GEOLOGICAL WONDERS OF THE BAY AREA: Homage to the "Bones of the Old Mother" - Our Spiritual Attraction to Boulders, Rocks, Stones and Pebbles
Who hasn't picked up a shiny pebble and fondled it like a lucky charm? Who hasn't cradled a smooth rock in hand like a personal talisman, and been soothed by its soft texture, balanced by its perfect heft, reassured by its form fit in your palm, harmonized by its subtle flowing kinetic energy, and comforted by the mystical connection to an age-old objet trouvé of creation borne of the deepest recesses of the Earth? Who hasn't climbed up boulders and clambered around on rocky ridges and banged a knee or jammed a finger or three? Who hasn't marveled at a jumbled pile of rocks, the craggy detritus of some unimaginable upheaval, or gazed as though contemplating a Pollack painting at a surreal lichen-coated or moss-carpeted rock in a favorite nook of the woods? Who hasn't built a ziggurat of stacked rocks or erected some other artistic structure resembling a mini-Stonehenge? Who doesn't love the peaceful setting of stones harmoniously arranged in a zen garden, or appreciate rocks as decorative sculpture, or forming the spiraling pathway of a labyrinth? Who hasn't been charmed by the stream's watery song, silenced but for the rocks in her bed? Who has not stood in wonder, humbled by the presence of a power spot, marked by special rocks and boulders? Who cannot be intrigued and drawn to this mystical connection to, as Robinson Jeffers characterized them, "the bones of the old mother"?
When Jane Austen asked, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” she turned an anthropocentric phrase on its head and tidily summed up the insignificance of our existence in relation to the eternal and all-powerful – indeed sentient! - Rock of Ages, the one and only Mother Gaia. The miracle is that we live on this Rock which is impervious to our whims and abuses, and uncaring of the reason for our being. We have arisen out of it - a molten ball of solidified magma spinning on its axis through space, 1000 miles per hour, around a flaming ball of fire, our Sun. Our magnificent Rock is a living entity that burps and belches and hiccups, coughs and sneezes and farts, and produces all of life in a homeostatic miasmic stew of organic creation, holding as though in a “great puzzle-box”, as famed paleontologist Louis Agassiz called it, all the treasures of air, soil, continents, oceans and rivers, rocks, earthquakes, and volcanoes - the detritus of everything physical and real in our world which, as stoic Roman philosopher Seneca presaged 2000 years ago, is ephemeral and powerless in the face of mighty Earth forces where “a single day will see the burial of all mankind. All that the long forbearance has produced, all that is famous and all that is beautiful, great thrones, great nations, all will descend into one abyss, will be overthrown in one hour.” BOOM! Reduced to the dust of petrifaction. POW! Buried forever and anon under bedrock. ZAP! Returned to Byron’s state of “Darkness” – “a lifeless lump of death - a chaos of hard clay.” Or, more succinctly and wryly (BONK!), by Will Durant - “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”
I was never very good at understanding the science of geology – I got a C in the only non-humanities course I was forced to endure in college - but I’ve always resonated with the poetry and music of the Earth, the silent symphonies of stones, the lyric pulsations and that-which-cannot-be-expressed immensities of geology’s grandiose pageantry. I've always sought, too, simpler rather than complex answers (which explains why I'm not a geologist). I've stood in erratic boulder fields, wondering what the heck, and trudged to mountain peaks, thinking, my God!, and beachcombed on cobbled shorelines and bushwhacked up and down rock-strewn creek beds, frozen in silence, wherever I am, marveling at the mute magic embodied in these "monuments of the mighty revolutions and convulsions" the Earth has suffered throughout eons, as William Buckland, an early pioneering geologist / professor at Oxford wrote in Vindiciae Geologicae in 1820.
