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Berkeley's Solar Calendar Rocks

By Gar Smith
Wednesday November 09, 2011 - 10:41:00 AM
East Bay Conservation Corps members work on maintaining the Solar Calendar.
Gar Smith
East Bay Conservation Corps members work on maintaining the Solar Calendar.
Gar Smith
Gar Smith

It was a beautiful late October day, ideal weather for enjoying the sweeping panorama from atop the hills north of the Berkeley Marina. It was a lovely day for soaking up the sun and inhaling great gasps of fresh Bay breeze. And it was also a perfect day for grabbing pick-axes, shovels and a hundred small boulders to gussy up the perimeter surrounding the César Chávez Memorial Solar Calendar. 

The Solar Calendar is a special site. Every Solstice and Equinox, it draws a crowd of students, environmentalists, activists, astronomers and Wiccans. In between, it draws curious stares from dog walkers and excited laughter from school children on field trips. 

The Solar Calendar (Note: Don't call it a "sundial") sits in the center of a grass-fringed summit, encircled by a mini-Stonehenge of earth-backed berms and four clusters of signs detailing various aspects of the life of United Farm Workers' leader César Chávez. Each of the four points of the compass is marked by a stone bearing one of the cardinal virtues epitomized by Chávez' life of service and sacrifice — Hope, Determination, Courage and Tolerance. 

In addition to providing one of the Bay Area's best scenic vantage points, the summit's celestial monument also puts visitors in the position of being at the virtual "helm of Spaceship Earth." Standing alongside the three-foot-tall stone gnomon as it casts a shadow across the face of the Meridian Calendar, visitors can mark the slow course of the planet as it moves eastward on its axis. Standing on this spot and watching the slow progress of the ever-moving shadow, visitors can feel as if they are "driving the planet" from this unique perch. (An illusion, of course, since none of us are Captains of this ship: we are all merely Passengers.) 

Berm, Baby, Berm! 

Santiago Casal, the visionary sociologist and designer who created the memorial — and who continues to nurture its ever-evolving transformations — was on hand to greet volunteers, which today included Karen Fox-Reynolds leading a delegation of students from the Marin School in Albany and nearly a dozen members of the East Bay Conservation Corps. "The Corps has been involved in the creation of the site since the very beginning," Casal says. 

Casal looks over the 1.5-acre site and sighs. "The berms seem to have become ground squirrel hotels," he says, "Not sure what to do about that." But quickly turning back to the day's work, he explains that volunteers will be "resetting some of the stones on the berms to achieve a greater esthetic and we will be lengthening the tail of the Calendar to accentuate the southern orientation and aerial image of the site." And, he adds, "new signage is in the works." 

By day's end, the eastern and southern berms will be enhanced with new stone walls with eight large boulders marking the site's coordinates. The smaller stones used to build the encircling berms were donated by American Soil and Stone while the soil used to back the new berms was donated by Brickyard Excavations. 

Armed with picks, shovels and strong backs, the Conservation Corps crew swarms over the site while down the hill, an earthmover is busy rebuilding the path that leads uphill to the site. Wiping his brow, one of the young Corps workers pauses to laugh and exclaims: "Man! I'm exercising muscles I didn't even know I had!" 

Overseeing the work is a beaming Bill Ritchie. A building coordinator with the City of Oakland, Richie works with members of the Neighborhood Service Department and has had a hand in the Chavez Memorial from the earliest days. Or, as Richie puts it: "When we were just piling dirt on top of dirt." Richie grew up cash-poor but in a resilient environment — his family home was small but there were chickens, goats and dogs in the backyard as well as a thriving food garden. These days, Richie admits he's concerned about social collapse. "We need to get back to the basics — back to the land," he says. He believes sites like this are part of the solution. 

James LaFemina, the site's stonemason (who prefers to go by the name "JL") explains that we will be "dry-stacking" the stone walls. No mortar is being used, so the trick is to find the one stone that fits near-perfectly into the niche that's been created by all the other stones previously placed. This is a "special spatial" puzzle where the "solution" does not pre-exist but happens spontaneously at the moment you find the perfect stone to drop into place. 

JL admits that he likes to finish his workdays by returning home, kicking back and filling out crossword puzzles. Finding the right word to complete a line or a block "is just as satisfying as placing the right stone," he smiles. 

JL instructs his apprentice masons to take care to place the stones with their colorful, weathered sides facing outward. "It can take 100 years to grow one square inch of lichen," he notes. He also alerts us to "the five minute rule": if you can't find a fit in five minutes, move on to a different part of the wall. We roll and rotate each of the 10-20-pound rocks, checking their shapes and size. It takes more than one trip to the wall to find a stone that fits. And we do our best to honor the lichen. 

A salute to some unsung heroes: The Solar Calendar's current crew of volunteer Stewards includes: Tory Brady, Kathy Churchill, Beck Cowles, Curtis Gray, Steve Haflich, Carlos Hill, Russell Nelson, Mojgan Saberi, Chuck Soper,Cathy Sponseller and Jim Shallenberger. For more information: