The San Rafael Mountain Range
or A Montessori Construction Project


School starts for nearly 11-year-old Miranda at Montessori Center School. My sculpture has been so fun that I casually mention that it might be nice to build a 3D topo map with the students. Chris, a head teacher, says, “I’d love it. I’ve always wanted to do a 3D representation. When can you start?”

Mental spontaneous combustion as my brain yelps, “No way! What about your writing, your science, your stories, histories, and ancestral studies?” My body says, “Next week. I’ll give a presentation to see if the kids would be interested.”

“Presentation?” Brain says. “You don’t even know anything about geography or geology.”

Chris: “I’ve got something from Midland which tells how to make a topo map. Here it is. By the way which area do you think we should do?”

“Well, I thought we would do the upper Manzana Creek because that is where you are taking the Advanced Backpackers on their annual trip.”

Chris: “Perfect. They would be able to study the geography of the Manzana Creek, build a model of it, and then hike in it. This would be a classic Montessori experience. Madam Montessori would be proud.”

Geological History of the San Rafael mountain range

Although the pamphlet from Midland High School contained not one iota of information on how to build a topo map, it contained a great deal of information on the San Rafael Wilderness Area, where the Manzana Creek is located.

It seems that the San Rafael Mountain Range is the sediment that washed down from a huge mountain range millions of years ago. It was then compressed and rippled into mountains when the faster moving oceanic Pacific Plate collided with the slower moving continental North American tectonic plate.

“Millions of years ago (approximately 100 million) there was a mountain range off to the east of what is now the San Rafael Mountains. … Erosion off these mountains on to the coastal plain to the west was constant and on-going. Much sedimentation occurred with sand, silts and muds being deposited on and off shore. Occasionally heavy rains in the mountains or vast snowmelts would cause the rivers and streams draining the mountains to carry gravels and boulders all the way out to the coastal plain for deposition. So a thick package of sediment accumulated off the west coast of the continent.

Millions of years of sedimentation created 10-20 kilometers of sedimentary layers. The bottom layers experienced compaction and cementation with the unconsolidated sediment becoming actual rock: sands turned into sandstone, muds turned into mudstone or shale. Somewhere around 60-80 million years ago this nice quiet package of sediments and sedimentary rock got caught up in tectonic events. Tectonic events include processes like mountain building, folding, faulting, and earth quakes. Creation of and movement along the San Andreas Fault probably initiated the topography we see today …. This movement caused shearing (squeezing) of the rocks, resulting in a few different consequences; at depth where the rock layers are more ductile folding occurred, huge anticlines and synclines were the result. Hurricane Deck is one of these folds, a large plunging syncline. At or near the surface where the rocks are more brittle faulting occurred. These cracks, or faults, became avenues for large blocks of crust to move up and down in relation to each other - blocks that moved up became the mountains, blocks that moved down became the valleys.

The west coast of California continues to be geologically active. Since the block faulting started millions of years ago the mountainous blocks continue to rise. As the blocks rise they are worn down by the constant forces of erosion, rain and slides predominantly for this area. The current erosional forces give us the landscape we see today.” (Midland School Back Country Program Pamphlet, p14)

Fairly straight forward. Large mountain - lots of sediment from erosion, 10 to 20 kilometers thick. That’s miles thick, not feet. There is a tectonic event. The Pacific Plate rams into the North American Plate at the San Andreas Fault, This ripples the surface, causing mountains of sedimentation.

The San Rafael Mountains consist of rippled sedimentary rock, i.e. conglomerate, sandstone, mudstone and shale. The conglomerate rock is deposited during floods. The sandstone comes from the stream deposits. It is very aerated to allow the water to flow. It is 30% airspace. It is both porous and permeable. The grain is between 1/16-2 mm. The mudstone or shale is rock that forms when the river stops and is very dense. Silt grains are smaller than sand and larger than clay which is smaller than 1/256 mm, hundreds of times smaller than sand. Water can’t flow through. It is impermeable. These three rock types reflect the climate which floods periodically, flows fairly regularly and then during drought times the rivers stop. The material of the mountains is basically soft sedimentary rock, which is recycled over and over in myriad ways. (Midland, pp. 15-6)

The Transverse Mountain Range

I give my talk. It is enthusiastically received. I am given the go-ahead for my project from Chris, Brown Door teacher. I go to get topographic maps of the Manzana Creek where the Montessori children are backpacking. Because Manzana Creek flows diagonally across our north-top topo map from southeast to northwest I must get 4 different topo maps splicing them together in order to capture the area you wanted. Not two or three, but four topo maps are needed. Why diagonal I wonder?

I look at a geographical map of the area and notice that while the San Rafael Mountain Range in the Sierra Madres point diagonally, the mountains above point north-south and the mountains below point east-west. The connected mountains follow a curve from east-west to north-south, with the San Rafael Wilderness as part of the curve, the transitional zone. What caused this curve?

“The east-west mountains near Santa Barbara and Los Angeles once probably ran roughly north-south like the others along the coast. About 16 million years ago the Pacific plate snagged the southern end of the mountains and rotated them as it passed by. This realignment exposed rocks that had been scraped off the Farallon plate as it subducted under North America.” (National Geographic February 1995)

Humph. The Pacific Plate snagged the mountains and rotated them. That makes sense, or does it? I think we need to know more about these plates. More later.