Being a Pebble Pup early on, and later an avid Rock Hound, I have always been a collector of unusual, odd rocks (Gambolin' Gal and I have been finding and collecting heart-shaped love rocks for years now!). I have always been fascinated by the natural history of the Earth, and what deeper, more fascinating thing to probe and ponder than the bedrock origins of our planet. On first reading John McPhee's Basin and Range, and Immanuel Velikovsky's Earth in Upheaval - two seemingly polar opposite approaches to understanding Earth's geo-dynamic processes - I got a taste of just how many questions really do remain unanswered, ignored, scantily understood, or swept under the rug of truth and reason. Or, as Darwin himself observed, "It strikes me that all our knowledge about the structure of our Earth is very much like what an old hen would know of the hundred-acre field in a corner of which she is scratching." And whatever else you may think about the author of the latter book, the aptly titled Earth in Upheaval is an eminently readable, rock-solid scientifically documented, eye-opening treatise into the imponderable mysteries of orogeny, cataclysmic evolution and some of the more glaring irregularities of geological processes in general – most of which we are fairly ignorant of – that have writ in stone and bone the history of our blue-green 4.5 billion year old planet, including the two hundred million year old geologic history of the Bay Area.
The complexity of landforms found in our nine counties comprise a geologist's wonderland, as the great outdoors is a living laboratory, museum, library, and database, offering up for inspection and study a vast depository of jumbled, jagged, erratic pieces of the convoluted puzzle of events preserved and frozen in time for scientists and poets alike to piece and weave and quilt together to tell the story of creation. Our beautiful, diverse topography was brought into existence over the course of fathomless years of geological forces in operation, the complexity of which is still inexorably at work in the form of plate tectonics and its associated geo-activities of subduction and faulting. Evidence of intense bygone volcanism, and the forces of erosion also have contributed to shape-shifting the natural features seen in today’s Bay Area landscape: rocky and cleaved ridges, sunken valleys, erratic boulders, basaltic lava flow deposits, marine limestone exposures, ancient boulder-studded peninsular sea cliffs, peaks over 2500 ft. (Tamalpais, Diablo, Rose, St. Helena, Loma Prieta, Hamilton, Copernicus, Umunhum, Mission, Monument), and countless lesser rises, tors, modest hills, and eminences, all resulting from "the great tribulations to which the planet on which we travel was subjected in prehistorical and historical times," as Velikovsky wrote.
Bay Area geology, I've learned, is characterized by a variety of terranes - chunks of the earth’s crust where continental plates have shifted and broken off into portions accreted to other plates. Terranes such as continental, island arc, and seabed formations, are responsible for the differing types of rocks to come into being – e.g., Franciscan (basalt), serpentine, chert, clastic (sandstone, shale), and probably dozens of others. What continually amazes me, and truly evidences the Earth in upheaval paradigm, is that many of our 3500 ft. to 4000 ft. tall mountains were born underwater and through wrenching processes of strike-slip faulting and other unimaginable exertions they pushed themselves upward – rotated at odd, tilted angles – to soar skyward, defying puny human powers, and belying their chthonic origins. . .until you look deeper for subtle clues evidencing peaks and massifs that once lay at the bottom of the ocean, and not so very long ago, geologically speaking (about three to four million years ago).
Also mind-boggling is the notion of entire volcanoes moving along fault lines over millions of years, like the ancient volcanic remnant of the Pinnacles have, migrating two to three centimeters a year, displaced by unimaginably titanic Earth forces as it inched its way northwestward over eons. It's a very difficult concept to grok -- how faulting, shifting plate tectonics, and erosion have worked, over the course of 23 million years, to carry and shape the better half of a volcano (the Neenach, originally the size of Mt. St. Helens) from southern California’s high desert, to its current residing place near Hollister in the Gabilan Range. To envision this trans-human process unfolding as a literal act of geologic reality is near-impossible. And yet it happened -- a cataclysmic explosion, a long day’s journey into eternity, the Southwest transmigrated, thrust ever-so-slowly northwestward to 195 miles away to the (near) Bay Area! This process is still happening: Pinnacles National Monument continues to suffer entropic long-term effects of erosion and shifting plates resurfacing the land - the old shattered volcano will "soon" be somewhere up in Washington State and, eventually, in maybe 75 million years, it will cease to exist. Better enjoy it - and our puny time on Earth - while we can!
