A Sense of the Immense
A renowned geologist who studied the Coast Mountains of British Columbia and southeast Alaska in search of a unified theory for the formation of continental crust, Lincoln Hollister has led a life of exploration and discovery that in a way began at the Hollister Ranch. He visited us at the Ranch for this interview on February 6 2016 accompanied by his son John.
CW: Just to put you in the context of Hollister family history, you are the son of Clinton Hollister, who was the son of Jim (and Lottie) Hollister, who was the son of Colonel W.W. Hollister, with whom the acquisition of this Santa Barbara County land began. Where and when were you born?
LH: I was born on October 16, 1938 in Rochester, Minnesota. My father was an intern at the Mayo Clinic when I was born.
One of the great Hollister disasters was the divorce of my father and mother. That was one of the major events that divided and split family into different factions.
CW: Can you talk about that?
LH: It was a messy divorce, shortly after the end of the war. I was about ten. My father explained that when people go away to various war activities, things happen. Women are left and they have affairs. Men go somewhere else and they have affairs. My father said that a lot of relations broke up because of these disruptions. He was in the Army-Air Force, stationed at bases mostly in the Northwest. So my brother Charlie and I went to school in Pocatello, Idaho. Walla Walla, Washington. Portland Oregon.
And then both of us, as very young kids, were put in a boarding school in Santa Barbara, because my father had demanded that my mother be with him in Walla Walla. Now that wasn’t a sustainable situation. It was part of the crisis of breaking up.
Anyway, my father was a medical officer, having to do with training of pilots. The pilots were training and they would crash and he would fix ‘em up and basically take care of ‘em. He was very much on active duty, but not on the battlefront.
At the end of the war he came back to set up shop in Santa Barbara as a pediatrician, and they got divorced, but my mother’s sister had married one of my uncles in Nevada. So I have cousins there that are second cousins on the Hollister side and first cousins on my mother’s side. That group…what we called the Nevada Hollisters…were the ones that were mobilizing to get the Ranch sold. They were living elsewhere. It meant nothing to them, but they wanted to get their share of it.
And so the Hollister Ranch battles of the 1950s and 1960s were about trying to figure out how to equitably deal with the Nevada Hollisters. How do you buy them out, how do you break up the Ranch and sell part of it? There were many different kinds of schemes.
CW: Who was the spokesperson at that time? Who had the lead role?
LH: A key person was my uncle Joseph Steffens (Joe) Hollister, who died in 1953. He was a professional geologist. He had a PhD, and he was busy finding oil and water and drilling. He essentially drilled all the water wells on the Ranch, and a lot of water wells in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties too.
He heard all kinds of crazy ideas. Once when I was about eleven, he told me about some wildlife person who wanted to enhance the quail population with a scheme to line the gullies in Sacate Canyon with concrete so the water would drain down to the stream and there would be permanent water for the quail. He described this to me with a twinkle in his eye as he drove me around in the jeep. He was testing to see whether this eleven-year-old kid could understand what a stupid idea this was!
CW: I have to tell you, there is no shortage of quail here, with or without the concrete-lined gullies.
LH: Obviously the quail are quite happy with the way things work all by themselves.
Anyway, Uncle Joe was living on the Ranch in one of the houses that’s still in use in the Bulito headquarters area, and he was the heir apparent, primed to be the person who would take over the Ranch. But then he had a brain tumor, and he died within a matter of months.
So then things were left…like, “Oh my God…now what do we do?” And my father basically gave up his practice as a pediatrician to take over day-to-day operations at the Ranch. But he was not appreciated, or liked, or loved by his siblings and cousins.
CW: He was not close to his twin sister Jane?
LH: She was the only woman in the group, and she endeared herself to her father. She persuaded him to create what's called a voting trust. Grandfather basically was in control, he had the majority of shares, but he was getting old, and that needed to be passed on. Jane took charge of setting up the legal situation, and the shares were put into the voting trust, and she had the ultimate vote in the voting trust. So Jane became the decider.
When Grandfather died in 1961, his son Jack (J.J.’s father) was expecting to take over running the Ranch, but nobody thought that was a great idea since he was busy as a state senator. Jane had set up the voting trust, so that kind of short-circuited Jack’s dreams anyway, but then Jack just up and died a few months later, also in 1961.
That left Jane and my father to try to manage the Ranch. And they basically did, together. Jane hooked into a bunch of agricultural experts at UC Davis, hence the experiments with elephant grass and other such schemes, and my father ran the daily operations. But they actually ran the place at more or less of a profit. It was functioning as a cattle ranch; it worked.
But it certainly wasn’t producing commensurate with the value of the land, like if it were invested in General Electric or something like that. The so-called Nevada Hollisters realized that they weren’t getting return for what they were worth. They were worth bazillions on paper but they didn’t have anything to show for it.
