Archive for May, 2013

The gallery of Oakland geological science

31 May 2013

OMCAserp

The Oakland Museum of California has finished its three-years-plus shutdown of the Natural Science gallery; the new Gallery of California Natural Sciences had its grand opening today. I got a backstage look at it earlier this week and gave it a thumbs-up for KQED Science yesterday. For me the highlight is the gateway section of the gallery, all about Oakland. All except for Oakland (and California) geology. As far as geology goes, the museum’s great serpentinite boulder on the roof, shown here in 2000, is still as good as it gets.

You’ll see in the new gallery how Oakland looked 300 years ago: its forests and grasslands and marshes. But you won’t see how it looked 30,000 years ago, or 3 million, or why those times are still relevant today. You won’t get a clue to the underlying framework that explains this landscape, or the deep history encoded there. You won’t see a hint of the active faults that shaped, and continue to shape, our region, nor will you see how they link us to California—how all of California is united—in a tight tectonic embrace. You won’t learn where and why the first Oaklanders dug for stone and gravel and water, or why they stopped. You’ll be able to add your backyard oak to a biome database that maps the ghostly living traces of our original forest—a marvelous thing!—but not your backyard outcrop or neighborhood roadcut.

All those things would have been simple to weave into the plan. The geologic subtheme would have enriched the whole exhibit and made it more truly a natural sciences gallery. Instead the new gallery is stuck, geologically speaking, back in 1969 when the old gallery was built. I’ll keep doing what I can here to fill the gap.

Oakland ochre

24 May 2013

oaklandochre

Here’s the story behind this photo. I just got back from five days in Fresno at the annual meeting of my regional section of the Geological Society of America, the Cordilleran Section. The first order of business was a field trip to see the Pleistocene fossils of the Fairmead Landfill, near Chowchilla. The guy whose hand this is is Blake Bufford, director of the Fossil Discovery Center just across the road from the site. His job is to follow around the giant scrapers at the landfill when they dig new pits and watch for fossils, so he’s the most important pair of eyes in the entire project. Blake showed our group the latest pit and then accompanied us to the Center for a tour and a reception by the FDC’s owners, the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation. Some nice Madera County wine, local cheese, “mammoth” meat balls and so on.

Blake and I got to talking, and the topic of Oakland came up. He asked if I knew anything about the traditional ochre diggings he had visited there. I told him about the Holy Names site, but that’s not the one he meant. No, he said, this was another place that was in the process of being wiped out to build a supermarket, where both red and yellow ochre were produced. “Let me show it to you.”

The Center is full of fossils, but it also has a little display cabinet dedicated to the people who once had the area to themselves, the Chowchilla tribe. There was an antique woven reed basket, of course, but everything else was a modern replica made with traditional techniques: arrows with interchangeable arrowheads, various kinds of twine, deerbone trowels and scrapers, a tiny wooden flute, necklaces, a soapstone bowl and trade beads, and balls of red and yellow ochre. Blake made all of it. He unlocked the case and showed me everything in it. He made the ochre balls, the size of a small egg, by grinding the stone to powder, then mixing it with boiled soaproot to hold it together. “We don’t know exactly what they used, but this worked.” There were a couple of raw ochre specimens lying next to them. “I collected this one from Oakland,” he said, and I said, “Please let me photograph that.”


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