While it's generally recognized that humans have mystical connections and sacred intimacies with organic things and beings - trees, plants, animals, water - throughout history we've also had a rock solid relationship with the metamorphic, the sedimentary, and igneous creations in our midst - the oldest things on earth, rocks. Our very civilization is built upon their foundations. Our greatest edifices, our fortresses, our prehistoric pyramids, our walled enclosures, our towering skyscrapers, all built from quarried rock. Billions and billions of year old, the rocks tell the story of our planet through stratigraphic inference and fossil production. The fossils found embedded in rocks atop ridges and exhumed from quarries, and exposed in dramatic cliffs, reveal that Bay Area geology is the product of 200 million years of “revolutions and convulsions” at the active western margins of the continent where the North American and Pacific plates meet – er, make that collide!
What makes Bay Area hiking such a joy and constant source of wonder is coming upon favorite boulders, rocks and outcroppings which are like old friends awaiting you. Some might say they're just inanimate things, but they are really more than “just rocks” or the metaphoric skeletal structure of the earth – they are sentient sentinels of time's relentless passage; they are the sacred, the inexplicable otherness of God / Goddess’ Earthly manifestation. If Mother Earth possesses living consciousness, as James Lovelock's Gaia Principle invites the poetic / noetic philosopher to entertain, then rocks and stones possess a sense of the metaphysical weightlessness of mind and intangibility of mental prowess. The poet Jane Hirshfield keenly intuits the sentiment that, "As for the boulder / its meditations are slow but complete." (Amen!) And so to come upon rocks and stones and boulders in situ, to bear witness to their immutable presence (from our puny human vantage point) and profound symbolism (from our exalted human perspective), is as though approaching a holy relic or shrine, encountering and communing with some force from beyond, living things emanating from the earth, projecting out of sacred ground. When Edward Abbey was asked what he believed in, he affirmed, “I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock.” (Amen!) Let the poet and philosopher - Shakespeare versus Burroughs - hash it out and argue over whether or not there are "sermons in stones", but returning to the idea of nature possessing consciousness - a spirit-that-moves-in-all-things - it is reassuring to know and believe in Hirshfield's poetic pronouncement that "Each pebble in this world keeps / its own counsel." (Amen!) For my part, give me a rock to lay my head upon. Give me a hot slab of soft granite beside a flowing green river to lay my naked body upon. And I shall caress angular contours and kiss thee unabashedly. Entomb me in a rock sepulchre and when it's time, mark my grave with simple headstone. Return me to the bedrock whence I came. (Amen!)
Speaking of sacred ground, there is plenty upon which to trod and explore and seek out evidence of Earth’s dynamic and tumultuous past and present. My favorite stony friends are found in the many places I have profiled over the years. Here are just a few of mine. And whether you're in the Bay Area, or anywhere on our mercurial planet, you will have your own special affinity - love affair! - with the rocks, stones, boulders and pebbles that you are drawn to.
Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness
The Diablo Range is home to some of the oddest, most intricately textured, almost ruin-like ancient rocks found anywhere - hard evidence, cold testimony, of its turbulent geologic past. During summer, in the high hills, they lay scattered about, sere and weather-beaten, whilst transformed in the rainy season with psychedelic lichen patterns pasted in colorful montages. Serpentine and Franciscan formations mostly comprise the earthy detritus left behind, abounding in streambeds, and as erratic-sort of boulders found high on hillsides -- the many green chert, blue schist, and blue-green andesite boulders lend color, texture, and depth to the swooping Scottish-like hills and roiling streambeds. What wonderful things to behold! They're like big marbles for the kid in you! To the lay person who just loves touching, inspecting, admiring, climbing on, connecting and communing with rocks, to the geologist-sleuth-detective who loves piecing together the history and mystery of an ancient puzzle of geology, Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness challenges and fascinates because it exists as an island in time, a preserved remnant of things past. The Flag Hill environs beckons the pseudo-paleontology nut in you to go off-trail and explore the fossiliferous sandstone formations that once comprised ancient sea beds that are today big mesa-like hiking ridges. The basalt outcrop at Indian Joe Cave Rocks hint at an Earth in upheaval, a time when the whole Bay Area was a volcanic wonderland. Cultural relics such as mortar holes in boulders for grinding acorns abound and help you tune into the pervasive energy, mystery and mystique of native Ohlone Americans dating back 5000 years ago who settled on and around Alameda Creek and lived harmonious lives in timeless rhythms with nature . . . Sunol-Ohlone rocks!