CW: This is a classic story––you realize that.
LH: Yes, books have been written about it.
CW: But isn’t it amazing that of all possible outcomes it turned out the way it is? This is an unusual model.
LH: Yes. It’s the best thing. Absolutely.
CW: So you feel okay about that? You don’t come out here and feel bitter or anything.
LH: Oh my God, no. Obviously the people that bought the place had some crazy ideas, but they went off and committed suicide and went bankrupt and that’s all written down in the Ranch history…but the outcome is absolutely fabulous. I’m really happy.
Being beachfront property has its own kind of pressures, though. You guys, all you hundred-acre parcel people, are like the front lines for preservation. This is so much better than if there were a national park.
CW: So when were you actually here, at the Ranch?
LH: The 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.
CW: I remember once when you came to visit and we were walking up Sacate you were reminiscing about your early days here, and you were the first person I ever heard who used the term “free-range” to describe your childhood.
And you told us about riding a horse from Ojai to the Ranch.
LH: That was in the early 1950s. I went to The Thacher School, and at end of ninth or tenth grade, I and another kid took two horses and a pack horse and we rode from Thacher to here – a three-day trip—and put the horses up for the summer.
CW: So through the mountains and the backcountry? Did you ever have to go on roads shared with traffic?
LH: We did for our return. Coming this way we came down the Santa Ynez River, then over Nojoqui Pass, and Las Cruces. We took three days, camping two nights, to get here from Ojai, very little of it on roads. Going the other way also took three days. We went back on Camino Cielo. We went up over Gaviota Peak, spent the first night near San Marcos Pass, went over to the mountain behind Santa Barbara…La Cumbre? And then we dropped down into Carpinteria and slept out in someone’s backyard there. I think it might have been the home of Walter Tompkins, the guy who wrote all those books about Santa Barbara, but I'm not sure. We just bedded down in a field, packed up, and moved on. Then we were on the side of the road all the way to Ojai.
CW: Those must have been some sturdy horses.
LH: They were regular horses that we used at Thacher for camping and taking our pack animals into the hills. That was a big part of the Thacher experience.
CW: You obviously felt comfortable on a horse...another residue of Ranch life?
LH: My first horse was called Dagwood. That was 1946 or ‘47, something like that. I was so little, I couldn’t really get on and off the horse, so I trained him to walk on the cattle guard to get into the barnyard at Bulito. Such a scrawny horse! He was called Dagwood, 'cause if you saw him on a ridge, he looked like a picket fence with his ribs sticking out and the sun shining through.
I did a lot of horse stuff, like summer camps even when I was in college, so that continued. And then when I did my graduate work and thesis work in southern British Columbia, there were trails, and I expected to use horses to get into the coast mountains of British Columbia, so I went up to Thacher and borrowed pack equipment, pack saddle, kayaks and things, which I drove up with me to British Columbia, but then I found out that the fur farms had killed the trapping industry ten years earlier so the trails were no longer maintained. This involved two-hundred-foot tall trees that had come crashing down on trails, and ten-foot diameter logs that you’ve got to get around, so you had to backpack. No way you could clear the trail for horses.
Also, when I was in college I was with a graduate student in the Peruvian Andes and we used horses there. I knew something about horse psychology, which was how do you get a horse to continue going…well, you get off the horse and you lead it. The horse will follow you. So we had a couple of pack animals and horses and were guided a local Indian…and we were going along the backbone of the Andes, and night had fallen, 18,000 foot mountains, dark, snow and ice, moonlight, and the horses didn’t really want to keep going. We were in the middle of nowhere.
So I got off the horse and figured I’d just do the old Thacher thing and lead the horse on the trail, and I chugged along and started singing songs. I had nothing else to do, so I just sang a little repertoire of miscellaneous songs, which is not very long, and when I finished I shut up. But the graduate student that was with me, an Englishman, came up with his little horse to where I was in the front, and said, “You gotta keep singing!” Why? “The guy with us, the Quechua Indian with us, didn’t want to continue ‘cause he was scared of the dark, but your singing was chasing the goblins away.” So I had to keep repeating my short repertoire of songs as we rode through the night.
Then when I did stuff in Bhutan on these treks when people were using horses, same thing, we led the horses.
CW: So you drew upon your basic, trusty boyhood skills.
LH: That’s what I’m saying. It all goes back to Dagwood.
CW: What does it mean to you to be here now? How has it changed? How has it remained constant?
LH: In a lot of ways it's pretty much as it was when I left it, and I’m flooded with memories when I come here. At Sacate, for example, I remember one of the largest oaks in Santa Barbara County was right there, not far from where your house is. It’s gone now.
