ted_oberlander

The Utah Atlas of Panoramic Digital Images is dedicated to Dr. Theodore M. Oberlander - Professor of Geography (emeritus) - U.C. Berkeley.


Ted Oberlander arrived at Berkeley as a newly minted Syracuse University Ph.D. in the Spring of 1963. He was one of the "new kids" whose job it was to carry the Department of Geography forward after the retirement of such notables as Carl O. Sauer, John Leighly, and John Kesseli. Ted was Dr. Kesseli's "replacement" and as such inherited courses in physical geography, cartography, geomorphology, and topographic map interpretation. He also inherited Dr. Kesseli, who grew to love and respect the new professor who graciously shared his office with the elderly Swiss giant. It was apparent immediately to those of us who were undergraduates there at the time that Ted was someone special. Not only was he bright and able, he showed a true passion for the discipline and a dedication to the best U.C. Berkeley ideals of scholarship and service.

Ted soon became a department keystone, teaching more required courses in the major and more students than any other member of the faculty during the 1960s - too many I think. He dedicated more than thirty years of his life to the Berkeley campus and its students. Several times during the years, Ted expressed to me some dismay at the dismal slide of public higher education into the darker realms of intellectual corruption and moral hypocrisy. However, he never abandoned his own high values or his students.

I was a member of that first generation of Berkeley student geographers to be deeply influenced by Dr. Oberlander. He taught by example and set goals for all of us that were worthy of emulation.

Although Ted traveled throughout the world in search of geomorphic enigmas, the canyons and plateaus of the Colorado River occupy a special place in his heart's memories. Several of us had the rare opportunity of traveling with him through this country during a summer field course in the late 1960s. We will never forget the wonders of that time together.
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Most recently, Ted's self expressed "morphologist to my core" nature has involved him the matter of early man sites in the Western Hemisphere. In this regard he is following a line of investigation that lies very close to the core of traditional Berkeley Cultural Geography. Here is what he recently had to say about a famous excavation in California's Mojave Desert.

"My current obsession is that the Calico "geofacts" found near Barstow could NOT be accidents of nature, and are artifacts, somehow as much as 10 meters below the surface in a carbonate-cemented alluvial deposit that has been dated to several hundred thousand years. The American Paleolithic?  (Don't expect arrowheads and spear points)."  Ted invites us all to look at the evidence on a web site that he has contributed to: http://www.calicodig.com, and he invites viewers to make our own judgments.


Soon after his retirement in 1993, Ted was awarded the Melvin G. Marcus Distinguished Career Award by the Geomorphology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers. Professor Ron Dorn, one of Ted's former students, wrote the citation.

Geomorphology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers
Melvin G. Marcus Distinguished Career Award, 1994
- Theodore M. Oberlander, Univ. California - Berkeley

Citation by Ron Dorn, Arizona State University

Theodore M. Oberlander has had a distinguished career in geomorphology. From his Annals paper on inclined contours to his ongoing work on desert landscape interpretation, TMO has never been satisfied to look at a problem from the conventional perspective. Oberlander is a perfectionist, and each one of his contributions to geomorphological research and teaching is like a finely sculpted landscape. They need to be viewed in varying lights to be appreciated fully.

TMO's classic Syracuse monograph on the transverse drainages of the Zagros Mountains shed the first new light on this fluvial conundrum in decades. Every fluvial geomorphologist who looks out from an airplane window is constantly staring down at the problem of how streams get across transverse structures. Attacking the issue from a new perspective, Oberlander worked in Iran and determined a new solution. He deduced that thick flysch beds in orogenic structures can make their own cover mass, allowing streams to be 'structurally superimposed' across more resistant strata.

In the midst of the quantitative revolution, when many geomorphologists were diving into streams as places to obtain numerical data, TMO didn't hesitate to take another path, jumping into the difficult problem of slope development in deserts. When Oberlander views a slope in the desert, he doesn't see it as it is today. He sees it first as an aesthetic entity that bears the imprint of countless environmental changes. With his 'bookend' papers in the American Journal of Science and the Journal of Geology, TMO met the challenge of putting together a meticulous story on the development of granitic pediments in the Mojave landscape. He explained boulder slopes in the Mojave Desert as core stones, manufactured by subsurface weathering, and let down as grus is stripped away.
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Many geomorphologists are unaware that he has a strong climatological dimension. His Journal of Arid Environments paper on water balances in deserts develops a new index, and illustrates its utility in distinguishing truly arid regions from semi- deserts. Although rarely used in geography, Oberlander's new index has seen extensive use in agricultural fields.