Mt. Diablo St. Park / Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area
Reddish chocolate colored Franciscan Formation exposures of ribbon chert set off by blazing orange poppy gardens. Tilted sedimentary layers of pink monoliths jutting sky high like a cyclopean fortress where vultures nest in aeries and precipitous ledges are guano-splattered white, and where you can explore like a kid cave pockets and wind tunnels in Domengine sandstone formations. A popular picnic area called Rock City is exemplary for these Eocene sandstone deposits - truly defying the ordinary, possibly challenging your sense of place and time. Mao is quoted as saying, “The hills are old, but evergreen”; whereas in Mt. Diablo's case, the rocks are old, but the mountain is (geologically) young, but ever growing, adding about two millimeters a year to its 3849 ft. elevation. (Quick, do the math - when exactly will it be 3850 ft?)
Vasco Caves Regional Preserve
Aeolian forces have sculpted the boulders at this unique "guided tour" only East Bay park into fantastic shapes and figures, tinged in chartreuse yellow algae and splotched with vermillion red lichen patterns. Situated in picturesque hollows like a Georgia O'Keeffe mirage, you can test your Rorschach quotient at every turn and see what you can spot in the sculptural contortions of the wind-carved formations - there's an eagle's beak, an Indian chief profile, a manatee, a badger, elephantine figures and other fanciful forms. What caused their existence? Why haven't they eroded to dunes of colorful dust? The answer is that 50 million years ago an ocean covered the Central Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and over eons of time, it drained, receded, filled, and dried up, laid down sediment, and meanwhile the same tectonic forces at work that uplifted and created nearby Mt. Diablo also worked to thrust up bedrock through malleable sandstone and push it to the surface, tilting it angularly and moving it along the fault lines. The science is cool, but give me the stuff of legend and myth! The pervasive spirituality of the place evokes a heartset that connects to the native people who worshipped these rocks and anthropomorphized them as gods and spirit beings.
With Mt. Tamalpais dominating in all directions, and the famous San Andreas fault running the length of it, Marin County has ample igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic extrusions and exposures, many of which are reminiscent of cromlechs, menhirs and dolmens left by some mythic race of ancient beings. The Marin Headlands hosts the oldest continuous stratigraphic record of bared rocks - dating to 200 million years ago - with many fetching boulders and alluring outcrops of varying sizes, dimensions and textures are found on Pine Mountain (Mt. Tam's northwest flanks), Tennessee Valley, Steep Ravine, Windy Hill, Cascade Canyon Open Space District, and Pt. Reyes National Seashore, among countless other locales. You're always certain to encounter the biggest and most beautiful boulders in and around Marin County.