Another Sacate memory is when two of my cousins stole my model A and it broke loose on the hill of Sacate and ended up in Sacate Creek. One cousin confessed many years later; the other one denied any knowledge. Then, on our mother’s grave, my brother confessed to having pulled it out of the creek and pushed it over the bluff at Santa Anita. That’s where we pushed old cars, often with dynamite and a fuse and a tank full of gas. The car would hit a rock on the bluff half way down, and do a flip. Made a great ball of fire visible from Santa Barbara.
CW: What is your source of strength? How have you gotten through the hard stuff?
LH: One April, when I was twelve years old, I hiked out of Bulito to the headwaters of Llegua on a solo camping trip, with my dog, a rifle, some food, and a sleeping bag. It rained. All the Ranch was mobilized to find me. I had found a cave to stay in and walked happily back the next day. I never felt so alone as I did in that cave at the headwaters, but I was forever afterward confident I could manage on my own, anywhere.
CW: I take it your childhood included no particular spiritual background or religious training.
LH: None. The Ranch was my church, as is the outdoors everywhere.
CW: What are some changes you have seen?
LH: I recall one evening at Saunders Knoll when my cousin wisely told me that there were two things that were impossible: an artificial heart and going to the moon. An Indian chief in British Columbia told me of witnessing the change from wood canoes for travel, to space ships. I spent about eight years studying the moon rocks, where it was impossible to go.
CW: Tell us about a turning point in your life, or a big decision. How did you navigate?
LH: When I returned to the Ranch during a winter vacation from Harvard, I was in Saunders Knoll (our home) with my cousins and brother and I realized I was no longer one of them. I had left the Ranch and could never return in my prior role. I guess I looked the same, but I knew I was different on the inside. I had assimilated into another world and could not really re-enter the Ranch culture. I moved on. It was a turning point.
CW: Can you tell us about someone who was a big influence on your life?
LH: My father. He let us kids live summers alone in Saunders Knoll. He had confidence in our being able to cope. This would be in the 1950’s. He told me I was too stupid to get into Harvard, so I showed him!
CW: And what did you end up studying? What work do you do?
LH: From the end of graduate studies at Caltech (1966) until retirement (2011) I was a Professor of Geology, first at UCLA and then at Princeton University. Now I continue on some research projects and some outreach teaching.
CW: What is your big geology project right now?
LH: You’ll be sorry you asked. John has been hearing my various versions of this story, and you can only go so long before eyes start glazing over.
It all starts from the Ranch, which is this free-range whatever we called ourselves. The exploring. The discovery. Discovering that there’s a lot to discover on this Ranch...it goes on and on and on. And it’s great to come out here and find people who have discovered things that I never discovered, and they can show me their discovery. So discovery keeps happening out here. It’s just great.
So, getting into the geology, it started with my Uncle Joe. He died young but he was definitely a mentor. I would ride around with him in the jeep and get the feel for geology and discovery, just basic discovery. And so that’s what I’ve done all my life. I’ve been on some kind of pathway to discovery.
So I was very interested when the Albert Einstein Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton walked into my office on January 8, 2009, and said he and an Italian mineralogist had found a natural occurrence of a material that really cannot exist. You know there’s earth, air, fire and water…fine…but they had discovered a new form of matter, which is called a quasi-crystal. It’s quasi-periodic. It’s a crystalline material, which means it fills three-dimensional space, but it has five-fold symmetry, like a star, but you cannot propagate anything in three dimensions that maintains five-fold symmetry. You can do it in two dimensions..like on mosque temples and quilting patterns, you can have five-fold symmetry...but not in three dimensions.
And yet this guy figured out mathematically how you could do it…and then somebody came along and was able to synthesize material that had five-fold symmetry. It’s basically a soccer ball, which is called an icosahedron, but you can’t take soccer balls with their five-fold symmetry and stack ‘em together to make anything three-dimensional, but this guy figured out a way of twisting them slightly and sort of gluing them together with these Penrose tiles such as are on these quilts and stuff, to make our quasi-crystals, one is called icosahedrite, ‘cause now it’s been found naturally. He found a natural occurrence of this thing.
CW: Where? How?
LH: That’s a very long question. It involves the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians selling state treasures on the black market, shady mineral dealers...and out of this comes this material that the Florence Museum got hold of, inside of which was this icosahedrite, a five-fold symmetry mineral, and that was confirmed on January 1 of 2009. And so on January 8, Paul Steinhardt came into my office and said we need to figure out how this thing formed.