A Miraculous Coincidence

In agony I am still cutting off the bottoms of the ¼ inch foam core for the Kearsarge Pass topo sculpture. Then Phil, the other head teacher in Brown Door, says, “My wife used to do architectural modeling with foam core. She sent in some samples of the foam care she worked with.” Immediately my eye is attracted to the 1/16th inch foam core. My body knows the solution to the Kearsarge Pass Topo Sculpture is at hand. The good Lord, Mother Nature, the Gameplayers, or whomever you might believe in, has just set up the game.

I am making my topo sculpture. I become stuck by materials limitation. Mother Nature, my Game player, the Director, whoever, puts it into my mind, giving me the urge, to do volunteer work at Montessori Center School. There comes the solution to my woes from an unlikely source, the head teacher’s wife. Coincidence? Only if you believe in miracles. I choose to believe in the Divine Will. The Director gave me a Test and I passed it. The Little Voice told me to go to Montessori. I heard and did.

I get some 1/8th inch foam core at the local art store, Art Essentials, but they only have the 1/8 inch, not the 1/16th inch. I purchase what is at hand. ¼ inch foam core has just become obsolete. 1/8 inch has taken over. Manzana Creek begins with 1/8 inch, while Kearsarge Pass continues with 1/8 inch. Definitely a time-saver, but my mind burns with 1/16th inch. What could be done?

My body knows it needs the 1/16 inch foam core to go all the way down the mountain to the valley. Now my mouth blurts out to anyone I might think might know, “Where can I get 1/16 inch foam core? I know it exists or at least existed.” Calling around I get the feeling that it only existed. The new people have never heard of it; the old people “We don’t have it; we did have it; we discontinued it, not enough demand, I don’t even know where to order it.” Finally Tai Chi connection Kathy Hancock architect, “Perhaps at FLAX in Los Angeles. They are bigger than the Santa Barbara stores for that type of thing.”

“No, we don’t carry 1/16th inch foam core.” – “Yes, we did. There is no demand.” – “Yes, we could order it for you. But you’d have to order it in bulk - a minimum $200 order. That’s probably too much, isn’t it?”

By now, a hopeless foam core addict, my fingers, eyes and brain have all joined forces, they order my tongue to say, “No, it isn’t. I would like to order it.”

“What are you going to use it for? For most people this would be a lifetime supply.”

“I use it to make mountains.” My body cheered, “1/16 inch foam core: Hooray!” It was at this point that I realized that I had gone from a casual user to full-on addict.

More Misconceptions or
The Deep River Valleys of Manzana Creek

Thinking to myself as I began the Manzana Creek project with the Brown Door students: “I’ve done mountains, before. I know mountains now.”

Drawing the lines in 200 feet increments, no conceptions were ruffled. Any discontinuous facts that might mess up my order, I just swept under the rug. No need to ruffle my pride. Let me believe that I now knew mountains.

The kids, 9 to 12 year olds, were so enthusiastic that I didn’t even have enough work for them. I took the foam core home to work upon. I started cutting/fixing up the 1800 feet layer. I did lots of touch up on this project.

“Wow!” thinking to myself, “this finger of emptiness in the middle of the land is narrow. It’s hard to cut these long, narrow erosional valleys. I never saw anything like this in the Eastern Sierras. There all the river valleys were very shallow. Here the river valleys are very deep.

I then begin cutting/fixing the 2000 feet layer. These long inlets of emptiness continue and are more pronounced. More long fingers at 2200 feet. A pattern is established.

“These are nothing like I saw in the Sierras. Perhaps I don’t know mountains very well at all. These are so different from the others. The erosional valleys were so small in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas and are so long and narrow in the San Rafael Wilderness in the Sierra Madre Mountains.”

Duh! Soft sedimentary rock erodes easily. The ground is so soft that flowing water cuts out long narrow furrows. These are sedimentary valleys. The ground is just washed down century by century transformed and recreated by the climate. The ground is recycled over and over again. This was my first experience with the V-shaped sedimentary valleys but not my last.

The presentations and project were enthusiastically received. The rest is history. In two months, 300 children hours, and 200 of my touchup hours, we finished a 11 by 17 by 4 inch sculpture, representing the Manzana Creek in the San Rafael wilderness. We had worked hard, had fun, and had learned a lot. I even acquired a nickname along the way - Topo.

I had given talks, more or less well received, on basins and divides, sedimentary rock types, craftsmanship, quality and team work, color as hue, shade and lightness/darkness, and the fractalization of the boundary line. Fractalization of the boundary line? It turns out that basins and divides fractalize at their boundary lines. In brief where the divide hits the basin is a mythical point. The closer you get to the actual spot the more ambiguity is encountered, because nothing is ever exact, especially not a divide. Don’t get me wrong, on the ridges water is very specific which way it goes, but the closer the rainfall gets to the junction of the divide or basin, the less predictable the behavior. With the larger divides there was an actual fan at the transition. This was an exciting discovery for me. It was my first natural fractal discovery.

I began the Manzana Creek Relief Map with Brown Door in October 1996 and finished in January 1997, I was finally freed to complete Kearsarge Pass. Moving steadily down the hill, I finally finished in May 1997. I extended the Kearsarge Pass Relief Map another 800 meters down the mountainside from the original in the passion of my topo work. And I was met with new surprises every step of the way. I learned to not hold on to my brain’s ideas. Just as soon as a pattern would be established and I would think that I knew, the pattern would be overlaid by a new pattern. The new pattern would emerge from the old but change into something much different from the original. This sense of discovery and excitement carried me to the limits of my topo map.


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