Among the geomorphologists who work in the Colorado Plateau of the Southwest, few have tackled the problem of slope development in this cuesta-form landscape. Here are many elements that tend to scare others away: lack of time control; slow evolution; interaction with long-term climatic change; and the need to deduce events. Yet it was here that the 'Sherlock Holmes' of arid slopes tackled the evolution of sandstone slopes. His logic and deduction were flawless. A curved slick rock slope in sandstone is a thing of beauty, and a geomorphic problem to be solved. TMO explained that sandstone slope morphology can be driven by even the tiniest structural weaknesses, thus opening up fascinating research questions on the implications of those forms for the morphological evolution of the Colorado Plateau. These themes have been taken up by only a few others. Oberlander's papers on dryland slopes in 1977 and 1989 are a core of papers in the field.

In this short accounting, it is impossible to relate all of Oberlander's research accomplishments. For example, his paper on discharge measurements in Death Valley showed once and for all that he would rather leave his visitors wet than miss a rare opportunity to obtain data. His papers on rock varnish reveal his attention to the nitty-gritty detail in a desert landscape.

One of Oberlander's longest-lasting contributions to geomorphology is his ability to recruit young geomorphologists by teaching a holistic vision of a landscape. To his students, "Mr. Oberlander" was an amazing lecturer. He could pack more in a single hour lecture than most instructors could in a week. Like his published papers, each of his lectures was carefully crafted. Yet, his ability to inspire students was not just his classroom eloquence, but rather his visions, painted landscapes on a classroom chalk board, that pulled dozens of quality young scientists into geography and geomorphology. TMO has the uncanny ability to allow the student to 'see' the big picture. Geography was not compartmentalized into various subjects. Whether he taught a regional arid lands class, topographic map interpretation, cartography, landform analysis, or introduction to physical geography, he presented the essence of what gets people excited about geography.
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Those of us who were drawn into geomorphology and geography by TMO will certainly lament his retirement from Berkeley. We only hope that he puts down his painter's brush every once in a while to write some more of that geomorphology that never goes out of style.
Ronald I. Dorn, Arizona State University

Acceptance of Award - Ted Oberlander [Ted was in Africa at the time of the award and was unable to attend. His acceptance was read by Herb Eder.]

At this moment I think wistfully of the grace and sincerity of Ross Mackay's words when he accepted the first Gilbert Award in 1983. My own promising start in Canada was so thoroughly undermined by my high school years in the coal and brickyard culture of central Pennsylvania that I have no hope of finding equivalent phrases to express my appreciation for this recognition from my peers. Worse yet, unfortunate timing causes me to be half a world away at just this moment. I chose this spring to pursue a 30-year interest in the scarps of Southern Africa and the strange views of both L.C. King and Julius Budel concerning them. Beyond this, I yearned to lay hands on a real African bornhardt, a landform long dear to my heart due to its striking resemblance to myself above the eyebrows. And I hoped to see some of the unique features of the Kalahari and Namib deserts. If fortune smiles, I will have accomplished some of these objectives by the time you gather.

This is the time to express thanks, and foremost I must place my late wife Lucille, a cancer victim whose heart was among the ponderosa pines, but who spent half her life wiling the hours away by our bare-bones Econoline van, surrounded by desert brush, as I pranced with horned lizards in the Mojave or determined my angle of sliding friction on slickrock slopes in Utah. I would also like to thank the old van itself, which never stranded me and still stands rusting but ready in my driveway at an age of 25 years. Then there are the few thousand undergraduate and graduate students I have force fed my slides and who enthusiastically tried to read my mind on various types of exams for three decades. Many were possessed of intellects I truly feared to offend with foolishness or sloppy thinking. My debt to them is overwhelming.

I must concede a fatal attraction to bright, colorful places, with landforms that are easy to appreciate and enjoy. I tip my hat to the truly dedicated among you who practice geomorphology amid the awful cover of vegetation and soil in our more humid climes. I vividly recall the slippery mud and the hum of insects in the ravines of New York where I embarked on my first project in landform analysis. It was the realization, between mosquito bites, that the mud was varved that launched my career.
TCal-3

My greatest regret is that I was too much a part-time geomorphologist. I put too much time and effort into other academic responsibilities, either because they needed to be done or were too interesting to let go. If I had shed these distractions, some of the half-finished studies in my files could have been concluded, and I might be more deserving of the award you are conferring upon me. As Ron Dorn knows, I always wanted to have one of those "Outrageous Hypothesis..." titles. Mine would have dealt with the Pali on Oahu. Would you believe island subsidence bringing a smooth caldera wall into the rains below the trade wind inversion? There is some evidence! Perhaps there is still time!

My extreme gratitude to you all,

Ted Oberlander