I’m an authority on figuring out the history of something from minerals, history of rock, earth, moon…that’s what I do. And first we thought it was an artifact, some slag from an aluminum smelter, but it turns out that the way you get this material, you go to the Gulag, you get in a helicopter, travel northeast from there until you run out of fuel, then you set down and refuel at a secret Russian fuel cache, then you continue on to the Koryack Mountains…
I persuaded Paul that he had to go back and get more material, so we organized an expedition to Anadyr. I didn’t go on it because I thought with my age I might jeopardize the expedition, which involves getting in a snow cat and driving three days across the tundra to a very remote place. So we found the Russian who found the original material in 1979 as part of a prospecting expedition that was organized out of the Gulag, and we had this Russian-US operation that took these snow cats, basically Russian tanks with a VW chassis, across the tundra from Anadyr to get to the place, and this Russian says dig here, so the team dug into the soil there, which was glacial outwash soil and they found more of this material. Now to say where this location is, to make a long story short, where is the place? You can see Sarah Palin from the locality.
CW: How do you recognize this substance? What does it look like?
LH: It’s metallic. It’s a compound made out of copper and aluminum, actually several, one of which contains iron besides having five-fold symmetry, it also has metallic aluminum, and there is no compound anywhere on earth or in outer space, that contains metallic aluminum. But this does, and it occurs with metallic copper. So it’s a copper aluminum metal. And aluminum and copper never occur together, except this material, which came in on a meteorite that landed in Eastern Russia, and we dated the sediment it was in at about 8,000 years.
So it was glacial outwash sediments from glacial melt-back and the stuff landed in this muck. It’s metallic aluminum and copper, and it looks like a platinum nugget, which was what the Russian was looking for. They were prospecting in Siberia, doing it by panning, so it was a heavy shiny material that fell to the bottom of the pan. It wasn’t as heavy as platinum, but it was still very dense. Anyway, the popular press has picked up on this. This is a big story.
CW: What does it tell us?
LH: That’s what we’re working on. Paul is a cosmologist. These are people who are worrying about the cosmos…how things formed IN THE BEGINNING. One of the beginnings was four and a half billion years ago. Not only deep time, you also have deep space…the solar system was just a Johnny come lately thing, the rest was the Big Bang…14 billion years ago…So this material was likely formed as part of special processes that could date back to the Big Bang…it’s intimately intermixed with one of the most primitive types of meteorites, which is called a carbonaceous chondrite, material from which all the planets eventually condensed, but this is like leftover material, one of the little grains is this copper aluminum metal intermingled with it. So…our job…
CW: I love geeks. You’re a full-on geek, Lincoln.
LH: A free-range geek. Uncle Joe would be proud of me.
CW: But I definitely am very interested in what you just described and the work you do. I think that's much more revealing about who you really are. And the seed of it was here [at the Ranch]. The root of it.
JH: The scale of this place I think is probably relevant.
LH: That's very good, John. I mean it's part of the free-range thing. In other words, as a kid...that's beautiful, John...being let loose...my father just put us into Saunders Knoll and said you’re on your own. I mean, he arranged for us to take meals with one of the Hispanic families that were working there...so I learned about tortillas and beans and chili on a daily basis from living out here...but because you’re there and you’re on your own and what you have is a space, this unlimited space. Basically from Saunders Knoll on, it was unlimited. So to go from that to the earth, to the moon to the cosmos is a natural progression.
I’m not sure anyone growing up here now could have that, because you are dealing with people's private properties and things like that. Back then there was nothing. You'd just head out the door in any direction, and there wasn't anybody who would say, "Hey, what are you doing here?" Even though the place today looks like you could go wherever you want, there are barriers. There are psychic barriers. Yeah, we could walk up the canyon right now, but there's a house over there, or somebody's project over there. It's been colonized. It wasn't colonized then.
CW: So you grew up with a sense of the immensity of things, no limitations. It was all out there to explore.
LH: And then, to continue. The driving force behind me was to keep expanding those spaces. You can’t do that by staying home on the Ranch.
But when you leave and go off into the world, you can't come back.
CW: Well, you didn't need to come back. You’re having plenty of adventures. You don't feel exiled. You chose a different destiny in a bigger world. There's a continuity there, but you don't feel shoved out. You know that this place is cool, and you know you were here, but it seems that for you this was just the beginning of something greater. Is that correct?
CW: And you've internalized this place. You carry it with you, in a way. I mean, I don't think you romanticize it...
LH: No. I don't. I feel the roots. I feel the bond. I feel the strength of the place. But I don't kid myself about any of it. The dissolution of the family and all that sort of thing, it was just a natural process.
CW: I'll ask a few of our standard questions before we wrap up. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
LH: It is easy to tell the truth. It is impossible to cover anything up.
CW: What inspires your creativity, and how do you express it?
LH: The need to understand how Earth works. It is expressed in articles in scientific journals, and in the careers of my students.
CW: What surprises you?
LH: That what there is to learn keeps getting bigger!
CW: How would you like to be remembered?
LH: By the mile markers of my scientific research.
CW: Is there any message, wisdom, philosophy or advice you want to share?
LH: Keep it simple, stupid (KISS). Or, state the obvious clearly.
CW: What gives you hope?
LH: Young people continue to expand the frontiers of knowledge and understanding.