Bay Nature magazineWinter 2024


The Human Animal: What Counts as Desert?

In the 21st century, even ecological deserts are shaped and preserved by political action.

February 20, 2024

It is a chilly morning in Oakland. I sit on my porch to welcome the new season. A flock of band-tailed pigeons toss overhead, a dozen dark smudges on a gray-white sky. The running bamboo my landlord planted years ago, nearly three stories high and thickly green, sways in a light breeze. The stand is home to a chirruping host of song sparrows (and at least for a moment, to a Cooper’s hawk. My wife and I oohed and aahed until—oh! There it went over the rooftops with a baby bird in its claws), and they are in full chorus today. I realize, amid these gentle wonders, that my porch is in need of some serious maintenance. Last year’s gifted pot of sungolds—all skeletal stalks—are nudged alongside this summer’s browned and wilted morning glories and that kabocha squash from a dear friend that I never got around to repotting, and that, like the sungolds, did not manage, without necessary care, to flourish. 

The Human Animal

In the Winter 2023 issue, we introduce a new quarterly column from local fiction writer and lawyer Endria Richardson on the intersection of people and nature in the Bay Area.

And I wonder—just hear me out—whether or not my porch is a desert. 

Illustration by Sadie Rose du Vigneaud.

There has been over the years a proliferation of metaphorical deserts. There are, for example, food deserts—low-income neighborhoods lacking access to the major food groups—and childcare deserts, where too few licensed childcare facilities exist. More recently, there are political deserts, neighborhoods that receive little to no attention via campaign mail, phone calls, or text messages during political campaigns, one expert says. These are low-income neighborhoods, home to people who face multiple barriers to voting, like primarily speaking a language other than English, not having the internet or a computer at home, or having an arrest or incarceration record, according to Jonathan Mehta Stein, the executive director of voting rights organization California Common Cause. A 2023 study found that people living within some parameters of these deserts are less likely to vote. 

The metaphor of desert is one of life well-adapted to deprivation. In fact, deserts are ecological systems of richness, resilience, and biodiversity. The closest we get to true desert in the Bay Area may be the 3,100 acres of the Alameda-Tesla Expansion Area, otherwise known as Tesla Park, at the eastern edge of Alameda County. It was saved from vehicular recreation thanks to legislative money-wrangling in the 2021­­–2022 California state budget. Tesla Park was preserved in part for its desert-adjacency, and it is the northern home to a number of desert-adapted animals and plants, like the desert olive—perhaps migrants from the last ice age, when climates shifted drastically and coastlines were several miles farther out to sea. SB 155, a budget trailer bill, allocated $29.8 million to the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund to find somewhere else for vehicles to recreate. In other words, an area that may not successfully coalesce a vocal and politically engaged community of people able and willing to advocate for its preservation. (Or, a political desert.) Tesla Park is robustly not an area that can thrive amid deprivation. 

As a resident of Oakland, I am aware that large swaths of “desert” cover my city, and as a PhD student in African American studies, I study the systemic and historical under-resourcing of primarily Black and Latinx neighborhoods across the country that can give rise to such deserts. I think about the housing crisis in Oakland, the BART fare increases across the Bay Area, and the teacher shortage throughout California,  all deprivations that have as their root a political, and human, action. 

What of my porch? There are persistent (some might say systemic) disinvestments that make it difficult for life there to thrive. An insufficiency of water. An empty bird feeder, which, when full, nicely feeds a family of red-cheeked fox squirrels. The succulents manage to survive, year after year.  

Calling some neighborhoods “deserts” belies their socially constructed nature. It evokes a natural process that has evolved over deep time; a landscape carved into place by forces as ancient and inhuman as glaciers and populated by beings so alien that they can survive without even something so basically necessary to life as water. But in the 21st century even ecological deserts are shaped and preserved by political action.

My porch is not a desert, and the city is not a desert. There are no deserts in the Bay Area, not ecologically, and not in the metaphorical sense of a place full of people who are specially adapted to go without. There are instead areas of both rich abundance and need, like Tesla Park. There are areas that need the loving investment of many people and many millions of dollars, consistently, over time. There are areas that are valuable. There are areas that are vulnerable; that is, there is life in the presence of catastrophic upheaval; that is, richness; that is, a chorus of sparrows, singing and singing.

About the Author

Endria Richardson is a writer, lawyer, and climber living on Ohlone Land in Oakland.

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