Los Angeles is not a Desert

Los Angeles is not a Desert March 16, 2015

A few weeks ago I got to attend the inaugural Jewitch Camp, which celebrated Tu B’Shevat (the new year for trees) a couple hours north of San Francisco. I flew out of LAX and thus got a nice view of Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains on my way up. Because it’s our rainy season, everything was verdant–even despite the drought–and I spent the first few minutes of the flight tenderly watching my home roll by underneath me. (“Home” defined loosely–I could never afford to live in Malibu or the Santa Monica Mountains.) We’ve gotten just enough rain this year that, from a distance, the hills resemble Ireland more than Southern California. Over the past couple of years, as the drought has worsened, I’d begun to fear that I would never see green in my city again.

The view from the plane reminded me of this comment I got on a post I wrote about the challenges of container gardening:

You are in California, in the desert, go and look at what is grown in pots in Mexico and in the hispanic communities, you will have more food success there. Ie grow the food the enviroment [sic] allows.

Everyone knows, of course, that Los Angeles is a desert.

…Except it’s not. It has a mediterranean climate, like Barcelona or Athens. The Latino communities? They’re growing corn, squash, tomatoes, bananas, citrus, guava, and more. Our trees are the live oak and conifers and sycamore and ash and willow. True, not all these species are native, but they like it here a lot, thriving even in areas with little irrigation.

Description: lush, green trees and grass.
A restored creek with native growth in Westwood.

Truth be told, I don’t really blame people when they tell me I’m living in a desert. I thought I was living in a desert for my first few years here. It’s the kind of stubborn myth you believe even when confronted with blatant evidence against it: the woodsy areas of Topanga and Griffith Park, the aforementioned Irish hills. I remember multiple hikes through Temescal Canyon during which I wouldn’t question the desert myth for a second–even as I stepped over burbling streams and pushed live oak branches out of the way.

Description: more trees and grass, with a stump in the foreground.
The creek in Westwood.

We think it’s a desert because it’s covered in concrete and asphalt, and we can’t see the ground that was originally underneath us. We think it’s a desert because it’s hot and dry and dusty. We think it’s a desert because it feels like a desert. We think it’s a desert because the destructive forces that paved over this land concealed and normalized themselves.

Description: a green hill with a freeway in the foreground.
A hill off the 101, near Pasadena.

So much of our reality is the result of someone else’s agenda.  We think that police are a natural and necessary part of civilization; they’re not. We think that racism is hardwired into us; it’s not.* We think that, because of the way our outer and inner landscapes have been ravaged by capitalism and kyriarchy, those landscapes are naturally harsh. They’re not.

A small spring surrounded by a low stone wall with trees in the background.
One of the Serra Springs, natural springs sacred to LA’s original inhabitants, the Tongva People. Image credit Jengod, via Wikipedia.

In her essay “Icebergs and Shadows,” Rebecca Solnit explores the “other invisible hand:” a “shadow system of kindness” that operates alongside capitalism. Alternatives to capitalism aren’t just possible, she argues; they already exist, providing food and shelter and help and comfort to those whom capitalism dispossesses. This invisible system ranges from soup kitchens to stay-at-home moms–countless individuals and communities that work not for profit, but for the benefit of others. But we don’t see it because we’ve been trained not to.

Solnit includes an interesting anecdote about Vladimir Nabokov:

[Nabokov] once asked someone coming down a trail in the Rockies whether he’d seen any butterflies. The answer was negative–there were no butterflies. Nabokov, of course, went up that same trail and saw butterflies galore.

You see what you’re looking for. Most of us are constantly urged to see the world as, at best, a competitive place and, at worst, a constant war of each against each, and you can see just that without even bothering to look too hard. But that’s not all you can see.

Underneath the asphalt of LA, underneath the worsening catastrophe of the drought, are the flattened remains of a mediterranean ecosystem. Underneath our broken communities are hope and health and love.


* See page 30 of A People’s History of the United States.

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