When someone opens up the ground in Oakland, no matter where, I think it’s interesting. This construction site on Telegraph Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets exposes alluvium, the stream-laid sediment that once supported productive farmland throughout Oakland’s flats. Mapped as “alluvial fan and fluvial deposits (Holocene)” or unit Qhaf on the geologic map, it covers more area than any other geologic unit.
The uppermost part, the brown stuff that the excavators have turned over in curls, is rich in organic matter and clay. A little deeper it turns tan as the organic matter thins out. It’s dense and firm, good ground for building.
The nearer you get to the bay, the finer grained this material gets — more clay, less sand and gravel. Streams have carried it down from their canyons in the hills over the last few hundred thousand years, pushing back the sea. And by “streams” I mean floods. The clear trickling streams we know are actually asleep. Floods are the one day in a thousand when streams awaken, picking up and carrying alluvium from place to place.
Occasionally the streams themselves jump their tracks. If you visualize the land in super-fast motion over geologically recent time, our streams whip back and forth over the coastal plain like firehoses out of control, winnowing the alluvium again and again. From the hills outward they build up low, cone-shaped piles of sediment called alluvial fans. Downstream, these coalesce into an alluvial plain.
The “h” in “Qhaf” refers to the Holocene time period. The Holocene (“fully new” in scientific Greek) began when the latest pulse of the ice ages ended, about 12,000 years ago. It’s been a mostly pleasant time. Many geologists argue, with good reason, that the Holocene has given way to a new permanent state of wrenching climatic changes. Because the natural balance of climate is strongly influenced by human activities, they argue, the climate system today is a writhing firehose we may be able to control. They propose to call our new era Anthropocene time.