The Jim Berkland Story
There is a man who’s been living life well, right here in the Valley of the Moon, for many, many years – out loud and with great style. I’d like to talk this month about my good friend and the good friend of many people here, Jim Berkland.
Jim was six years old when he first arrived in Glen Ellen back in 1937, when his father had begun working at Sonoma Developmental Center, then known as Sonoma State Home. His early impressions of our village, and the hills and valley that surround it, inspired a deep, life-long love of the land and its heritage. He fished the streams and wandered the hills, always searching to know the nature of the landscape.
When his third-grade teacher assigned writing a poem about birds in a nest, Jim wrote the first of over a thousand poems about the wildlife and plant life of the area – and about daily life in our community. Because his poetry has celebrated every aspect of the region, Jim was recently named Honorary Poet Laureate of the Valley of the Moon by the Glen Ellen Historical Society.
The boyhood naturalist grew to become a dedicated scientist, who believed in direct observation and critical thinking, despite conventional wisdom. His eager curiosity, combined with a generous and agile mind, led to discoveries that changed ideas about our region. The presence of fossils of shellfish on the ridge of the Mayacamas, and Ponderosa Pines at the foot of Nunn’s Canyon, told him about the great geological forces that changed a very different world into the landscape we know today.
Last year, while we were walking in Morton’s Warm Springs, Jim spotted some rocks on the ground that looked to me like obsidian. He did a double-take and excitedly exclaimed they were tektites. Tektites, he went on to explain, are formed by the fusion of terrestrial and extraterrestrial material that have been scattered by the hot impact of a meteorite. Only six strewn fields of tektites are known worldwide – one of them only recently discovered – dispersed across Sonoma and Solano counties. Jim’s fine eye had spotted them and his fine mind had recognized them.
After receiving his degree in Geology at U.C. Berkeley, and a stint as assistant professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, Jim returned to California in 1973 to became the first county geologist for Santa Clara County. Here he began to formulate some very original ideas about the nature and frequency of earthquakes, based upon his own direct observation and careful deductions. He noticed windows of opportunity for seismic activity, based upon the relationship between the phases of the moon and the behavior of animals.
This interest, however, got him in trouble with conventional wisdom, and eventually, with the powers that be. His research had gone largely ignored until his prediction of the destructive Loma Prieta Earthquake appeared in the newspaper four days before it struck on Oct. 17, 1989. And he was promptly put on leave from his position as county geologist, for fear that his predictions could cause panic.
Jim himself has never been afraid of what he knows are natural forces. He is fascinated by them, and understands them well. In time, of course, he was reinstated and was able to pursue his interest in the restless nature of the planet, although under severe restrictions. Still, Jim’s pioneering work in seismic prediction (he prefers the word “preparedness”) – and his comprehension of the dynamically interactive forces of nature with which we all must live – has became widely respected.
But here in the Valley of the Moon, a place he knows and loves most intimately and deeply, Jim’s reputation is as a family man with great affection for his wife, Jan, and for his community. Over the decades he’s been active in our volunteer fire department, the community church, the Lions Club, the Jack London Foundation, and of course the Glen Ellen Historical Society. He generously shares his thoughts and feelings, his wisdom and his interest, and he is generous, too, with his gentle tears and soft laughter when he tells stories about the days of his life so far.
Last month Jim appeared in a special program at Mayflower Hall, where many activities of his life, lived well, have taken place – his graduation from Dunbar School, the boy scout meetings and teen dances, the weddings and the memorials – and where the county library was located when he first began studying geology. At the end of his talk, Jim read a recently published poem that belongs here. If you enter Jim’s name into YouTube, you can watch him reading it. It’s called “Life in a Hyphen.”
I wander through a graveyard bleak
And, lo, the tombstones seem to speak.
The names are there, with year of birth
And then the year when laid to earth.
Between the dates is carved a dash
And then the truth hits with a crash!
This hyphen, just a simple line,
Includes all parts of life’s design:
The infant years, the schooling days,
The foes and friends, rebukes and praise,
The daily chores, the fun and games,
Surrounded by forgotten names;
The search for spouse and goals, as well;
The family ties with tales to tell,
The golden years, with sense of pride,
And then, at last, it all has died.
And all was hyphenated here
Upon the stone, without tear.
I place my finger on the mark
And somehow sense a lingering spark.