Indian and Mortar Rocks (Berkeley)
The Berkeley Hills are home to silica-rich, volcanic rhyolite boulders (called Northbrae, after the neighborhood), similar to granite outcroppings, often adorning peoples' yards and forming the centerpiece of several Berkeley parks - Indian Rock, Mortar Rock, Hinkel Park, Cragmont Rock Park, Great Stoneface Park, Glendale-La Loma Park, Grotto Rock Park, and Remillard Park, which features a lichen-splotched 100 ft. tall boulder that would look more at home in the desert southwest than in a hoity-toity North Berkeley neighborhood. Formed from volcanic explosions nearly 12 million years ago, and hitching a ride north from the Hollister area along the Hayward and Calaveras fault lines, these various rock formations lend a distinct character to the neighborhoods, with Indian Rock being the most historic owing to its status as training grounds for the father of modern rock climbing, Dick Leonard, and later where famed environmentalist and mountaineer David Brower developed techniques which he used, according to the Berkeley Historical Society, "to prepare training manuals during World War II, which proved critical in enabling the 86th Regiment of the U.S. Army to surprise the Germans at Riva Ridge in the North Appennines in Italy, the major action disrupting German lines in southern Europe." At Mortar Rock, surrounded by live oak and California buckeye trees, one finds acorn grinding pits, indented foot deep perfectly circular mortar holes ground into the rock where Huichin Ohlone peoples once gathered in ceremony to celebrate the acorn harvest - right here in our urban neck of the woods, making these rocks very special reminders, indeed, of a cultural prehistory deeply interconnected with the geology of the area.
My mother, bless her 86 year old heart, is a child of the Earth, a special communicator who connects on an intimate level with nature's spirits. Once she asked her children to participate in her "Talking Stones" project, where she would, over several months, collect twenty-five stones, five for each child. Each time she found a stone, it would be specifically with one of us in mind. On my stones, she wrote the date and a unique word that came to her mind the moment she found my stone. The next day she would call to let me know she had found one of my five stones. Upon calling, I had to record in a notebook - which she hand-made as paper art - my thoughts and feelings that day or even something memorable perhaps that happened to me that day. After five such entries, I mailed the notebook back to mom to see how the words she wrote on my stones matched up with my entries - how the stones spoke their truth through my mom to me across the psychic distance of miles.
My five Talking Stones:
November 9, MEMORIES. I wrote, "Mom finds a stone while walking in the woods near her apartment with her art intern. Today was a good day - last day of the work week for Veteran's Day holiday - one of 15 paid holidays I get at work. I left early, around 2, because Mary and I had planned a trip to visit her parents in Napa. . .but her dad "called in sick" with a bad cold (they're both 85) and so instead we hiked in Tilden Park. We did a big loop through a beautiful local landscape. On the way down Curran Trail we met Elizabeth and her incredibly astute, wise "in-the-know" dog, Ozzie. She told us that she was a therapy dog and brought love, joy, relief and emotional succor to people - elderly, children, dying. Ozzie - after the wizard? - was truly a remarkable, special dog - you could see it in her eye movements, her body language - "an old soul" no doubt. . .and yet just a mutt, an old Kentucky tail-banger, a dumb dog, stupid hound, illiterate creature (not!) as my dear, departed dad used to joke about our dogs when we were growing up."
November 27, SPIRIT. I wrote: "Mom called to say she found another stone! What happened today? Work was full of conflict, confrontation, fixing of snafus; lost some dough in the lottery - as usual. Came home, cheered up with Mary's arrival home, ate hot soup and bread, and an impressive Warrior's win over San Antone! Cold damp kind of day. . .but beautiful sunset over Bay. How can one feel badly?"
December 10, NATURE. I wrote, "Sunday, another stone found - what happened? Took a hike in Laurel Canyon and Jewel Lake area - enjoyed the simple beauty, the freshness of the air, after brief rainstorms, then cozyin' up on the homefront with sweet Mau! A good day - took it easy."
January 5, COURAGE. I wrote, "Mom found another stone. . .home from work third day due to freak arm injury. But getting better - and on day 7 of new budget for life! I'm determined to save money for the first time since 1989. . ."
March 1, LUCK. I wrote: "5th stone - is it a Rune? Found around the full moon - I won $100 in the lottery, I swear!, and rode my bike in the hills. . .what does it all mean? When most of it is unseen."
Maya Angelou has tapped into the poetry of the bones of the old mother with her intuition that "the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully," and the lesser known poet, Geoffrey Long, has sensed that "these stones are blessed with mouths, screaming in silent exultation." Likewise, my mother, the wise Ora, knows the truth revealed, inscribing in her lovely little book, "Listen, the stones do talk!!"