Archive for the ‘other’ Category

Fake rocks

28 January 2011

The Hillcrest School, up in upper Rockridge/Broadway Terrace, has a beautiful campus with gardens, trees and this play structure.

fake rocks

I wish it were real rocks. Of course the artificial outcrop is good for encouraging unstructured play, confidence using one’s body and all the rest. The lessons it teaches will serve the kids well as they move on to indoor climbing walls and other safe amusements. But I cherish grit, lichens, little holes with secrets inside, moss, roughness that scratches to get your attention. I favor visual texture, variegation, the presence of minerals in their cryptic typicality, the possibility of fossils. I want kids to explore wild rocks in wild places, even if it’s only a roadcut or a vacant lot. I think these kids deserve a real, local knocker, the kind their neighborhood abounds in. We have enough fake rock in our Disneylands and along our freeways.

Thank you.

Northbrae rhyolite

27 December 2010

Berkeley is full of interesting rocks, many of them preserved in pocket parks. The most prominent of these is Indian Rock.

indian rock

Click the photo for a 1000-pixel version. Some 100 years ago this tough rhyolite, a volcanic rock very high in silica, was mapped as part of the same rock body as the one in Leona Quarry and farther down along the hills. But a master’s student at Cal State Hayward gave it a good look in the 1990s and determined that the Northbrae rhyolite, as this occurrence was named, is quite a different rock. (In fact the Leona rhyolite isn’t considered a rhyolite any more, but rather a high-silica welded tuff/volcaniclastic sequence.) Whereas the first mappers thought that both rocks were Pliocene, which is quite young (about 5 million years), the Leona was later shown to be Jurassic (about 150 m.y.). The Northbrae is not that old, but neither is it as young as Pliocene. It’s just a little older than the Moraga Formation basalt and the volcanic rocks of Sibley volcano, about 11 million years, making it Miocene. It came out in that same episode of eruptions, which today sits to the north around Clear Lake and The Geysers.

And it’s still definitely rhyolite. Rhyolite is the stiff, slow-moving lava that makes up little volcanoes like the young dome inside Mount St. Helens, or the rugged knobs of the Inyo Domes, over the Sierra in the Mammoth Lakes area, or farther south in the Coso Range. It makes great rock for climbers—strong, imperishable, full of handholds and rarely giving way under a person’s weight.

The rhyolite of Berkeley is well worth a visit. Just go at a time when the climbers aren’t busy; the rock parks swarm with them in nice weather. I don’t think Oakland has any of this rock, but it might.


22 September 2010

A few places in Oakland feature these sandstone blocks. Two I can think of immediately are on Lakeshore Avenue, including this one.

sandstone blocks

I always wonder whether the stones were salvaged from somewhere else, like Andy Goldsworthy’s wonderful “Stone River” on the Stanford campus. They have tool marks on them, and I don’t know much about stonecarving tools, but I’ll bet they haven’t changed in centuries. These stones echo the most ancient practices of civilization, in which building stones were recycled again and again without regard to the structures they previously gave life to. The stones were precious in bulk rather than as individuals, the way that gold bullion is precious.

These stones always remind me, every time I see them, of one of William Randolph Hearst’s greatest follies. He purchased an ancient chapter house, built in Spain by Cistercian monks in 1190, and shipped it to California as disassembled stones. He never got around to putting them back together again, and as I recall the story, they sat in a pile somewhere in Golden Gate Park. (That’s probably an exaggeration, but who knows?) Now those stones were precious in the way that old gold coinage is precious—they embody history. These days we are a sentimental people, and the Spanish stones have a bit of holiness in them, as if the monks’ prayers had saturated them. Scattering them on the ground in a strange land is an affront to their previous owners.

That’s why I loved today’s Tribune column by beer writer Jay Brooks. A California branch of the Cistercians, the Abbey of New Clairvaux north of Chico, has acquired the stones and plans to reassemble the chapter house using the profits from a series of Trappist-style beers to be made by Sierra Nevada Brewing next year. The Trappists are the order of monks that include the Cistercians, and they’re famous for brewing Belgium’s greatest beers. That’s worth a toast.

San Francisco suiseki

1 August 2010

Last month the California Suiseki Society had its 15th annual show in the Lakeside Garden Center. It was a sublime exhibit with an attentive audience.


The best photo I got that afternoon is this stone by Jim Broadhurst. See more of the stones here and here.


There is an older suiseki society across the bay, San Francisco Suiseki Kai. They are such purists that until recently they did not even use English, but their current president, Janet Roth, is an Anglophone. Their 29th annual exhibit is coming up next weekend: August 7 and 8, 10 am to 4 pm, in the Japan Center, at the Union Bank Hospitality Room at 1675 Post Street. The collectors themselves award winners of the exhibit by voting for their favorite stones. Me, I love finding out where the stones come from, then scratching my head in happy confusion at the mixture of thoughts, aesthetic and geologic, that arise as I contemplate them.

Janet Roth couldn’t resist saying in her note to me announcing the show, “Of course, if the legislature outlaws serpentine we will be in a pickle.”

My serpentine letter – Updated

28 July 2010

I’ve just mailed the following letter to Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, who represents Oakland in Sacramento:

“Dear Assemblymember Skinner,

“I write in opposition to Senate Bill 624, which removes serpentine as the state rock and removes the category of state rock itself from the State Code.

“Serpentine, or as geologists know it, serpentinite, is a signature stone of California, found in most parts of the state. The reasons for its widespread distribution here are deep clues to the structure and behavior of the Earth’s crust and underlying mantle. That is to say, serpentine is a protagonist in the story of modern geology. It gives California students of Earth science at all levels, from primary grades through postgraduate studies, a handle for learning concepts as well as practicalities.

“The concepts embodied by serpentine are the joy of geologists: tectonic interactions of continents and oceans, chemical transformations of deep-seated rocks, the lubrication of earthquake faults, the rise of mineral-bearing fluids into lodes and bonanzas.

“The practicalities embodied by serpentine are relevant to many classes of citizens: Serpentine ground requires special care on the part of builders. Serpentine soil supports a set of distinctively Californian plant and animal communities. Serpentine minerals include the fibrous chrysotile, used since ancient times for fireproofing applications and mined in California during most of the 20th century. Serpentine bodies are associated with valuable mineral deposits including chromium, jade and gold (California’s state mineral).

“The familiar blue-green, shiny serpentine seen in hundreds of roadcuts is a striking remembrancer of those school lessons. The legislature was wise to make serpentine the face of California’s rocks and landscapes. The legislature was bold to make that designation in 1965, when no other American state had ever chosen a lithologic emblem.

“SB624 undoes that wisdom and unmakes that boldness for unscientific and fear-based reasons. It is unscientific in declaring that serpentine causes cancer when, in fact, only a small fraction of serpentine contains the mineral chrysotile. And only in industrial settings, in which large amounts of the powdered mineral were inhaled for years by WWII-era workers, is that one mineral linked to lung disease. SB624 is a profoundly misinformed bill.

“The result of this bill’s becoming law will be to deaden our children’s education, increase their fear of the outdoors, and open all kinds of benign land uses to mischievous litigation. Please assure me that SB624 will not get your vote.”

We’ll see what happens next week.

UPDATE: Rep. Skinner replied with a generic letter. The bill entered the maelstrom of late-session maneuvers, during which the sponsor deleted everything but a single sentence removing serpentine as the state rock, without the noisome preamble. This would have allowed her to declare victory, but for stealth reasons. In any case, the bill was shunted to the Rules Committee, where it died with the end of the session last week. But now I guess I’ll have to watch for its successor in future years.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,796 other followers