jite). It had been carried at least 50 kilometers deep, a depth only attainable by subduction, and just a few tiny shreds protected inside garnet grains, measured in microns, preserved the evidence.

That’s pretty cool. This finding sets a new record back in deep time for the beginning of Franciscan subduction, in the early Jurassic.

It also offers a telling clue about another California geology mystery: What’s the exact relationship between the Franciscan Complex and the Coast Range ophiolite? In brief, there are three main hypotheses, and this evidence weighs against two of them and favors the simplest one. That will change the book I’m in the middle of writing.

By the way, stairs and footpaths lead from here down through Motorcycle Hill to the El Cerrito del Norte BART station. Take that hike some time.

Oakland geology ramble 6: Chabot to Leimert via the Oakland Conglomerate reference locality

11 June 2018

In 1914, UC Berkeley professor Andrew Lawson published the first decent geologic map of our area, the San Francisco Folio of the Geologic Atlas of the United States. That’s where the Oakland Conglomerate got its name. But while that fine rock unit lives on in name, the concept it represents has changed. Let’s look at a hundred years of progress in geologic mapping the area just west of Redwood Peak, the heart of the Oakland Conglomerate.

Here’s Lawson’s map from 1914. Orient yourself by finding Redwood Peak. The belt of rocks labeled “Ko” is the Oakland Conglomerate, the road winding along it is called Skyline Boulevard today, and the road heading leftward from it is today’s Castle Drive.

Lawson called Ko the “Oakland conglomerate member of the Chico formation,” a name and classification by which he meant that these rocks were notable but not important enough in the big scheme of things to single out. To be fair, he was dealing with a very large, detailed and cryptic field area at the time.

Fifty years later, along came James Case, who picked this area for his Ph.D. research at UC Berkeley. Lawson, who died in 1952, was no longer around to intimidate his graduate students, so Case was free to argue that Lawson had erred, having lumped too many different rocks in Ko. Some of them were really KJk, the Knoxville Formation, and others Case put in his brand-new Kjm, the Joaquin Miller Formation. (This is similar to what I was saying the other week about the Orinda Formation.) “It is therefore proposed,” he wrote, “that conglomeratic beds exposed along Skyline Boulevard west and northwest of Redwood Peak be considered the reference locality of the restricted Oakland Conglomerate.”

Case’s thesis was approved in 1963. His map, published a few years later in USGS Bulletin 1251-J, is so badly reproduced it’s embarrassing. Instead I’ll show Dorothy Radbruch-Hall’s elegant map of 1969, which incorporated Case’s work.

And for completeness’ sake here’s the current standard map, by Russ Graymer from 2000.

It’s a cool area. I recommend visiting it the way I did: take the 339 bus up to Chabot Observatory and hike down to Montclair or the Leimert Bridge to catch the 33 bus back downtown.

First, go behind the observatory buildings and find the fire road, which is part of the West Ridge Trail in Redwood Regional Park.

The trail exposes the conglomerate beautifully. The cobbles are exceptionally well rounded, a sign that they once tumbled a long way down a steep river into the sea.

You could meander your way to Moon Gate, on Skyline, where you’ll take the trail going left, or you could follow the steep and tempting path up to the water tank. From there the views look north past a wooded hill, with Round Top peeking up behind it, to the Briones Hills . . .

or northwest toward Grizzly and Vollmer Peaks.

A tiny trail on the other side will get you to some proper outcrops of massive sandstone, also part of the Oakland Conglomerate.

Either way, you’ll then be on the Scout Trail heading south, then angling east down to Skyline. Along the way you’ll pass a young and vigorous redwood stand, planted in 1978 thanks to good old Jerry Brown.

Cross Skyline and take the Castle Park Trail west. It’s a lot safer than walking on Skyline, and a nicer walk. When you hit Castle Drive, take the pavement down to the secret fire road called the West Trail.

This is the original century-old road shown on Lawson’s map. Go on, you’ll thank me later.

There’s a particular kind of peace to be found on abandoned roads.

Once the trail ends, back at Castle Drive, you can pick your own best way down, an exercise left to the reader. This was my way — 3.5 miles long, 1100 feet downhill. . .

through the redwoods and across Leimert Bridge.

The human presence, benign to sanctified

28 May 2018

In my last post I described the spectrum of waste to be seen around the landscape. Piles of garbage are easy to see and judge as litter. Bones and downed trees are natural, but for citydwellers it takes an effort not to wish them removed.

Then there are all the things on the spectrum of art, like these amaryllis bulbs donated to undeveloped Knowland Park. Yeah, they’re an alien species, but neither is their presence a heedless desecration. People decorate things; it’s what we do. We make spaces where there were none before.

We make local habitations, some even with names, in wild Oakland.

I’ve come to enjoy the signs of artistic impulse out in the field. Many are harmless roadside attractions, too small to catch attention except at walking speed.

Others turn the nondescript into something . . . descript. I wish I knew more about this little assemblage that was up in Knowland Park a few years ago.


I think a solo artist made that.

I think a small group adopted this tumbledown shed on Grizzly Peak; their affection shows.

And then there’s the communal gallery up in Leona Heights Park; been going on for years; different every visit. Anyone can participate, but you can tell the standards are intimidatingly high. The first time I found it I went yeesh; now I take my cue from the Grateful Dead: “nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.”

The best place for this kind of art is the Albany Bulb. I haven’t been in a few years. Wikipedia suggests that the art has been fading and is no longer what it was. With that in mind, here are some photos from about ten years ago.

The general scene is a former dump site for construction waste. Today, most material of this sort is recycled — old concrete can be used as aggregate in new concrete and rebar is easily melted into new steel. At the Bulb, this material was recycled into art.

Lots of the work was crude, but effective.

The setting, on the Bay shore, was a crucial part of the work.

This is one of my favorites, now long gone.

The landmark of Mad Mark’s Castle was once a sublime place.

litterart-13.jpg

Today I’m told it’s not really there any more. Sic transit gloria mundi.