Stonehurst Creek

8 May 2017

Stonehurst Creek isn’t really a creek, just a stormwater channel. But there it is on the watershed map, with a name and everything. Of the 13 named tributaries that feed San Leandro Creek, it’s the last one before the Bay. And it’s got potential.

I only discovered Stonehurst Creek because one day last June I set out to follow the Union Pacific track under the 880 freeway. (And pioneer a scenic route to the Cleophus Quealy tasting room.)

The tracks parallel 105th Avenue, and of course it’s private property. I advise you not to go there. If you choose to ignore my advice, however, the easiest access in Oakland is from Knight Street. You walk to the left of the tracks, near the drainage ditch that is Stonehurst Creek.

A maintenance road runs along the far side. This photo, from June 2016 at the height of the drought, shows there’s always water here.

This spring the area’s pretty lush in comparison. And if you look back, it’s not devoid of scenery.

On the other side of the freeway, the tracks cross San Leandro Creek. From there you can spot the mouth of Stonehurst Creek, looking almost creeklike.

I’m telling you all this because the route could become more of a destination under the newly released San Leandro Creek Trail Master Plan Study, a long-term vision of how we can get people back to Oakland’s largest and most important stream.

Because San Leandro Creek is very hard to access upstream from here, there would need to be a detour, and Stonehurst Creek would be handy for that. The Study mentions the “potential restoration of Stonehurst Creek,” which sounds funny because old maps don’t show any creek at all here to “restore.” Apparently the technical meaning of restoration includes building a natural creek from scratch.

You can continue down the tracks past Davis Street and turn right to get to Doolittle Drive, then go north to make your way to Cleophus Quealy — I mean, *I* can. The point is to arrive thirsty. But while we’re on the bridge, let’s look at San Leandro Creek.

Downstream, there’s a maintenance road on the left bank that could be opened up nicely to foot and bike traffic, and on the right bank a tidy, bare open space at the end of Empire Road that could become more of a park.

Upstream is more forbidding: there’s a maintenance road there too, but it’s down in the streambed, below the right bank, and couldn’t easily be opened to the public. Hence the need for a detour up Stonehurst Creek. Conceivably you could walk it in the dry season, but I would advise against that.

The San Leandro Creek Trail Master Plan Study says, “There is a large open space below I-880 that could be used creatively.”

And there are some visionaries hard at work doing that already.

Perhaps you would find their efforts as arresting as I do. Perhaps you would be dumbstruck, as I was. Perhaps you would exclaim, as people who explore Oakland often do, “There’s a there here!”

No matter where you go in Oakland, this town can excite some form of wordless delight.

Mountain View Cemetery: The Bay area’s best landscape

1 May 2017

Although I’m tempted just to let the photos in this post stand on their own, let me make a case that Mountain View Cemetery offers the best landscape in the Bay area.

First there’s the cemetery itself. The managers have been putting a lot of effort into improving the ground — see the excellent new stonework and gravel path in the first photo — and this winter’s abundant rainfall has abetted it by giving the hills a coat of green that ought to last longer than usual before turning gold, then brown.

Unlike your typical cemetery, Mountain View is very large and occupies the rolling terrain of the Piedmont block, consisting of Franciscan melange. In the photo below, all of the land in sight lies within the cemetery’s property.

Long ago the operators arranged for Cemetery Creek (headwaters of Glen Echo Creek) to fill three ponds, where the water can be parceled out over the dry season to help keep the turf lush. Right now they’re brim full and support a few waterfowl. The open hilltop on the left side will be turned into a new section of graves under a proposed plan.

The Franciscan outcrops or “knockers” in the cemetery’s hills echo the finished stone displayed so touchingly in the grave markers. Many historical Oaklanders famous and obscure rest here. A random walk in any direction will bring up names that ring a bell if you’ve spent significant time in the East Bay. Yes, that’s what cemeteries are for, but without the graves this territory would be just another busy park. The dead ensure that the living visitors stay on their best behavior.

And this is important — the delights of the cemetery don’t stop at its edge. The east side has had its huge hedge of overgrown eucalyptus removed, opening the crest of the high hills and the well-tended neighborhoods of Broadway Terrace to view.

A few eucalyptus trees remain on the hilltop hosting the cemetery’s high staging area. In manageable numbers, their trunks are attractive as they frame views of tempting places.

With the view east restored, there’s now a postcard vista in every direction you look. To the west you can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, St. Mary’s Cemetery and Oakland’s outer harbor.

To the southwest is downtown Oakland and the ridges of the San Mateo Peninsula. These views, as well as those to the north and south, will always be unspoiled. From Mountain View, one can take in surroundings that encompass a large share of the greater Bay area from the midst of a setting that’s both attractive and historic.

So that’s my main case for this being the Bay area’s best landscape. But there’s more — there are rocks. I always make sure to visit this outcrop of red-brown radiolarian chert on the hillside behind the garden mausoleum, plot 3.

Other parts of the cemetery consist of shale, like this bit left behind from an excavation in plot 9.

The road up to the top of the cemetery exposes some of the well-bedded mudstone that underlies much of the grounds, but look in the gutter for the freshest exposure.

And once up there, make your way bayward from the northern tip of plot 77 to this outcrop of green and red chert.

I’m glad to entertain arguments that one place or another might be superior to our cemetery. For sheer viewshed, Mount Diablo is a candidate, as is Tamalpais. Twin Peaks in San Francisco gives excellent views of Oakland. Mount Livermore, on Angel Island, is worth a special mention. The South Bay and North Bay have many more picturesque places, not to mention the Peninsula. Lots of these spots survey a more spacious territory, but Mountain View surveys the most gracious territory, a viewshed of singular integrity that extends from infinity to your feet. In a region full of landscapes, this one offers as much elegance as it does grandeur.

What I marched for

24 April 2017

Saturday was Earth Day, an occasion that usually leaves me lukewarm at best. But this year it was also the day of the worldwide March for Science. A few news stories have quoted environmentalists who resented that the march happened on “their” day. But from my viewpoint, that’s the best day of the year for a science march. The Earth Day community needs the help, and the organizers are upping their game.

We should have a science march, or at least a rally, every year. This year’s inaugural march had a militant edge. So did the original Earth Day. And for centuries before that, scientific advances have shaken up establishments of all kinds. This sign, quoting Galileo’s legendary comment after the Church forced him to renounce his discoveries, was a shout-out to that long history.

The authorities can threaten people for their beliefs, but they can’t force facts to be untrue. And when Galileo muttered “Nevertheless it moves,” he was talking about the Earth.

Other signs were more contemporary, more pointed . . .

. . . and funnier.

One of my favorite geeky jokes was on Twitter: “The numbers for the Science March seem high but we won’t know until we compare it to the numbers at the placebo march that’s also happening.”

I could have marched with the group from the American Geophysical Union, which endorsed the event. I’ve been an AGU member and rabid fan since the mid-1980s. But I chose to walk with the Northern California Science Writers Association, because they represent my practice. Our little group took a side route to the march along Drumm Street, and when we got there Market Street was packed.

It took us an hour to stroll to the Civic Center. People lined the route, holding their signs and admiring ours. There was a learning fair at the other end, what we used to call a teach-in.

As I prepared to return to Oakland, incoming marchers still filled Market Street to the limits of my sight. This was not a small occasion.

There were thousands of signs. This one reminded me of an important truth.

It means that the scientific method is simply a more rigorous version of something we all do. When we face a question of any size, whether it’s choosing fruit at the market or investing our life’s savings, we make our best estimate of what to do, check the results against our expectation, and then make adjustments in how to proceed. Science is common sense weaponized, and the better we are at common sense the more we are like scientists.

One thing that stood out to me at the San Francisco March for Science was that science has more than practitioners — it has fans. When the speakers at the rally made shout-outs to NASA, they drew widespread cheers. The same for stem-cell researchers at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or NIH — cheers. These things deserve their applause, and I cheered them as a fan.

Although there were geologists and geology fans in the crowd, we didn’t get a chance to make or hear a cheer of our own on Earth Day. I know, we’re grownups and don’t need the adulation, but what about the kids who are into minerals and fossils? Do they sense there’s a pivotal role for them in extrasolar planetology? In evolution studies? In global sustainability, in climate studies, in remediation of polluted places, in ecology? Are geology’s strengths in earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and landslides unworthy of comment in a march for science? Does plate tectonics, with its elegance and grandeur and promise, have no fans among the rally planners?

Geologists do tend to keep their heads down. Because Earth science is too wonderful to neglect, I plan to push ahead. You are fans, and I have hundreds more stories for you.